The Zen of Rigging a Sailboat

Becoming one with the boat before races is a source of escape.
Zen of rigging
The soulful experience of rigging the boat. Joe Berkeley

Like everyone else in my local Laser Frostbite Fleet 413, for a few hours every Sunday during the miserably frigid Newport, Rhode Island, winter I escape the house and savor a few hours of me time. Ideally, I’ll follow the same routine every time: out of the house by 11 a.m., cruise control with the local blues station playing on the radio, pit stop at the coffee shop. I’m parked at Sail Newport by 11:45. I’ll loiter for a bit, see who’s around, but the cover comes off at noon sharp for the immersive, soulful ­experience we call rigging the boat.

Step 1: Open the stern plug and pray there’s no trickle. When it’s subzero, whatever is in there is frozen anyway, so why do I bother to check? Routine.

Next, I’ll empty the contents from the big side pocket of my blade bag and lay it all out in the cockpit: a black-and-red-flecked mainsheet, the tangled mess of a vang system, the yellow outhaul line and its assorted blocks, the clew tie-down strap and three white sail battens, one short, two long.


When I think about it, the funny thing about this procedure is the slow, methodical pace at which it happens. I could be quicker about it, which will give me more time to sail the course and check the wind before the first race. But, no, this is the time to slow down and shape my mental state. Preparation is half the game, so don’t rush it. Plus, fleet guru Ed Adams once told me never to go out too early. Doing so will suck the warmth right out of you. And Ed’s always right.

Returning to my tortoise-pace routine, I unflake the sail and slide it over the spars that I’ve coupled together, checking all of its rivets for hints of corrosion. I gently lay the sail across the deck and insert the battens one by one, always starting at the top, and check that the red-yarn leech telltales are still attached.

Then, in one swift motion, I hoist the ­cumbersome aluminum spar with a push forward of my right hand and a thrust downward with my left — Iwo Jima-like — and wobblingly target the dark hole known as the mast step. It goes in and slides down with a clunk as it hits bottom. Water squirts up at me through the space around the spar. I jump back before I get wet — that’s called muscle memory. I know it was coming.


As I weave, I find myself slipping into random deep thoughts about work, home life or whatever. It’s as if the web of rope I’m creating is pulling me into its fold, and here I clear my mind so it’s fresh for the races.

I blow hot breaths on my gloveless hands. Metal bites when it’s frozen.

With the sail now flogging in the wind, I hasten my pace so as to connect the boom and stop the sail from flapping and destroying itself. I slide the gooseneck pin into the hole on the boom, hook the outhaul and then yank on its purchase to tighten the foot snug up against the aluminum tube. I pass the line through the micro turning block tied to the mast, and down to its cleat. Clew strap goes on next, nice and tight so the leech is firm.

At this point, I can resume my slow, methodical setup. I extract an annoying split ring from the vang pin and then attach the metal hardware to the mast tang. One of these days I’ll get a quick-pin so I don’t have to fumble with jamming a fingernail between two tiny metal coils. Or maybe not. It’s just part of the routine.


I will have electrical-tape marks (red, yellow, orange) on the mast, so the ­cunningham-purchase block that hangs through the sail grommet has to be tied on exactly at the same point every time. This, of course, requires a precision bowline, which I achieve by deliberately weaving the rope through itself with my chubby, frozen digits. I feed the cunningham line through the deck cleat, and I pause to stand, stretch my lower back, and take a look around.

What’s happening out there with the breeze in the cove?

I’ll scan the dry-sail lot, which is littered with Lasers, some upside down, some askew on their dollies and some buried to the dolly wheels in snow. A few sailors lumber in and keep to themselves. They have their own routine, their own pace. Others are more social, standing and chatting with a rolled sail slung over their shoulder. Dogs are running free. Moose, the race-­committee guy, is tossing big orange balls from a RIB. He definitely has his routine.


The flow is good.

Back to my rigging. Time to weave the control tails. I’m sure there’s a better way to deal with the outhaul and cunningham, but a part of the rigging process I find strangely satisfying is daisy-chaining my rope until I have enough line to make a bowline that will fit the width of my wetsuit-gloved hand. As I weave, I find myself slipping into random deep thoughts about work, home life or whatever. It’s as if the web of rope I’m creating is pulling me into its fold, and here I clear my mind so it’s fresh for the races. When finished, I step back and stretch my back again. The boat looks sharp. Shipshape.

The final rope to run is the mainsheet, always through the ratchet block first to ensure the “click” and then up through the boom blocks, down to the traveler and back up to a nice, tidy figure eight. The white mark is set to the mainsheet block and the bitter end tied off with a figure eight.

What’s left to do is gently extract and lay the centerboard in the cockpit after wiping it down with a rag, stretching its bungee keeper cord to the bow chock and connecting the tiny Brummel clips. The final step is the rudder: I thread it under the Spectra traveler, line up the pintles to the gudgeons and slide it down until I hear the signature ping of the metal tang locking the rudder head in place. The rig is complete only after double-checking that the stern plug is firm. That one step only recently made its way into my routine.

I take one last scan across the harbor to assess the conditions and determine the day’s dress code. Getting dressed is a whole different experience, one that is not nearly as mindful as preparing the boat. All of sudden, I feel rushed. I’m anxious to push off the beach, get on the water and immerse myself in this most wonderful Sunday-afternoon routine.