Raising the sails on your sailboat for the first time is an exhilarating experience, but what exactly can you expect?
How do You Raise Sails on a Sailboat? Sails are raised using lines called halyards. The mainsail is raised on a horizontal rod called the boom and the jib sail is raised in front of the main with no boom. The spinnaker is a unique sail for going downwind, which is raised at the tip of the bow using special lines.
Read on to learn how to raise each sail on your sailboat, as well as which needs to be raised first and which circumstances they are best for.
Sailing your First Boat
If you’re raising your own sails for the first time, the chances are that you are on a small boat. It’s best to start with a small sailboat as you learn, since the stakes and risks are lower for such boats.
Sails are much easier to raise on a smaller boat and the consequences if you do something wrong are much lower. You can get an inexpensive small sailboat for only a couple of thousand dollars or even several hundred dollars for a used boat.
Be Careful of the Boom
The mainsail is attached to the rod that goes horizontally across the sailboat, called the boom. You and any passengers in the boat will need to be very careful of the boom as the sail is raised.
The boom tends to swing about and can easily hit you or even knock somebody off of the boat. Some small boats have booms that rest on the deck and are raised by the mainsail, while other booms are held in place by rigging until the mainsail is raised. Either way, you’ll find the boom to be quite mobile as it goes up.
Before You Start
- Rig up the boat
- Unzip the sailboat
- Untie the boom (if tied to the deck)
Steps to Raising the Mainsail on a Small Boat
The mainsail is the first sail that you will raise on your sailboat. Depending on the wind and your preferences, it may be the only sail that you use. The mainsail is useful for sailing at an upwind reach, downwind reach, and at most any other angle other than straight upwind. Here is how to raise the mainsail on a small boat:
Point Into the Wind
It is essential that the mainsail not fill with wind while you’re raising it, so your boat must be pointed into the wind when you raise the main. If you are anchored or moored from a single bowline, your boat will naturally tend to point into the wind, so it is generally easiest to start from this position.
However, if you are docked or moored with multiple lines such that the bow doesn’t point into the wind, you may not be able to raise the sails until you release the boat. If you have an engine, you can use motor power to point into the wind.
If you don’t have an engine, look for ways to let the boat hang from the dock on a bowline while you adjust your sails.
Make sure the mainsail halyard shackle is tight. This essential hackle keeps the mainsail aloft, so it is necessary to make sure that it is firmly fastened and has no weaknesses.
Loosen the mainsheet
You don’t want any resistance as you raise the main, so loosen the mainsheet so that the sail luffs freely in the breeze. Some sailors completely release the mainsheet while others just loosen it. Either way, the sail should be luffing in the groove of the mast.
Raise the sail
Pull the halyard by hand until the luff is tight, and then hoist the sail. If the halyard gets tight before the sail is up, make sure that none of the ropes have jammed. Be sure that the loose part of the halyard is not wrapped around something near the top of the sails.
If you see a jam, lower the sail a bit, clear the jam, and continue. The sail should be raised until all horizontal lines are smoothed out and a couple of vertical lines can be seen from the tip downward, especially a line from the very tip down to the bottom parallel to the mast.
When the sail is high and the luff as tight as possible, cleat off the halyard. At this point, your mainsail is raised.
Release the Boat and Trim the Mainsail
Release the boat, turning it into the angle you would like to sail at. Adjust the mainsheet until all the vertical lines are smoothed out. If you can’t get rid of them, your halyard might be too tight and need to be loosened a bit. Adjust the angle of the mainsail as needed to catch the wind as desired.
If you have a centerboard, now is the time to lower it. If you have failed to lower the centerboard, you may notice that you have less control over your boat. Not all small sailboats have centerboards. If you don’t have one, be aware that you may have less control over steering.
Raising the Jib on a Small Boat
The jib lets your boat catch more wind at any angle that is good for the main, and also allows you to get a little more power at a reach. Raising the jib on a small boat is very straightforward. The jib is not attached to a boom, so raising it is simply a matter of pulling the jib halyard and cleating it off.
Just as when raising the main, you will want to face off into the wind until the sails luff so that there isn’t any pressure on the jib as it is going up. If you encounter stress on the jib halyard before the sail is raised, check to make sure that the sail or lines have not been snagged on anything.
It can be a bit challenging to keep your boat pointed to the wind while you raise the jib. Either ask your passenger to steer the boat for you, use autopilot, or position yourself so that you can pull up the halyard and steer the boat at the same time.
Raising the Spinnaker on a Small Boat
The spinnaker goes up at the very tip of the bow and tends to easily adjust itself. This makes it perfect for downwind sailing, but it can also handle a slight downwind reach. The spinnaker won’t be used for every sail but may be perfect during still days.
Unlike the main and the jib, the spinnaker is not rigged into sailboats ahead of time. Spinnakers are used less often and they are more delicate than other sails, so they are kept inside a bag and only deployed when needed.
Every small boat will be different in just how the spinnaker is attached. Some boats attach a bow sprint for the purpose, while others use a permanent bowsprit or go without a pole. Once the spinnaker is appropriately attached, raising it is a matter of pulling it up briskly as you keep pointing into the wind.
Differences When Raising Sails on a Larger Sailboat
If you’re considering sailing a larger boat, it is best to learn how to handle it under the instruction of somebody who already knows how to do it.
If you want to start on your own, start with a smaller sailboat where the risks and investment are lower. There are some key differences between raising sails on larger sailboats and smaller ones.
- You may need a winch to raise the sails the last few feet. It can be very difficult to raise the sails the last foot or two on a larger sailboat, especially if there is much breeze. You’ll need to have winches installed at strategic points to help you raise the sails the last foot or so.
- Capsizing is much more serious. One of the most frequent and catastrophic mishaps of raising sails is capsizing. If the sails fill with wind before you’re ready for them to, they can easily tip the boat over. On a small boat, this is a major inconvenience, but on a larger boat, it can be very destructive.
- More difficult to single hand. Small sailboat can usually be handled easily enough by only one person. You may have some juggling to do as you point into the wind and raise the jib at the same time, but you’ll usually be able to do most of what needs to be done from the cockpit. On the other hand, larger sailboat may require somebody to assist in freeing up lines that may be snagged, steering, etc.
- It may be easier to start underway. In general, small sailboats are easier to start while attached to the mooring, but bigger boats may be easier to start while underway. Larger sailboats are generally equipped with an engine, so it can be relatively simple to point into the wind using a motor.