Whither the mast-mounted hal­yard winch?


Is it re­ally nec­es­sary for all lines to have to run aft to the cock­pit?

Just as all roads once led to Rome, many sailors now be­lieve that all work­ing lines should lead to the cock­pit. The re­sult, un­for­tu­nately, is of­ten a pile of multi-col­ored spaghetti that is hard to man­age and can ac­tu­ally make it harder to sail your boat. On many mod­ern sail­boats al­most ev­ery line com­ing off the mast or deck for­ward of the cock­pit is led aft through blocks and or­ga­niz­ers to a bat­tery of rope clutches ar­rayed around two winches on ei­ther side of the com­pan­ion­way un­der the cock­pit dodger. On race boats this may

not be too trou­ble­some. The dodger is usu­ally re­moved so the com­pan­ion­way winches are easy to ac­cess and grind, and the tails of all ac­tive lines are sim­ply flung down the com­pan­ion­way into the main cabin. With plenty of crew aboard, each com­pan­ion­way winch also has a grinder on it, and there are peo­ple at the mast to jump hal­yards and clear any snags in any line run­ning back to the cock­pit.

On a cruis­ing boat, how­ever, the all-lines-to-Rome strat­egy is a two-edged sword. One big prob­lem is winch ac­cess. With the cock­pit dodger raised, com­pan­ion­way winches are of­ten much harder to use. Line stor­age and or­ga­ni­za­tion is another prob­lem. Also, lines that must be han­dled more or less si­mul­ta­ne­ously are of­ten led to the same winch, which means you must load and un­load one winch re­peat­edly to ac­com­plish one task. Yet another is­sue is in­creased fric­tion in line runs.

It does make sense to lead some lines aft. Lines need­ing rel­a­tively in­fre­quent small ad­just­ments—top­ping lifts, vang lines, spin­naker down­hauls and main­sail out­hauls, for ex­am­ple—are good can­di­dates. But in my opin­ion the busier lines, par­tic­u­larly the main hal­yard and main­sail reef­ing lines (as­sum­ing a slab-reefed main), are best con­trolled at the mast.

It bog­gles my mind that some peo­ple now be­lieve it is ac­tu­ally dan­ger­ous to have to leave the cock­pit to reef a main­sail. I seem to re­mem­ber there was a time when you not only went to the mast to reef the main, but you also rou­tinely went to the bow to change head­sails, and this on boats that didn’t have lifelines ring­ing their decks. Per­haps in the fu­ture we will have lifelines around our cock­pits, but mean­while—and par­don me for say­ing this—if you are afraid to go to the mast it may be time to trade in your sail­boat for a power­boat.

In my own mind it is largely a mat­ter of con­ve­nience. It is much eas­ier for a sin­gle crewmem­ber to hoist a main­sail work­ing at the mast. You can quickly haul the line hand over hand for much of the hoist, then re­sort to the winch to fin­ish it off. On smaller boats you re­ally only need the winch to ten­sion the hal­yard af­ter the hoist is com­plete. The whole job is fin­ished in less than a minute. Hoist­ing a main alone from the cock­pit, you’ll be grind­ing the winch al­most all the way up, due to all the ex­tra fric­tion in the line run. It takes much longer and is also more tir­ing.

It’s the same deal with reef­ing. It’s faster and eas­ier do­ing it all at the mast, plus you have a clear view of the sail the en­tire time. With cock­pi­tled reef lines, by com­par­i­son, you are of­ten duck­ing in and out from un­der the dodger to check on your progress. Be­cause you are usu­ally work­ing more slowly, lines are also more likely to get tan­gled, which may - gasp! - re­quire you to leave the cock­pit to un­tan­gle them.

In truth the only real ad­van­tage to do­ing all your line-han­dling in the cock­pit is that you are less likely to get wet there. I get that. Most adult hu­mans gen­er­ally pre­fer to stay dry ex­cept when bathing. Some, I imag­ine, would get them­selves dry-cleaned if pos­si­ble. But here’s the thing about boats: they aren’t re­ally tools to keep you from getting wet; they are tools to keep you from drown­ing.

The an­swer to the prob­lem is cloth­ing. As some wise old mariner once said: there’s no such thing as bad weather, so long as you are prop­erly at­tired. Be­cause I al­ways set up my boats to reef at the mast, I prob­a­bly spend more time than many dressed in foulies while sail­ing. I like to be able to reef at a mo­ment’s no­tice, and I like to do it in just a mo­ment. To me it seems safer than the al­ter­na­tives. s

If that main hal­yard hadn’t been led back to the cock­pit, the man at the mast could hoist the sail alone

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