Stowing the mainsail

Do you stuff or flake? Your mainsail, I mean. Do you stuff it or flake it or both? If you have in-mast furling this will be a procedure alien to you but for most the task of neatly securing the dowsed mainsail must be mastered.

I’ve always found the most efficient way to get the main down and under control is to stuff it. You apply the topping lift, release the halyard, form a ‘bag’ with the first yard of sail and into this stuff the remaining sail as it tumbles down the mast track. You punch the cloth into the bag to get a tight fit, and as each batten arrives you align it fore and aft. You then roll the ‘bag’ onto the top of the boom and secure it with sail ties (or gaskets as they are sometimes known). Job done.

This gives you a secured mainsail in quick time, but I have to admit that the result can look a bit like a boa constrictor that’s swallowed a family of warthogs. Not pretty, and for some boat owners, unacceptable.

Flaking the sail as it drops really requires two people; one stands at the mast and encourages slabs of sail cloth to fall to alternate sides of the boom like a concertina’s bellows whilst the other stands at the other end of the sail and hauls the flakes aft, aligns the battens and pushes the reefing lines into the folds to stop them dropping untidily onto the deck. You then secure with sail ties. After a few years the sail learns where the flakes come and the operation becomes more efficient.

The result can be such a satisfying work of art that you delay the fitting of the sail cover so that others can admire your handiwork.

Many sailors use a combination of the two methods; stuff it until you’re at the dock or have your anchor down, and then go back and flake it before putting on the cover.

A set of good sail ties helps – in basic form they can simply be lengths of inch wide webbing which you tie off with a slipped reef knot. Often they are of different lengths depending on their location along the boom, longest at the mast, but they should be appropriately marked or colour-coded. I prefer webbing sail ties with snap buckles – easy to fasten and unfasten and they’re easily tensioned by pulling on the loose end.

I don’t like bungy cord for this application – too easy to get a whack in the eye and they can damage the sail cloth.

You could buy a system incorporating a bag into which the sail drops, guided there by lazy jacks. I’ve never owned one but I’ve used them on other people’s boats and when things go right they’re a dream. There’s always the potential for a cock up whenever you add complication on a boat and it takes a bit of forethought to get it right but once you’ve mastered the technique you’ll probably never want to go back to stuffing or flaking.