Downwind Reefing

I received quite a few messages after my previous post asking to explain the downwind reefing technique we use on Wildling, so in this post I’ll go over the details of how we do it.

Several years ago, I had the very good fortune of meeting Eric Barto who is circumnavigating on his Aikane 56, Sea Child. We cruised as buddy boats and became good friends with Eric and his wife Tamara during our voyage from Australia through Indonesia. Eric has spent his life sailing and ocean racing both personally and professionally, and it was a great learning opportunity for me to spend time with him during our passage together. Like the Outremer 5X, the Aikane 56 is a big catamaran, and Eric and Tamara mostly sail Sea Child with just the two of them on board. They have refined all their maneuvers over time to be accomplished short or single handed, which is how Robin and I sail as well. Eric taught me his technique for reefing a large catamaran mainsail downwind, which is why I refer to it as the “Barto Reefing Technique”.

Of course there are many experienced sailors that reef downwind all the time and think nothing of it. I’m sure there are many different techniques that are used also. I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, but it works for us, and hopefully this explanation will help folks that don’t have this technique totally figured out already, to apply it on their own boats.

Why Reef Downwind?

Before I explain how we take a reef downwind, I though it might be useful to describe why it’s important to do it in the first place. When we learn to sail, we are taught to reef by turning upwind, easing the mainsheet and traveler to take pressure off the mainsail, lowering the sail to the required reef point, retensioning the luff, and then pulling the leech reef point down to the boom with the leech reef line. Simple and effective. But what if you are going downwind and the wind builds to a point that you need to reef? Turning the boat upwind takes time and distance, and adds a lot of motion and apparent wind to the process. Often you will have a downwind gennaker up, so you have to furl that first before turning upwind to reef. You can avoid all of this by reefing from your downwind point of sail, which is why I think this is an essential technique to master for offshore sailors.

How does it work?

The key to this technique is to take your time. There’s no need to rush, you’re sailing downwind anyway, so there’s no stress required while reefing.

Preparing to reef

  1. Put the boat on a deep reach. Around 160-165 degrees true wind angle works well for us. Don’t go too deep as you don’t want to accidentally gybe in the middle of the maneuver.
  2. Remove the preventer (if you’re using one)
  3. Center the traveler
  4. Take in the mainsheet so the leech is is positioned towards the stern. You don’t need to have it super tight, but you want the boom to be fairly close to the centerline
  5. Ease the leeward lazy jacks so they don’t impede the sail as it’s coming down
  6. Put the first leech reef line on the winch ready to take it in


  1. Start by easing the main halyard a bit. If you pull down on the luff, you should be able to start lowering the mainsail. Don’t release more halyard than you need, and stop when the main is too tight to move down by hand
  2. Now wind in the leech reef line a bit. You will see that this also helps lower the whole sail and not just the leech
  3. Go back and forth between halyard and leech reef line a bit at a time until the luff gets down to the reef cringle. Attach the cringle
  4. Now ease the mainsheet a bit as you wind in the leech reef line a bit. Repeat this until the leech is down onto the boom at the reef point
  5. Tension the halyard and lazy jack lines and return to your previous point of sail

Remember to go slow and do a bit at a time alternating between luff and leech. If you need to take more than one reef, then start with the first reef and get it all the way in before moving to the second reef, and so on. In fact, Eric uses this technique to completely lower the mainsail downwind, which is another great skill to have up your sleeve in case things get nasty.

Line Handling

It really helps to have a good reefing setup when doing this. Reefing from the mast base is the quickest, easiest and safest way to reef. On Wildling we have the leech reef lines at the mast, but the main halyard is led back to the electric winch at the helm, so it’s easiest to reef with two people. One to ease the halyard, the other to do everything else. Eric has everything at the mast on Sea Child, so he can do this single handed. I know a lot of people have their leech reef lines led back to the cockpit. We did on our last boat and it was a hassle. You can still do the maneuver, but it takes longer and is more dangerous doing it short handed as you have to go back and forth between the mast and the winches.

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