Install a Double Duty Headsail Downhaul

If you don’t have a headsail furler, a downhaul line is one of the easiest and least expensive control lines that you can add to your sailboat. It adds major convenience and safety in return. The line can be used with any size jib or genoa.

The primary job of a headsail downhaul is to pull the headsail down to the deck so that the crew doesn’t have to go to the bow to do it. There’s more friction at work on headsails than the mainsail due to the forestay angle, so they often need a little extra help to douse them. The secondary job is to hold the sail down so that it doesn’t blow back up the forestay by a gust of wind. If that happens, part of the sail can get blown overboard into the water or it can turn the boat unexpectedly. The key to this line is to run it aft to where it can be worked from the safety of the cockpit, especially when you’re single-handed. The best location is close to the headsail halyard since the two lines should be hauled in opposite directions at the same time; the downhaul pulled while the halyard is eased and vice versa.

To make a headsail downhaul, start with a small diameter rope about twice as long as the sailboat. For a Catalina 22, that’s 45′ (including an extra foot for a knot or splice). The rope doesn’t need to be particularly high quality. It won’t be holding much weight at all so choose a rope that’s easy to handle and doesn’t tangle easily. Quarter inch double braid is more than adequate and can serve as a backup for other lines, if necessary.

Attach a snap or shackle to the working end with a knot or spliced eye. Connect this end to either the working end of the headsail halyard at its shackle or to the forestay above the first or second hanks of the headsail. When it’s not connected, you can easily clip it to the stem fitting, a pulpit stanchion base, bow cleat, or any other convenient place to keep it from laying loose on deck.

Lead the standing end of the line through a small diameter turning block attached to the stem fitting or to a nearby pulpit stanchion base. The line can either run loose from the headsail or if it tends to foul during use, reave it between the headsail hanks to keep it gathered to the forestay. The latter can tend to add friction that makes the line harder to use, though.

From the turning block, lead the line aft to the cockpit either through fairleads or blocks attached to the lifeline stanchions, toe rail, or deck. The main point here is to lead the line out of the way of being a tripping hazard for crew members walking forward. To minimize friction, make as few bends or turns as possible.

DIY fairlead from PVC pipe and a hose clamp
DIY fairlead from PVC pipe and a hose clamp

At the cockpit, choose a location to cleat the line that is near the headsail halyard cleat but that keeps the deck clear and doesn’t require many bends or turns. Use an unoccupied cleat or mount a new cleat. Any kind of cleat will do; it doesn’t have to be very stout. Again, it won’t be holding much tension. In the picture below, I’m using a Sea-Dog Rail Mount Fender Holder. Leave enough standing end in the line to cleat it when the working end is connected and the headsail is fully hoisted.

Double cam cleats and stanchion mounted clam cleat
Double cam cleats and stanchion mounted clam cleat

To douse the headsail, uncleat the headsail downhaul and the halyard at the same time. This is best done while pointing straight into the wind so that the sail will fall on the center of the foredeck. Haul in the downhaul as you simultaneously release the halyard. The headsail should slide easily all of the way to the deck, then recleat both lines to hold the sail down. The lines don’t need to be tight. Don’t allow much slack in the downhaul while you pull it down or it could foul, in which case someone will have to go forward to clear it and a second person in the cockpit might need to pull slack out of the lines.

In a brisk wind, depending on the size of the headsail, you might need to tie the headsail in its middle to a lifeline to keep it from spilling overboard. For more ideas on rigging for single-handing, see Lines led aft.

When you’re ready to hoist the headsail, do the opposite. Uncleat both lines and haul in the halyard while you release the downhaul. After you cleat the halyard, slacken the downhaul a little so that it doesn’t interfere with the headsail shape on either tack and then cleat the headsail downhaul.

The Bottom Line

Suggested price: $67.39
$tingy Sailor cost: $37.46
Savings: $29.93

Do you have a headsail downhaul set up differently than this?

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Richard says:

    Quick question about the stanchion mounted clam cleat. I think the cleat is something like this: http://www.defender.com/product3.jsp?id=74821 but what sort of gear did you use to mount that to the stanchion? I couldn’t find anything on defender but I guess even home supply stores have some tube mounting hardware.

    1. Hi, Richard

      What I use is this Sea-Dog Rail Mount Fender Holder that’s available at several online stores.

  2. Richard says:

    Thanks for the pointer. I completed this project on my C25 and it works great! I mounted that stanchion mounted cleat “upside down” so that it would not try to auto cleat the line when raising the jib. Thanks for the project idea.

    1. Hi, Richard

      Yeah, they can be pretty grabby in the upright position. I recently moved my line over to the cabin top to also work as a spinnaker tack line. I lead it through a small bullseye fairlead near the deck organizer and back to a fairlead clam cleat near the aft edge of the cabin top. I’ll be publishing a lengthy post on cruising spinnaker setup very soon so stay tuned.

      Thanks for your comment!

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