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?


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Richard says:

    Quick question about the stanchion mounted clam cleat. I think the cleat is something like this: 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!

  3. Andrew Troup says:

    I went one further and ran the downhaul from a standup block on the foredeck centreline up through half a dozen eyelets in the sail, almost to the head, alternating from side to side like a Dutchman arrangement (that single-line alternative to lazyjacks occasionally fitted to mainsails).
    This way when I pull the sail down (without leaving the helm) it is flaked and restrained down on the deck and won’t wash over the side, and I can attend to it later as circumstances permit. For my money this is a very appealing alternative to roller furling on boats smaller than 9 – 10m; combined with slab reefing headsails, the result can be a very weatherly, seamanlike, light, reliable and affordable setup.

    1. John Diemer says:

      Any chance you could post pictures of this. I have a Pearson Ensign I might like to try this on.

      1. Unfortunately, you cannot include pictures in comments here but Andrew can post a link here to pictures posted elsewhere.

    2. Thomas A Beetham says:

      Hi Andrew, I would love to see how you did that too.

      1. Andrew Troup says:

        I don’t know how to post pictures elsewhere, so I’ll paint a picture in words:

        Fit eyelets to the sail as follows:

        1) On a sketch of the headsail, mark the midpoint of the foot
        2) Draw an arc centered on the tack from that midpoint up to the luff
        3) Draw a straight line, 3″ aft of and parallel to the luff, up from that arc to the top of the sail
        Fit four eyelets along the arc, one just above the foot, one where it intersects line 3), and the other two equally spaced between.

        Fit two small standup blocks to the foredeck on centreline, one at the point where the midpoint of the headsail meets the deck when sheeted amidships, the other where the line 3) meets the deck.

        Take a line forward from the cockpit, through the aft standup block, thread through the eyelets in turn, starting from the midpoint of the foot, running up one side of the sail to the next eyelet up on that arc, passing through the eyelet, running up the other side of the sail to the next eyelet up on that arc, passing through the eyelet, running down to the forrard standup block, then back up the other side of the sail to the last eyelet on the arc, which is also the first eyelet running up parallel to the luff.

        Then the line alternates through each luff eyelet to the top one, which it passes through and is terminated by a stopper knot which cannot pass back through the eyelet.

        Tighten the downhaul as the halyard is lowered, and let it run out as the sail is hoisted.

        I’m making sausage-style sail bags long enough to take the flaked sail without further folding, with a full length zipper along the top to allow the sail to emerge, and reinforced eyelet openings for downhaul line to emerge and pass around the standup blocks, which will stay with the sail, outside the underside of the bag (small snapshackles connect them to low profile saddles on the foredeck).
        The bag can be secured to lashing points on the foredeck so the bag remains in place whether the sail is up or down. Two bags can be in place at one time, one on port and the other on stbd.

        I have several headsails of differing sizes I am modifying, so I have saddles in several positions for the aft blocks, and two side by side for the front one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.