DIY Soft Shackles for Quick and Easy Headsail Changes

Do you still tie your headsail sheets on with bowline knots or cow hitches? Do you have separate single-length sheets for each headsail? Do you procrastinate when you should make a headsail change because it’s a hassle to tie or reeve the new sheets?

I will confess to being a bit of a hardware hound. What sailor doesn’t love shiny bits of stainless steel, brass, or chrome — boat jewelry, you know. But there are some places on a sailboat where hardware doesn’t belong, flapping in the wind on the end of a headsail sheet is one of them. It can become a silver-beaked woodpecker indiscriminately hammering away on your mast or your noggin’ in a heartbeat. Two hundred dollar Tylaska snap shackles are sexy but I’ll take a Dyneema soft shackle to attach my sheets every time.

Soft shackles are like regular shackles, only soft. Anyone still confused? I didn’t think so. They serve a simple purpose and they’re simple to use. You can use them just about anywhere that you would otherwise use a metal shackle but they have a few benefits over metal shackles.

Soft shackles are:

  • Flexible and cause less wear and damage to lines and other parts of the boat
  • More affordable
  • Lighter
  • More versatile
  • Available pre-made or you can make them yourself in any size, color, and configuration you need

The fear of soft shackles is that they can accidentally open, but in all the time that I’ve used them, not one has come open by itself. That fear is rooted in theory, not in experience.

The long and short of the matter

I’ve always used single-piece sheets — fewer moving parts, fewer knots, fewer things to go wrong. You also have a longer line to use for other purposes if you need it: as a stern tie, to lengthen an anchor rode, in an emergency, and so on. Advocates of two short sheets usually point out that you can reverse them when one end becomes worn. That’s true, but how often does that happen in the life of a sheet? Once and then you replace it, shorten it, or repurpose it. And how often does that option limit you over the life of a sheet? Every time you use it. If the middle of a long sheet wears out, you can still cut it into two short sheets if you want. In the meantime, you can reap the benefits of faster, easier headsail changes and you don’t have to be a racer to appreciate saving time.

I used to tie my long sheets on with a clove hitch. It’s a simple, strong, adjustable, knot and it doesn’t catch on shrouds as easily as the more traditional girth (cow) hitch. But it’s not easy to tie onto a sail clew since you have to thread one end of the sheet through the clew twice and if you tie it wrong, you have to start over. For that reason, it’s not a good choice for retying with every headsail change, and so I had dedicated sheets tied onto each headsail. That eliminates the hassle of retying your sheets but you still have to reave the ends through the lead blocks and wrap them on the winches every time, so there’s no real convenience or time savings.

Then I discovered soft shackles and I saw the light. Here is a way that you can quickly attach a sheet to a clew without the danger of flying metal objects. They’re fast enough to attach that you can leave one headsail sheet rigged all the time and reuse it with all your headsails. They really are a very clever example of ropecraft.

Tying my favorite shackle

All soft shackles are based on the same simple principle of a short length of rope with a knot on one end that fits through an eye on the other end. You can tie them with any kind of rope that has a hollow core but they are typically made from Dyneema because of its superior strength for its size. That lets you make very strong soft shackles that are also small. How strong? Stronger than the rope they’re made of.

To use a soft shackle, you thread one end through or around the objects that you want to shackle together and then thread the knot through the eye like a button in a buttonhole. The soft shackle is tied in such a way that the eye constricts behind the knot to keep it captive and holds the objects together, whether it be a sheet and a clew, a block and a cleat, a stanchion and a fender whip, whatever. The uses are limited only by your imagination. And because they can be made any size and are flexible, soft shackles can work where metal shackles won’t.

I’m familiar with two ways of tying a soft shackle: the more traditional way in which you pull the sheath to close the eye behind the knot and, in my opinion, a better way in which the eye closes itself when the slack is pulled out of a lock stitch tied into the shackle.

With a traditional soft shackle, a loop of twine called a pull tab is often sewn in to make it easier to reopen the eye. I don’t care for these because the tab can catch on hardware and pull the eye open and they’re difficult to open with gloves on.

The other type of soft shackle doesn’t need the pull tab and is easier to open. With both types, a brummel splice makes up the middle of the shackle.

There are also two ways to tie the end knot, with a traditional diamond knot (also known as a monkey’s fist) in which the rope ends protrude from the end of the knot like in the following picture.

Or with a button knot in which the rope ends are buried back into the knot as in the following picture. I prefer this style, which doesn’t have cut ends to catch in the eye when you’re closing the shackle and it looks more finished.

My favorite soft shackle recipe is the “better soft shackle” that you can learn to tie with the instructions on L-36.com. Besides a handy calculator there that tells you the critical dimensions for a given rope size, the author has lots more information about soft shackles.

Doing it alpine style

After you have a soft shackle made, how do you tie the middle of a long sheet to a clew with it? There are several possibilities but the one I prefer is a knot that I use often in mountaineering, the alpine butterfly knot. This knot is quick to tie, strong, relatively easy to untie after it has been loaded, and it forms a handy loop in the middle of a sheet to attach to a clew with a soft shackle.

You can also have the best of both worlds and use a soft shackle with short sheets that have eyes spliced into the ends as in the following picture.

In this example, a Velcro wrap adds insurance that the soft shackle won’t open accidentally and it keeps the diamond knot inside the clew where it can’t catch as easily on shrouds during a tack

I make my soft shackles out of 5/32″ Dyneema. That might seem small but the diameter is nearly double when the shackle is finished and it has a tensile strength of over 4,000 lbs. I make them with a 2″ diameter, which is a good size for working with, not too big, not too small.

Since soft shackles are inexpensive to make, why not make a few yourself and give them a try? You just might see the light too!

The Bottom Line

Suggested price: $23.99
$tingy Sailor cost: $1
Savings: $22.99

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. woodhoud says:

    I have made these for all my halyards but on the sheets, which are Warpspeed with dyneema core, I stripped the cover and made a soft shackle knot right on the ends. thanks for another great article.
    Cheers!
    Woody

  2. Ben Rouse says:

    Well, I made some of these the other day. I’m sick of my headsail sheets getting caught on the mast fittings during tacks. I bought enough 4mm (5/32″) dyneema to make 4, and some aluminium knitting needles in 6mm and 4.25mm, which I cut down with a hacksaw, filed with a bastard file and polished with an old nail buffer from the body shop. RRP here in AU is AUD$20 for a single shackle, and it cost me AUD$24 for 4 including the new “fids”. I call that in front.

    1. You’re going to like ’em. They’re great for all sorts of uses.

      1. Ben Rouse says:

        I tested the new soft shackle on the headsail today at the lake. It was fantastic. I will be eye splicing my sheets for even smoother travel, but today I just tied the bowlines so the smooth side was on the inside where it passes across the mast. Apart from the very first tack where the sheet caught on the spinnaker blocks, every tack went smoothly (no gybes today, too windy).

  3. Dan says:

    Thanks but I will stay with two sheets attached with bowline.

    1. Good choice if you don’t change headsails often, Dan.

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