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 for around $30. 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 don’t often fall down by themselves and need a little extra help to douse them. A headsail downhaul let’s you do it remotely from the cockpit.
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 begin to fill and 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 cleat location is close to the headsail halyard since the two lines should be hauled in opposite directions at the same time; the downhaul pulled in while the halyard is eased and vice versa.
To make a headsail downhaul, start with a small diameter rope about twice as long as your 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 it can also serve double duty as a spinnaker tack line as I describe in How to Rig a Cruising Spinnaker in 4 Stingy Stages. If you don’t have a spinnaker, it 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 top 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 attached to a nearby pulpit stanchion base like shown in the picture at left. The line can either run straight 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.
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.
To douse the headsail, first 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 again, 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.
Would you like to be notified when I publish more posts like this? Enter your email address below to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. You will also receive occasional newsletters with exclusive info and deals only for subscribers and the password to the Downloads page. It’s free and you can unsubscribe at any time but almost nobody does!