Quit Spending Setup Time on Turnbuckles

Turnbuckles are great for tuning your rig but they’re the least convenient way imaginable to loosen and detach the forestay and lower shrouds for unstepping the mast. I vowed long ago that I would quit wasting time on turnbuckles during setup and tear-down.

This post is a companion to my previous post How to step a mast single-handed with or without using the boom as a gin pole. I mentioned quick release levers in that post and you can also see them in use there, but they need more explanation together with the other topics in this post.

Before I get started, a bit of legal housekeeping. This post contains affiliate links. That means I receive a small commission if you make a purchase using these links. You can purchase these products anywhere you like, of course. For a complete explanation of why I’m telling you this and how you can support this blog without paying more, please read my full disclosure.

Get the drop on lost time with quick-draw levers

One solution to turnbuckle time bandits is what is called a Highfield lever. It was invented in about 1930 by J. S. Highfield, an electrical engineer and rear commodore of the Royal Thames Yacht Club. Johnson Marine Hardware makes a good one that is just the right size for most trailerable sailboats. (Note: do not try to substitute the smaller and less expensive Quick Release Stay Adjuster (#15-212) that you can find at your West Marine store. It doesn’t have an adequate safe working load for anything more than a small catamaran or dinghy.) If you are fortunate enough to have an adjustable back stay and can loosen it enough to disconnect your forestay without a quick release lever, more power to ya. To see how to do the conversion yourself, see Upgrade Your Rig With a DIY Adjustable Backstay.

The Johnson Marine Quick Release Levers don’t often come up for auction on eBay, so I started with one on the forestay. Fortunately, the length of the quick release lever is almost the same as the forestay turnbuckle. It was an easy swap without having to shorten the forestay to keep the mast in column. Now I fine tune the mast rake with the adjustment holes in the quick release lever or with the backstay turnbuckle.

This short video shows how it helps me to quickly detach the forestay and connect the main sheet with snap shackles in preparation for lowering the mast.

It didn’t take long using one quick release lever to convince me that I needed one on each of the forward lower shrouds too, which also need to be disconnected to unstep the C-22 mast. The upper shrouds and aft lower shrouds can stay connected. After a long wait, a pair of new levers came up on eBay and I added them to my rig. If you don’t want to wait for eBay auctions, you can find them for sale wherever Johnson Marine products are sold, like Defender.com. You need part #14-205 for crimped eye terminations, #14-200 for swaged threaded terminations.

I kept the turnbuckles attached and had my rigger shorten the shrouds to accommodate the extra length of the quick release levers attached below the turnbuckles. This lets me fine tune the shrouds with the turnbuckles but disconnect them quickly without losing the turnbuckle settings.

A quick release pin for every quick release lever

To keep my whole mast raising system tool-less, I also use stainless steel drop cam quick release pins to quickly connect and disconnect the quick release levers. By their design, it’s almost impossible for them to work themselves loose, unlike ball-tension type quick pins. Each one is tethered to the part that it goes with like shown in the picture at the top of this post.

Locking quick release pins save time safely
Locking quick release pins save time safely

By the way, I also use this type of pin to attach the boom to its mast slide. Some readers will say that they aren’t strong enough for standing rigging but this type of pin is solid steel through most of its grip area. After years of using them this way, I have yet to have one fail, even during the beating that Summer Dance took during a freak storm. In fact, in that case, the cast aluminum gooseneck fitting broke but not the quick release pin that attached it.

The worst damage that I’ve experienced so far with one of these pins is when one crimped tight around the cam so that it couldn’t turn. It was easy to fix using a small screwdriver to spread the slot slightly again. Other than that, I’ve not had any problems with them.

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28 Comments Add yours

  1. Luke says:

    So if you have an adjustable backstay the lever isn’t needed for the forestay, but the two on the fwd lower shrouds will still come in handy?

    1. Hi, Luke

      I think it might depend on how tight you keep your forestay. If you can slack off your backstay and disconnect the forestay without much trouble (for example, if you don’t prebend the mast) then you probably don’t need a lever on the forestay. But if you prebend the mast much or tune your aft lower shrouds tight enough that the forestay is still under considerable tension even after you slacken the backstay, then you might still want to consider a lever there since the forestay will only become tighter when you disconnect the forward lower shrouds. Since I don’t have an adjustable backstay, I’m only speaking theoretically, so try it first on your boat.

  2. Sherky says:

    Hi Stingy,
    Really big fan of your customization of the rigging on Summer Dance, brilliant stuff. I’d like to replace the forestay fastening system on my 1985 O’Day 192, Eclipse, with the quick-release levers you’ve installed. It appears that the levers add some length to the forestay and I’m curious about how you went about dealing with that? Did you have to cut the stay and modify the mounting hardware, adding the eyelet I see at the top of the quick-release? If so, was this something you did yourself or did you take it to someone else? I guess my question applies to your shrouds as well, as I have quite a bit of tension on the main shrouds at the final point in the stepping process just before the forestay is connected. To even reach the proper mounting hole with the forestay, I have to loosen the main shrouds a few cranks, which is no fun, especially when she’s already in the water as we deal with in Port San Luis, CA (sport launch strap system, no ramp). I do appreciate your time if you have a moment to comment.

    Happy sails!

    1. Hi, Sherky

      Yes, replacing your forestay turnbuckle with a quick release lever could result in an overall longer assembly than before. I’m guessing that the turnbuckles on your O’Day are about the same size as on a C-22. How you deal with it kind of depends on how much longer it is. If it’s only an inch or two, you can probably accept that added rake and take up the difference with the other turnbuckles in the rig and not notice any additional weather helm. If it’s significant, say, six inches or more, then you should probably cut your forestay down the same amount to maintain your rig geometry.

      That’s definitely the case with the forward lower shrouds since you’ll want to keep your turnbuckles there for tuning and the levers add their length to the total. In my case, I shortened the forestay and forward lower shrouds each by 8″ to accommodate the closed length of the levers. My local rigger is inexpensive. I think it cost me $20 for all of them. But I didn’t have to change the terminals, they stayed as thimbles and easily connect to the pins in the top ends of the levers.

      The good news is, you can put in the forestay lever and try it out before cutting down the forestay.

      I hope that clarifies it for you. Your questions are always welcome or if you think of a project you’d like to see here, drop me a line with the Contact form and I’ll see what I can do!

  3. $stingy,

    Any comments on the quick release levers offered at Catalina Direct? Just wondering since those on ebay appear to be as expensive or more.




    1. They’re the exact same thing. Only CS Johnson makes them and they control their pricing very closely so you’re not likely to find them discounted anywhere. They occasionally come up on eBay for a fraction of retail price but you have to be patient.

  4. Michael says:

    I recently purchased 3 Johnson quick release levers. The shroud ends are currently threaded for turnbuckles, but your site shows a thimble end for the pin. How do you tune the shrouds without the turnbuckles? I’m looking for the easiest most economical way to do this. Could that be attaching the turnbuckles to the levers, and shortening the cables at the mast?

    1. That’s right, Mike. You need to keep the turnbuckles in the system to tension the forward lower shrouds accurately. Shorten the shrouds by the length of the turnbuckles set in the middle of their range, then you can lengthen or shorten them as needed to tune the mast. You don’t need to shorten the forestay for a turnbuckle if you can achieve the correct mast rake and prebend by tensioning the backstay turnbuckle or tackle if you have an adjustable backstay. If the length isn’t quite enough, you can extend it with tangs between the forestay pin and the quick release lever like I did.

      1. Michael says:

        Thanks for the quick reply. Unfortunately the forestay end is threaded, so I assume my only option is to shorten it in the same way as the lower shrouds.
        Another question. Locally I can only find aluminum ferrules. I only sail fresh water. Will they work, or should I only use bronze?

      2. Johnson makes a specific lever for connecting to threaded swage fittings that will screw right on. I don’t think aluminum ferrules are strong enough. I’ve never seen them used except on 1/16″ cable that wasn’t load-bearing. If you did use them and the boat ever got in salt water, you’d have an immediate onset of galvanic corrosion. You can order the copper ones from West Marine or other marine outfitters.

      3. Michael says:

        I already bought the Johnson pin levers. I didn’t see the threaded ones in their catalogue. I’ll look for copper ferrules, and order them online if I can’t locate locally. Marine outfitters are hard to come by at 8000′ in the Rockies.

  5. Howard Miller says:

    Here is a tip that the Stingy Sailor types will like. The quick release pin sells on the popular marine supply stores for about $18. On sailrite.com they are $1.95. I can see no difference in the pins. All stainless steel.

    1. Sailrite’s price is among the lowest but I prefer to spend a couple bucks more and buy them with the wire lanyard and the mounting tab so that they don’t get lost or misplaced. Click the link in the article above to compare and purchase.

  6. Howard Miller says:

    That’s fantastic. I didn’t notice the link before, just saw the photo. That’s why we follow you. Way better than $18 still!

  7. Diego says:

    Hi Stingy,

    I am looking at adding this quick release lever to my Laguna 16. I noticed you have a tang on the top of it to reach out to the eye on the forestay. I will most likely have to do the same. I was looking at C Sherman Johnson specs of the lever and can not find the width of the lever. Do you know how wide the lever is? I am trying to figure out how long the pins need to be for the Tang. Also how wide is your tang? Thanks for the great web page. I am learning a lot from it.


    1. Hey, Diego

      The width of the upper pin end of the quick release lever is 7/16″. I have a pair of 3/4″ x 4″ tangs attached to my lever with a clevis pin that has a 5/8″ grip length through the lever and the tang ends.

      Let me know if you need anything more,

  8. John Mahoney says:

    Defender Marine has the lever on sale for $55 right now, 7/5/2018

  9. Michael says:

    Hello Stingy,
    First to say I love to read your articles. I was recently reading your article “Quit Spending Setup Time on Turnbuckles” and I have a question. Will the smaller and less expensive Quick Release Stay Adjuster (#15-212) that you find at the West Marine store have the adequate safe working load for the forward lower shrouds? I have 2 of these and would like to put them to good use but I would really like your thoughts first. For I am a trailer sailor who also needs some to disconnect to un-step the mast.

    Thank you

    1. Hi, Michael

      I wish they did because they’re inexpensive and much more readily available. I’ve seen them on shelves at my local West Marine store, for example. Unfortunately, the SWL for them is only 400 pounds compared to 1,000 pounds for the 14 series levers. They might work for a while and for light winds but in a serious blow, they would likely fail and could cause a dismasting. I recommend finding a less critical use for them and use only components in your standing rigging with a SWL of at least 1,000 pounds.

      Thanks for your question!

  10. Peter B Lask says:

    I have the stock forestay with the threaded lug that I will have to convert to a thimble. Is there typically enough wire that I can lop off the lug and swage a thimble into the existing forestay?

    1. Hi, Peter

      Johnson makes a lever (14-200) that accepts a threaded stud so that you don’t need to modify your forestay. It just replaces your existing turnbuckle. Plug and play!


  11. John Mahoney says:

    No need for turnbuckle at forestay?

    1. Hi, John

      In my opinion, no. You can set the mast rake angle pretty close with the adjustment holes in the lever and then fine tune it either with a backstay turnbuckle or with an adjustable backstay. That way, the forestay lever is a direct replacement for the turnbuckle and you don’t need a custom forestay. If you ever decide to revert back to the original configuration, it’s an easy swap.


  12. Ed says:


    I need to save this page for the day I get to relaunch my Venture 21 and prepare the rigging for quick setup! Thanks.

    File this in the ‘for what it is worth’ category, since folks seem to be finding the lever product online….

    I am not sure if it was your intention, but when I clicked the “good one” link, my browser took me to Johnson’s page for their turnbuckle. I was expecting it to lead to Page 42 for the ‘quick release lever’…which was an easy find from their menu:

    Cheers and happy sailing!

    1. Hi, Ed

      Thanks for pointing out the misdirected link. Johnson must have updated their catalog recently. I’ve since fixed it to open the correct page.


  13. SmallSpaces says:

    Thanks for the awesome post, really liked it once again, Ill give this a share.

  14. NS says:

    What size snap shackles are you using on your main sheet?

    1. The smallest I could find.


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