You may not have seen or even heard of a self-tacking jib before. They’re usually only found on luxury sailboats. But that’s exactly what one is, a headsail that sheets itself when you tack. You don’t have to cast off the working sheet and haul in the lazy sheet on every tack. In fact, after you set it up, you don’t have to touch the sheet again while sailing. You just push the helm to lee, come about as you normally would, and the jib passes through the fore triangle by itself and stops on the new lee side at the same sheeting angle as it was before the tack. I set one up for free and you can too.
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Self-tacking headsails are becoming more and more popular on high-end cruising yachts as designers strive to remove as much effort from sailing as possible with headsail furlers, in-mast mainsail furling, electric winches, autopilots, and more. Seems it won’t be long before sailboats are fly-by-wire like airplanes and driverless cars. How lazy will we get?
But there are practical benefits to a self-tacking jib if you:
- Are single-handed or short-handed on crew.
- Are short tacking through a narrow passageway.
- Have a broken jib car or winch that makes normal tacking impossible or dangerous.
- Or your crew are seriously chilling (lazy) and you’d rather not have to mind the headsail.
A selfie (tacker) you can really use
The basic principle of a self-tacking jib is simple; a means for the clew of the jib to remain sheeted throughout its arc of travel from one side of the sailboat to the other during tacks. Commercial self-tacking systems accomplish this with an arc-shaped track mounted to the foredeck. The jib clew is attached to the track by a single sheet to a car that glides freely on the track like a traveler. The sheet leads to the cockpit where the skipper can adjust the jib shape by trimming the sheet. Such systems can cost many hundreds of dollars to retrofit to a conventional yacht.
The picture below shows the system with a thick red line that I will describe and it cost me nothing new to set up.
Instead of a track fixed to the deck, this system uses a block temporarily fixed to the jib clew. It reuses one of the headsail sheets you already have to form a bridle on the foredeck for the block to ride on. The other headsail sheet is not used.
The only other parts you need are two turning blocks. They can be snatch blocks that you keep on hand for miscellaneous jobs, your spinnaker sheet blocks if they’re portable, or they can be permanent blocks that you install just for this purpose (in that case, your system won’t be free). Heck, even two carabiners will work. If you only have one block or carabiner, reave the sheet directly through the clew grommet in step 2 below instead and attach your block or carabiner to the side deck where it can lead the sheet. The clew will have a little more friction but not enough to keep it from working.
When I want to set up the jib for self-tacking, I just move my existing spinnaker sheet blocks forward from the aft coamings to midship. I won’t be flying the spinnaker at the same time so they won’t be in use anyway. I like these 40mm web attachment style blocks from Nautos. They’re high quality, inexpensive, and work great. Instead of lashing them with webbing, I use 5/32″ dyneema loops or soft shackles.
For easy, versatile, and economical ways to attach these blocks to almost anything like you see in the pictures here, check out the continuous loops of dyneema that I describe in How to Rig a Cruising Spinnaker in 4 Stingy Stages and DIY Soft Shackles for Quick and Easy Headsail Changes.
This self-tacking setup works best with a small headsail. I set up my 110% jib this way and it works okay. A larger headsail would not work. A 90% jib, storm sail, or trysail would work even better. That’s because, in order for the jib to set as flat as possible, the foot of the sail should be no longer than the distance from the sail’s tack to the jib sheet bridle.
Do it your self-tacker
To rig a self-tacking jib:
1. Tie one end of the sheet to a point on the deck approximately abeam of the mast and as far outboard as possible. On a C-22, a forward stanchion base is a good place. If you have a toerail, you have lots of choices and can adjust the bridle position for the best sail shape. The picture below (taken from the foredeck looking aft) shows the middle of my single sheet tied to the starboard forward stanchion base. The lazy half of the sheet is leading aft. The working half of the sheet leads out of the picture frame to the right. I keep a soft shackle tied to an alpine butterfly knot in the middle of my headsail sheet where I attach the clews of my headsails. I describe this more in DIY Soft Shackles for Quick and Easy Headsail Changes . That soft shackle is tied to the stanchion base here.
2. Lead the working end of the sheet to the foredeck and reave it through one of the turning blocks that you have attached to the jib clew. The picture below shows one of my spinnaker sheet blocks tied to the jib clew with a simple girth hitch. The continuous loop makes it easy to tie and remove in seconds.
3. Continue leading the sheet across the foredeck to the opposite point on the toerail or stanchion base and reave the sheet through the second turning block (or carabiner) that you attach there. The picture below (taken from the foredeck looking aft) shows the block tied to the port forward stanchion base.
4. Continue leading the sheet aft and through the jib car block as usual. Wrap the sheet a couple of turns around the winch and cleat it off as usual, leaving a couple feet of slack at the jib clew.
That’s all there is to it. Now you just need to trim the sheet out on the water.
Get your self-tacker into shape
To trim the self-tacking sheet:
- While pointed straight into the wind, raise the jib as you normally would. If you normally use one, the self-tacker works best without a pendant to raise the tack off the deck. You want the sail to open up as much as possible and to do that it needs to be as low as possible.
- Bear off the wind slowly until the jib fills.
- Trim the self-tacking sheet to get the best shape possible. Ease the sheet out and the clew will rise, the sail will twist, begin to luff, and spill air. Pull the sheet in and the clew will pull toward the deck, hook the sail toward the mast, and form a full, baggy shape. Experiment with your particular setup until you find the optimal shape that you can get when rigged this way for your wind conditions.
You probably won’t be able to get a nice, flat, foil shape, especially with a working jib but it will still work. I’ve made 4.5 knots with this setup in 10-15 mph winds and that was with a reefed mainsail and dragging a wad of weeds the size of a basketball wrapped around my keel cable. Temporarily suppress the rule in your mind that says you have to trim the headsail flat when sailing upwind. You can pull the rule back out when you revert to a conventional headsail setup.
When it comes time to tack, just announce “helm’s a-lee!” and come about. The clew block will roll across on the bridle that you have tied across the deck and the jib will set on the other side by itself.
When not to be self-centered
There are a few caveats that come with this technique:
- It works best in medium airs due to the compromised sail shape. Light airs are too weak to develop much forward power with this shape. The sail also isn’t flat enough for safe sailing in heavy airs. But if an unexpected gust comes up, you can blow the jib by casting the sheet off at the winch like you normally would.
- It doesn’t work well downwind because the sail is held too close to the center of the boat where it falls in the mainsail shadow. So use this setup upwind only or in very short downwind runs.
- You won’t be able to point very high into the wind, also due to the sail shape. Consequently, you won’t make much upwind progress if that’s your course. It’s best used when you’re casually daysailing or turning laps between two points 180° opposed. It works great for that.
- You can’t heave-to when set up this way because you can’t backwind the jib. It will just cross the foredeck and you’ll wind up tacking. To heave to, you have to reset your sheets to a conventional setup.
I think this is an interesting technique that’s useful in specific conditions. Racers and other sail trim experts may scoff and call it a dumb trick. Let them, but give it a try sometime and consider it another tool in your bag of sailing skills. You shouldn’t need to buy anything (or very little) to set it up and you’ve got nothing to lose by trying but a little of your time. I bet that if you set it up right, you’ll be pleased with how much more relaxing it can make sailing. Especially if you don’t have a particular destination in mind and you don’t care how fast you get there. Isn’t that some of the best of times to be had when sailing?
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