How To Cross-Sheet For Better Single-Handing

Single-handed sailing can seem like playing as a one man (or woman) band sometimes. You have to do everything yourself and play all the instruments simultaneously. If done well, it’s poetry in motion. If done poorly, it can be a train wreck.

One-man band street performer - 5.jpg
No, this is not me but I feel like this sometimes when single-handing. (Photo by slgckgc –, CC BY 2.0, Link)

Have you ever noticed how every instrument is within easy reach of the musician? They don’t have to move far to play each one. That’s what cross-sheeting is about – keeping the working ends of the headsail sheets close to you while you maintain your best playing (helm) position.

Cross-sheeting basically means that, instead of cleating the working sheet on the leeward side of the sailboat as usual, you lead it across the cockpit and cleat it on the windward side instead. On some sailboats, you can do this from the genoa car directly to the windward winch. On other sailboats like the C-22, there isn’t a fair lead from the genoa car over the coamings and you have to use the leeward winch like a turning block. This might require longer sheets than you already have and is why I recommend they be 35′ long for twin sheets or 70′ long for a single sheet in Lead All Lines to the Cockpit for Safer Sailing.

Cross-sheeting on both tacks

Stay On The High Side

When you’re sailing in light air, single-handing is relatively easy – the sailboat lies mostly flat on her lines, wind changes happen slowly, there’s plenty of time to make adjustments, and your position on the sailboat doesn’t matter much. Normal sheeting works fine under these conditions. You can take your time to move over to the leeward winch while keeping a steady helm without much effect.

But as the wind picks up, conditions change – the sailboat heels over, wind shifts can happen in a heartbeat, you have to make adjustments quickly, and the position of your weight on the sailboat matters very much. Normal sheeting doesn’t work well under these conditions.

Moving from the high side of the sailboat down to the leeward winch and possibly back again while you keep the helm under control is a virtuoso feat few of us can pull off, especially if you Make a Tiller Extension For Better Cockpit Mobility. It’s not an ideal time to trust entirely in a tiller autopilot. Moving the position of your weight on the sailboat alone can throw off your sail trim. And the smaller the sailboat, the bigger the effect.

Cross-sheeting puts the end of the working sheet on the windward winch right next to you where you can easily reach it without moving. You can maintain weight distribution and tiller control while you work the winch. With practice, you may even be able to harden the sheet without looking at it. Try that with normal sheeting!

Sit Still and Stay Safe

Cross-sheeting makes single-handing safer. The less you move around on the sailboat, the more you can keep your attention on sailing under control and the less chance you’ll accidentally round up, broach, or fall overboard. However you do it with normal sheeting, you’re in a poor position and unprepared to react to a sudden gust of wind. Cross-sheeting keeps you on top of the situation, literally. And if you don’t need to move around, the sheet running across the cockpit won’t be in your way as much as it first seems. On the contrary, it can be convenient, as I’ll explain next.

Don’t Sweat It

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, $tingy, reaching for a winch handle, putting it on the winch, and hardening the sheet while holding the tiller steady in a strong blow isn’t so easy.”  You’re right, it’s not easy. But cross-sheeting gives you another trick in your skills toolbox.

That tight sheet across the cockpit gives you a good place to use mechanical leverage to your advantage without any tools. If you grasp the sheet between the winches and pull it hard forward, aft, or upward, you can apply almost as much tension on the sheet as with a winch handle. Just pull the slack through the cleat while you simultaneously release the tension on the sheet and it will stay tight. This is called “sweating” or “bow stringing” and was done in the old days when there weren’t as many winches as today. You can use the same trick to tighten halyards if you don’t have secondary winches.

Tacking Tactics

Now you might be thinking, “I’m not convinced yet. What do you do when you need to tack? The old working sheet is on both winches.” The answer is, you swap the sheets on one winch at a time as you go through the tack.

After you take the old working sheet off the windward winch, keep your hold on it and immediately put one wrap of the lazy sheet on that winch. After the headsail backwinds, take the single wrap off the leeward winch, release the old working sheet, and put two or three wraps of the new working sheet onto that winch. Then trim the headsail and cleat it normally from the windward winch. The leeward winch will act as a turning block.

It’s easier to demonstrate than it is to describe, so watch this video that I recorded under calm conditions to see how.

Try this technique first in light winds (even with other crew aboard to back you up) until you get the process down and you can tack smoothly with it. Then practice it in increasingly stronger winds until you can confidently use it single-handed in any conditions.

For more posts about single-handed rigging and sailing techniques, see:

Lead All Lines to the Cockpit for Safer Sailing

Single Line Jiffy Reefing Made Easy

Install Midship Cleats and Dock Like a Pro

How to Rig a Self-Tacking Jib for Free!

How to Step a Mast Single-Handed With or Without Using the Boom as a Gin Pole

Book Review: Thoughts, Tips, Techniques & Tactics for Singlehanded Sailing

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Pete Greenwood says:


    I bought a Ayres Pond Cat Boat and live in NJ (Cape May). Because the mast is much heavier than aluminum the only way I can make this a trailer sailor is to have the mast cut and fabricate some kind of hinge so I can just swing the mast up instead of standing on the deck and lifting, which is very hard to do. If it is dropped it will be damaged and if it hits anybody or anything else would be damaged. The mfr. is too far away and that’s not an option. Do you have any ideas?

    I am just looking for any ideas and maybe I should just sell it and buy another day sailor.


    1. Hello, Pete

      I’m not familiar with your sailboat but I suspect you may be right about being better off by getting a different sailboat if you want to trailer sail extensively. Besides having a better mast design for easy stepping, you’d also gain some amenities (comfortable weather tight cabin, galley, etc.) that you might also want for overnight stays that would make those longer trips more practical.

  2. I’m a new sailor and to start, purchased a 1978 27′ MIRAGE this year with the intention of teaching myself to sail single-handed on Lake Ontario. As someone who was twice saved from drowning as a kid one of my biggest challenges has been conquering my anxiety of deep water. It’s been an amazing season for me. With the help of your excellent articles and videos [BIG THANK YOU!] and other YouTube videos, I have become quite comfortable with sailing and docking on my own. I’ve sailed to a number of harbors for overnight stays and even accomplished a few wing-on-wings. As a budget sailor, I find your articles very inspirational. I installed my Schaefer roller-furling system single-handed [$400 from a boat graveyard], a double-reefing system, and my own lazy jack design [O-rings and clove-hitches] for $45 that works extremely well. Next week I’m installing my design for a retractable bow-sprit/bob-sprit made from 3″ aluminum pipe and a salvaged spinnaker pole – this for an upcoming asymmetrical spinnaker. I truly appreciate the time you take to put together your well-thought out and informative articles that demonstrate you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a great boat… and a great time.

    1. Thanks, Gerald. It’s stories like yours that make all the effort that goes into this website worthwhile to me!

  3. Randy Young says:

    Tried this cool trick (why had I not thought of that before?!) a couple of days ago. Worked wonderfully! I look forward to every update and project. I have 20 yards of material coming in in a few days to begin my cushion refit and several other projects. Thanks again for all your efforts!

  4. AG says:

    I guess I “invented” that approach, the bow stringing included on my own back when I was teaching myself to single hand.

    On smaller boats I found useful when cross sheeting to tie the sheets together (reefing knot). Found it very helpful in heavier conditions. It helps me not to lose the lazy sheet when I am walking across and it’s easier to use the leeward winch as a fair lead during the tack or jibe.

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