If you are new to sailing and sailboats, you may have heard the term “running rigging” and asked yourself: What is it?
The running rigging on a sailboat is the lines used to hoist, lower, and control the sails and sailing equipment. These lines usually have different colors and patterns to make identifying their function and location on the vessel easier.
If you have yet to spend much time sailing, looking at the spaghetti of lines with different colors and patterns might get your head spinning. But don’t worry. It is pretty simple. Start familiarizing yourself with the boat you will sail and determine which line goes where.
Each line on a sailboat has a function. You will often find labels describing them in the cockpit and on the mast.
In this guide, we will walk through the functions of each line. We will also look at the hardware we use to operate them and get up to speed on all the terms.
The difference between standing rigging and running rigging
Sometimes things can get confusing as some of our nautical terms are used for multiple items depending on the context. Let me clarify just briefly:
The rig or rigging on a sailboat is a common term for two parts, the standing, and the running rigging.
- The standing rigging consists of wires supporting the mast on a sailboat and reinforcing the spars from the force of the sails when sailing. Check out my guide on standing rigging here!
- The running rigging consists of the halyards, sheets, and lines we use to hoist, lower, operate and control the sails on a sailboat which we will explore in this guide.
Explaining the running rigging on a sailboat
Knowing the running rigging is an essential part of sailing, whether you are sailing a cruising boat or crewing on a large yacht. Different types of sailing vessels have different amounts of running rigging.
For example, a sloop rig has fewer lines than a ketch, which has multiple masts and requires a separate halyard, outhaul, and sheet for its mizzen sail. Similarly, a cutter rig needs another halyard and extra sheets for its additional headsail.
Take a look at this sailboat rigging diagram:
Lines are a type of rope with a smooth surface that work well on winches found on sailboats. They come in various styles and sizes and have different stretch capabilities.
Dyneema and other synthetic fibers have ultra-high tensile strength and low stretch. These high-performance lines last a long time, and I highly recommend them as a cruiser using them for my halyards.
A halyard is a line used to raise and lower the sail. It runs from the head of the sail to the masthead through a block and continues down to the deck. Running the halyard back to the cockpit is common, but many prefer to leave it on the mast.
Fun fact: Old traditional sailboats sometimes used a stainless steel wire attached to the head of the sail instead of a line!
Jib, Genoa, and Staysail Halyards
The halyard for the headsail is run through a block in front of the masthead. If your boat has a staysail, it needs a separate halyard. These lines are primarily untouched on vessels with a furling system except when you pack the sail away or back up. Commonly referred to as the jib halyard.
A spinnaker halyard is basically the same as the main halyard but used to hoist and lower the spinnaker, gennaker, or parasailor.
The spinnaker halyard is also excellent for climbing up the front of the mast, hoisting the dinghy on deck, lifting the outboard, and many other things.
A sheet is a line you use to control and trim a sail to the angle of the wind. The mainsheet controls the angle of the mainsail and is attached between the boom and the mainsheet traveler. The two headsail sheets are connected to the sail’s clew (lower aft corner) and run back to each side of the cockpit.
These are control lines used to adjust the angle and tension of the sail. It is also the line used to unfurl a headsail on a furling system. Depending on what sail you are referring to, this can be the Genoa sheet, the Jib sheet, the Gennaker sheet, etc.
The outhaul is a line attached to the clew of the mainsail and used to adjust the foot tension. It works runs from the mainsail clew to the end of the boom and back to the mast. In many cases, back to the cockpit. On a boat with in-mast furling, this is the line you use to pull the sail out of the mast.
The topping lift is a line attached to the boom’s end and runs through the masthead and down to the deck or cockpit. It lifts and holds the boom and functions well as a spare main halyard. Some types of sailboat rigging don’t use a topping lift for their boom but a boom vang instead. Others have both!
Topping lifts can also be used to lift other spars.
A downhaul is a line used to lower with. Typically used to haul the mainsail down when reefing and lowering the spinnaker and whisker poles. The downhaul can also control the tack of an asymmetrical spinnaker, gennaker, or parasailor.
Tweaker and Barber Haul
A tweaker is a line, often elastic, attached to the sheet of a headsail and used to fine-tune the tension on the sheet.
A barber haul is a line attached to a headsail’s sheet to adjust the sheeting angle to the wind. It is often used to pull the clew further toward the center or outboard than the cars allow.
A boom preventer is a line attached to the boom’s end when sailing off the wind. Its function is to hold the spar in place and prevent it from swinging wildly.
If the boat were to get an accidental gybe, it could cause serious damage to the rigging or even harm people on board. It is important for the rigger to be cautious when setting up the boom preventer.
Running backstays is similar to a normal backstay but uses a line instead of a hydraulic tensioner. Some rigs have additional check stays or runners as well.
Bonus tip: Reefing
The term reefing is used when reducing the effective sailing area exposed to the wind of a given sail. Headsails are usually reefed by partially furling them in, and they often have marks for what we refer to as 1st, 2nd and 3rd reefs.
The mainsail is reefed similarly with an in-mast furling or in-boom furling system.
On a traditional mast, we use a system called slab reefing. The system has reefing lines running through the boom to re-inforced points on the luff and leech, allowing you to pull the sail down to the boom and effectively reduce the sail area.
Having at least two reefing points in the mainsail is normal, but most cruising sailboats have 3. The 3rd is used for the heaviest conditions giving you only a tiny bit of sail area exposed to the wind.
You want to reef your sails before the wind increases to a point where your boat gets overpowered.
It is essential to practice your reefing technique so you know how to do it properly. Sometimes you can find yourself in a situation with rapidly increasing winds, and you must quickly reef the sails.
Rule of thumb: If you think setting a reef might be a good idea, do it.
Shaking a reef is the term used when we sail with a reefed sail and want to increase the sail area back to full.
Hardware used for sail handling and the running rigging
Most sailboats have their headsail on a furling system. A furling system is a tube that runs along the forestay from the bottom furler drum to the masthead swivel.
This system allows you to roll the headsail around the forestay, making furling the sail in and out easy. It is also convenient when reefing the sail when the wind picks up, as you can easily do this from the safety of the cockpit. These furling systems come in manual versions and electric versions.
In-mast furling is a system that rolls the mainsail in and out of the mast. To unfurl the mainsail, we use the outhaul.
In-boom furling is a system that rolls the mainsail in and out of the boom. This system has been costly and mostly seen on big yachts earlier. Still, they are becoming more affordable and common on smaller boats. To unfurl this setup, we use the main halyard.
A Stack pack is also called Lazy Bag or Lazy Pack. It is a bag with a zip attached to the boom where the mainsail is stored when unused. It protects the mainsail from UV rays from the sun and weather elements. A very nice and tidy way to store the mainsail and reefing lines if you don’t have in-mast or in-boom furling.
Lazy Jacks is a system of lines running from the stack pack to the mast. The Lazy Jacks guide the mainsail up and down from the Stack Pack and prevent it from falling down on the deck. It is also possible to rig Lazy Jacks without a Stack Pack.
A block is a pulley with a sheave wheel. Blocks are used to change the direction of a pull on a line or rope and give a mechanical advantage. They have many uses, especially onboard sailboats.
A winch is a metal drum that gives you a mechanical advantage to control and tighten lines. These can be operated by turning a rope around it and pulling manually or by a winch handle to get more force. Most modern winches are self-tailing, which means it locks the line on so you can winch the line without holding on to it. Some boats even have electrical winches operated by a button.
The mainsheet traveler is a horizontal track that the mainsheet is attached to through a series of blocks. The traveler enables you to adjust and lock the boom at an angle and also plays a critical part in trimming the mainsail.
Most cruising sailboats have their traveler attached to the top of the coachroof in front of the spray hood. A racing boat typically has the traveler in the cockpit near the helm to give the helmsman better control over the mainsheet.
The cars are basically a pulley or block attached to a track on the port and starboard deck that your headsail sheets run through. Cars are used to control the angle of the sheet between the clew and the deck. The cars are handy when you trim the sail to set the right balance of tension between the foot and leech, depending on your point of sail.
The jammer is used to lock a line in place. Most sailboats use these for locking the halyards, mainsheet, outhaul, reef lines, traveler lines, boom vang lines, etc. You can pull or winch a line through a closed jammer, but it won’t run away if you let go of it unless you open the lock.
As I explained earlier, it is common to have most or all of the lines led back to the cockpit, and they are usually run through a series of jammers.
The jammers are often labeled with the name of the line it locks, which makes it easier to remember which line goes where.
A spinnaker pole is a spar used to wing out a headsail when sailing off the wind, particularly the spinnaker. The spinnaker pole should have the same length as the distance between the mast and the forestay measured along the deck. We use a fore and aft guy and the pole’s topping lift to rig a pole correctly.
The rigging varies depending on the layout of the boat, but it usually looks like this:
- One line runs from the bow to the end of the pole.
- An aft line runs from near the stern to the end of the pole.
- A topping lift is used to raise and lower the pole.
A whisker pole is similar to the spinnaker pole and is rigged similarly. It is typically built lighter and attached to a track on the mast. These can be found in fixed lengths or adjustable lengths. Ideally, the length should be the same as the foot of the headsail you intend to pole out.
Boom Vang/Rod Kicker
The Boom Vang has a few different names. Rod-kicker, kicking strap, or kicker. It is used to tension the boom downwards. When you are sailing downwind and have the boom far out, the mainsheet won’t pull the boom down as much as inboard, and you can then use the vang to adjust the twist and shape of the mainsail.
A mooring line is a traditional rope lead through a fairlead to the vessel’s cleat and a mooring buoy, key, or pontoon.
Congratulations! By now, you should have a much better understanding of how the running rig on a sailboat functions. We’ve covered the different lines, their purpose, and the hardware used to operate them. I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide and learned something new.
Now it’s time to take what you’ve learned and put it into practice by getting out on the water, setting sail, and getting hands-on experience with the lines.
Or you can continue to my following guide and learn more about the different types of sails.
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