How to Rig Your Small Sailboat and Prepare to Sail

andreamuscatello / Getty Images

In this lesson, you will learn how to rig a small sailboat to prepare for sailing. For reference purposes, a Hunter 140 daysailer was used for this learn-to sail tutorial. Before you begin, you can familiarize yourself with the different parts of a sailboat. 

01 of 12

Install (or Check) the Rudder

Install Rudder
Tom Lochhaas

Typically the rudder of a small sailboat like this one is removed after sailing to prevent wear and tear while the boat remains in the water. You need to reinstall it before sailing, or if it is already in place, check that that it is firmly attached (with optional safety lanyard securing it to the boat).

On most small boats, the top of the leading edge of the rudder has attached pins (called pintles) that are inserted downward into round rings (called gudgeons) attached to the stern. This is rather like the familiar “Insert tab A into slot B.” While the exact configuration may vary among different boat models, it’s usually obvious how the rudder mounts to the stern when you hold the rudder beside the stern.

The rudder may or may not already have a tiller mounted on it. The next page shows how to attach the tiller on this boat.

02 of 12

Attach (or Check) the Tiller

Install Tiller
Tom Lochhaas

The tiller is a long, thin steering “arm” mounted to the rudder. If the tiller is already attached to the top of the rudder on your boat, check that it is secure.

On this Hunter 140, the tiller arm is inserted in a slot at the top of the rudder, as shown here. A pin is then inserted from above to lock it in position. The pin should be tied to the boat with a lanyard (short light line) to prevent being dropped.

Note that this tiller also includes a tiller extension, which allows the sailor to still control the tiller even when sitting far out to the side or forward.

With the rudder and tiller in place, we’ll now move on to the sails.

03 of 12

Attach the Jib Halyard

Jib Halyard Shackle
Tom Lochhaas

Because sunlight and weather age and weaken sailcloth, the sails should always be removed after sailing (or covered or bagged on a larger boat). Before you get started, you have to put them back on (called “bending on” the sails).

The halyards are used to raise both the jib and mainsail. At the sail’s end of a halyard is a shackle that attaches the grommet at the head of the sail to the halyard.

First, spread out the sail and identify each of its corners. The “head” is the top of the sail, where the triangle is the most narrow. Attach the jib halyard shackle to this corner, making sure the shackle is closed and secure.

Then follow the front edge of the sail (called the “luff”) down to the next corner. The luff of the jib of a small sailboat can be identified by the hanks every foot or so that attach this edge to the forestay. The bottom corner of the luff is called the sail’s “tack.” Attach the grommet in the tack to the fitting at the bottom of the forestay -- usually with a shackle or pin. Next, we’ll hank on the sail.

04 of 12

Hank the Jib on the Forestay

Hank Jib
Tom Lochhaas

Hanking on the jib is a simple process, but it can feel unwieldy if the wind is blowing the sail in your face.

First, find the other end of the jib halyard (on the port, or left, side of the mast as you face the bow of the boat) and keep a good grip on it with one hand. You will be slowly pulling it in to raise the sail as you hank it on.

Beginning with the hank nearest the head of the jib, open it to clip the hank onto the forestay. It will be obvious how to open the hanks, which are usually spring-loaded to close automatically when released.

Then raise the sail a little by pulling on the halyard. Making sure there isn’t any twist in the sail, attach the second hank. Raise the sail a little more and move on to the third hank. Keep working your way down the luff, raising the sail a little at a time to make sure it isn’t twisted and the hanks are all in order.

When all the hanks are attached, lower the jib back down to the deck while you route the jib sheets in the next step.

Continue to 5 of 12 below.
05 of 12

Run the Jibsheets

Run Jibsheets
Tom Lochhaas

The jib sail is positioned while sailing by using the jibsheets. The jib sheets are two lines that come back to the cockpit, one on each side of the boat, from the aft lower corner of the sail (the “clew”).

In most small sailboats, the jib sheets are left tied to the sail’s clew and stay with the sail. On your boat, however, the jibsheets may remain on the boat and need to be tied or shackled to the clew at this stage. Unless there is a shackle on the sheets, use a bowline to tie each to the clew.

Then run each sheet back past the mast to the cockpit. Depending on the specific boat and the size of the jib, the sheets may run inside or outside the shrouds -- the tensile lines that run from the deck to the mast, holding in place. On the Hunter 140 shown here, which uses a relatively small jib, the jibsheets pass from the sail’s clew inside the shrouds to a cam cleat, on each side, as shown here. The starboard (right side as you face the bow)) jibsheet cleat (with the red top) is mounted on the deck just to the starboard of this sailor’s right knee. This cleat secures the jibsheet in the desired position while sailing.

With the jib now rigged, let's move on to the mainsail.

06 of 12

Attach Mainsail to Halyard

Main Halyard Shackle
Tom Lochhaas

Now we’ll attach the mainsail halyard shackle to the head of the mainsail, a process very similar to attaching the jib halyard. First spread the mainsail out to identify its three corners as you did with the jib. The head of the sail, again, is the most narrow angle of the triangle.

On many small sailboats, the main halyard does double duty as a topping lift -- the line that holds up the aft end of the boom when it is not being held up by the sail. As shown here, when the halyard is removed from the boom, the boom drops down into the cockpit.

Here, this sailor is shackling the halyard to the head of the mainsail. Then he can go on to secure the sail’s tack in the next step.

07 of 12

Secure the Mainsail’s Tack

Secure Mainsail Tack
Tom Lochhaas

The forward lower corner of the mainsail, like that of the jib, is called the tack. The grommet of the tack is installed at the bow end, usually by a removable pin inserted through the grommet and secured on the boom.

Now the luff (leading edge) of the mainsail is secured at both the head and the tack.

The next step is to secure the clew (aft lower corner) and foot (bottom edge) of the sail to the boom.

08 of 12

Secure the Mainsail Clew to the Outhaul

Rig Clew Outhaul
Tom Lochhaas

The clew (aft lower corner) of the mainsail is secured to the aft end of the boom, usually using a line called the outhaul that can be adjusted to tension the foot of the sail.

The sail’s foot (the bottom edge) itself may or may not be secured directly to the boom. On some boats, a rope sewn into the foot (called the boltrope) slides into a groove in the boom. The clew enters the groove first, forward by the mast, and is pulled back in the groove until the whole sail’s foot is held to the boom in this groove.

The boat shown here uses a “loose-footed” mainsail. This means the sail is not inserted into the boom groove. But the clew is held at the end of the boom in the same way by the outhaul. Thus both ends of the sail’s foot are firmly attached to the sail and drawn tight -- making the sail work the same as if the whole foot was also in the groove.

A loose-footed mainsail allows for more sail shaping, but the sail cannot be flattened quite as much.

With the clew secured and outhaul tightened, the mainsail luff can now be secured to the mast and the sail raised to go sailing.

Continue to 9 of 12 below.
09 of 12

Insert the Mainsail Slugs in the Mast

Mainsail Slugs
Tom Lochhaas

The mainsail’s luff (forward edge) is attached to the mast, as the jib’s luff is to the forestay – but with a different mechanism.

On the aft side of the mast is a groove for the mainsail. Some sails have a boltrope on the luff that slides upward in this groove, while others have sail “slugs” mounted every foot or so on the luff. The sail slugs, as you can see in this photo just forward of the sailor’s right hand, are small plastic slides inserted into the mast groove where it widens out into a sort of gate.

Again, first inspect the whole sail to make sure it’s not twisted anywhere. Hold the main halyard in one hand during this process – you will be gradually raising the mainsail as you insert the slugs into the mast groove.

Begin with the sail slug at the head. Insert it into the groove, pull the halyard to raise the sail a little, and then insert the next slug.

Before completing this process, be sure you’re ready to go sailing soon after the mainsail is up.

10 of 12

Continue Raising the Mainsail

Raising Mainsail
Tom Lochhaas

Continue raising the mainsail with the halyard as you insert one slug after another into the groove.

Note that this sail already has its battens in place. A batten is a long, thin, flexible strip of wood or fiberglass that helps the sail keep its proper shape. They are positioned in pockets sewn into the sail in a generally horizontal direction. In this photo, you can see a batten near the top of the blue section of the mainsail over the sailor’s head.

If the battens were removed from the sail, you would insert them back into their pockets either before beginning to rig the boat or now, as you raise the mainsail in stages.

11 of 12

Cleat the Main Halyard

Cleat Main Halyard
Tom Lochhaas

When the mainsail is all the way up, pull hard on the halyard to tension the luff. Then tie the halyard to the cleat on the mast, using a cleat hitch.

Notice that the mainsail when fully raised holds the boom up.

Now you’re almost ready to go sailing. This is a good time to lower the centerboard down into the water if you haven’t done so already. Note that not all small sailboats have centerboards. Others have keels that are fixed in place. Both serve similar purposes: to prevent the boat from skating sideways in the wind and to stabilize the boat. Larger keels also help lift the boat to windward

Now you should raise the jib. Simply pull down on the jib halyard and cleat it on the other side of the mast.

12 of 12

Start Moving

Backing Mainsail
Tom Lochhaas

With both sails raised, you’re ready to start sailing. One of the first steps to getting underway will be to tighten the mainsheet and one jibsheet to adjust the sails so you can get moving forward.

You may also need to turn the boat so that the wind fills the sails from one side. A boat on a mooring, such as shown here, will naturally be blown back such that the bow faces directly into the wind – the one direction you can’t sail! Being stalled facing the wind is called being "in irons."

To turn the boat out of irons, simply push the boom out to one side. This pushes the back of the mainsail into the wind (called "backing" the sail) -- and the wind pushing against the sail will start the boat rotating. Just be sure you’re ready to take off!