Changing Headsails

By Andrew Kerr

The call of “change the headsail “has resonated with teams since the inception of competitive sailing. It is one of the ultimate calls to action for a team as the crew hurriedly goes about their tasks, very often under the pressure of time, tactical needs and weather concerns.

I recently had the pleasure of sailing with S20 veterans Tim Dunton and Guy Lindsey at Dillon YC’s excellent Dillon Open regatta in Colorado on Tim’s S20 “Chubasco”.

It was another normal pre start of a race – the routine lay line checks to the starting line, head to wind readings and pre start maneuvering. We were the first class to start.

At about roughly 4 minutes and 30 seconds to go – Tim eyed a wall of new wind approaching from the top of the lake and made the decision of the day, of the regatta – change to the Jib! This proved to be a race and regatta winning decision.

Guy and I looked at each other for a second and as he was scrambling forward to lower the Genoa I started to pull the jib out from down below. As I brought the jib on deck it started to blow 25 to 30 knots and the lake was white capping all around us.

As Guy changed the Genoa he reminded me of our own Bow person on “Disaster Area” – Bill Ramacciotti - confident, quick and getting the job done – plain & simple.

As jib sheets were reeved, jib blocks put in place and the new headsail hanked on as fast as we could, Tim kept maneuvering us at speed and was ever conscious of the “safe” (non barging) starboard tack approach to the favored race committee boat end .

With about 20 seconds to go we were attaching the Jib Halyard , just before the the gun was fired we raised the Jib, Cranked on the halyard, sheeted it in and took off with a good start at the race committee end while the majority of the fleet ( Ensign’s & S20’s) had been held up in the barging position by our team with a mainsail only or were grossly overpowered with the Genoa up.

This experience high lighted many facets of the effective headsail change – let’s look at the successful elements behind this dynamic challenge to a team. A lot of these ideas have been race savers particularly in areas like San Francisco, lots of lake areas and other areas where there is a good chance of the need to change – sometimes several times during the day.

On the S20 we have typically changed either prior to the start or on the downwind leg in conditions when the wind was fading and we were changing to the Genoa from the Jib.

I can only recall a few times when we have changed downwind in a building breeze with the spinnaker up – this is the hardest time of all and very challenging on the S20. The bow has to choose their times to go forward without submarining! Sometimes the conditions downwind are just too much and the team has to reconcile itself to sailing with the wrong headsail on the next upwind leg.

Let’s tale a look at a suggested check list for a quick change.

Preparation Checklist for a fast change:

- Mark the jib tracks so that you know where the Jib fairlead block has to go.

- Mark the Halyard on the Jib so you have a basic idea where the halyard tension will go to.

- Make sure the hanks on the halyards run smoothly and are not frozen or difficult to open.

- Make sure the Jib Blocks are readily available and stored in a commonly known place which is easily accessible.

- Have both the middle & Bow crew have a roll of white tape accessible – for taping the snap shackle on the Jib halyard.

- Flake the headsail(s) you are not using, fold it in to thirds and place a loose sail tie around it. This will be much faster than having to unroll the sail under the pressure of limited time. We tend to do this mainly on bigger boats unless the need for a change is typically predictable based on the typical conditions – i.e. – San Francisco bay in the summer time.

- Reeve an extra set of Jib sheets on to the headsail you are not using – saves time.

- Store the flaked (or rolled) headsail with the tack facing forward – this will enable you to place it on deck facing the right way to be hanked on.

Team Roles (3 person team):


If before the start – keep the boat moving well and close to the line. Avoid getting stuck in irons with the main only! If possible steer to keep the boat level and the crew as dry as is practically possible. This is not always possible but something to strive for!

Monitor time and RC signal flags and be conscious of the the approach to the line. Business as usual – starting as well as the team can.

If there is time and there are fleets starting ahead of you – be the eyes of the boat to observe how the starts are going and to observe wind shifts & velocity up the course.

If sailing downwind under spinnaker – move weight aft a little and steer to compensate for the bow being down by the forward weight of the bow crew changing the headsail.


- Bring the new headsail up on deck, locate & put jib blocks on, take the old jib sheets out of the ratchet blocks (and take them off the clew of the sail if you don’t have another set of Jib sheets), reeve new jib sheets through the blocks and tie stopper knots in the ends. If necc. Take the jib halyard from the bow person and attach it to the bale on the mast.

- Keep monitoring time and stay aware of distance to the starting line.

- If time is incredibly limited and you are on your final approach to either the start or screaming in to the leeward mark under spinnaker – then just reeve the expected loaded ( needed)jib sheet and reeve the other one later when there is an opportunity.

- If there is time – help the bow flake the old headsail and store it. If not enough time – gently store the old headsail. If there is a lot of time and it is a permanent change then you may consider rolling the sail.

Generally you won’t have enough hands to flake the sail when going downwind with the spinnaker up as the middle will be trimming the spinnaker - so that will require a gentle store of the headsail down below as well. .

- If you are changing downwind with the spinnaker up (from Jib to Genoa in a fading breeze most of the time in the S20, very rarely the other way) then be prepared to jibe the spinnaker pole while the bow crew is pre occupied.

- Raise the headsail & set the halyard tension to the pre marked setting.


Make sure you stay on the boat! Keep low and move deliberately. ! One hand for your self and one for the boat!!

- Take the halyard off and either put it back on the bail on the mast or pass it back to the middle to attach on to the bail.

- Un hank the sail with sail between your knees so it can’t fall over the side.

- In rough / wavy conditions – keep the clew and leech of the Genoa bungeed down to stop it falling over the side.

- Hank on the new headsail and reattach the halyard – if you use a snap shackle be sure to tape the shackle closed.


Note: Do you notice that during the fall and spring that this is the time that the tips of your fingers feel particularly frozen! !!


Practice changing from jib Genoa and back with your older sails. Do it both downwind with the spinnaker up and also reaching around as if you were in the pre start area. When coaching teams in practice sessions I have timed them in both scenarios and we have strived to reduce the time after each practice change.


Changing headsails quickly and efficiently is another dynamic team skill that can help your team win races.

Take the time to practice it early in the season with your older sails and as a team take some time to talk about each team member’s role.

Best of luck and have fun in your next S20 regatta !