October 2019


Cleating the Main

by Ben Fuller

Never cleat the main” is often taught to beginning small-boat sailors. A cleated main can turn you over. A friend of mine, Barry Thomas, solved this when he built a Seabright skiff for his young son, David. There were no blocks in the mainsheet and no cleats on it, so Barry let his son sail whenever he wanted. David wasn’t strong enough to hang onto the mainsheet if the wind was strong enough to capsize the boat, so he couldn’t help but spill wind from the main.

But sometimes there are not enough hands to hold the main, steer the boat, and do something else; sometimes you just get tired and it’s a relief to have a cleat to hold the sheet. Dinghy racers are well familiar with this, and for many years have used various forms of quick-release jam and cam cleats. But sailors who haven’t grown up with them may not be fast enough to free the sheet, and so sometimes wind up taking a swim.

Ben Fuller

With a turn around a short pin protruding from the underside of the thwart, a slipped hitch holds the main sheet.

A traditional way to secure a sheet is with a slipped hitch on a half pin. The Ashley Book of Knots describes the Slippery Hitch, #1619: “…in small boats, especially boats that are easily capsizable, the hitch is indispensable. A whaleboat’s halyards as well as sheets are always secured with them, since a Slipped Knot admits of casting off without first removing the load.”

The slippery hitch is anchored by a pin that extends below a thwart, a rail, or some other part of the boat; a line under tension is looped around the pin, and a bight in the tail end is tucked behind the working end, using the tension in the line to pinch it into place. My faering has two pins protruding beneath the thwart just ahead of the helm, one for the halyard and one for the foot downhaul. The sail is pulled up, and the working end of the halyard is looped behind the half pin, turned into a bight, and the halyard pinches it against the thwart. A yank on the free end drops the sail.

On my Harrier, RAN TAN, I also have a pin on the center thwart, which is just a bit of 1/2″ oak dowel glued into a hole in the underside of the thwart near its aft edge. I added a bit of brass half-round to the thwart edge to minimize chafing. I use the pin and the slippery hitch to make my mainsheet fast, but also easy to release with a yank. If the sheet goes slack it will release itself, a disadvantage of this system.

When I rigged my Good Little Skiff for the hitch, the thwart had to be drilled from the top, so I turned a 1/2″ pin with a 1″ cap and drilled a countersunk hole for it in the thwart. It isn’t quite flush but is just a bump sitting on it.

SBM photograph

The cam-cleat arrangement is a good fit for this 14′ New York Whitehall, especially as the breeze picks up.

I have the pins for the slippery hitches close to the boat’s centerline, and while that’s fine for light breezes, it’s not handy when I need to have my weight to windward. For RAN TAN I added a quick-release mainsheet cleat that I could reach sitting on the rail or a side bench. I took advantage of the oarlock sockets by using a 1/2″ stainless-steel carriage bolt (which fits the socket) and a piece of Delrin to hold a cam cleat.

Ben Fuller

The author’s arrangement uses a Delrin block to connect the 1/2″ bolt to the cam cleat.


SBM photograph

The editor’s disassembled cleat on the left shows the countersink for the head of the 1/2″ bolt; his assembled cleat on the right shows the countersinks for the cleat-jaw bolts. The jaws of the cleat are angled down toward one another, so using the cleat as a guide for drilling the holes for the bolts made sure they fit. Pairs of copper rivets across the oak blocks are guards against the wood splitting under strain.

If you don’t have Delrin, you could use anything that won’t split under a load on the cleat. Cut it to match the base of the cam cleat, and drill holes and countersinks for the cleat’s bolts and the 1/2″ bolt. To make the cleat easily removable for rowing, I drilled a small hole in the Delrin for a lanyard.

SBM photograph

A tether keeps the cam cleat from going astray when it’s removed to free the oarlock for rowing.

These cleats go into the oarlock sockets when it’s breezing up. I then can place the sheet into the cleat with a little tug and an upward pull instantly releases it.

Both of these systems can easily be retrofitted into most small boats and make sailing much easier by holding the sheet to free up a hand, with the ability to let it run with a single pull.

Ben Fuller, curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, has been messing about in small boats for a very long time. He is owned by a dozen or more boats ranging from an International canoe to a faering.

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  • Andrew Fetherston says:

    I use an old-fashioned bronze two-horn jam cleat, screwed to the aft end of the daggerboard (or centerboard) trunk, with the narrow end facing up. You can lead the sheet under the cleat (which eases the strain of holding it) and, if conditions permit, you can jam it over top. The least tug will release it. Depending on how the sheet leads, you may be able to jam it without coming under. Works for me.

  • kent lewis says:

    The older Sunfish have a sheet hook on the forward cockpit lip—very useful. On our Penobscot 14, we put belaying pins on the quarter knees to help with sheeting angles, and we can put a half wrap or two around them if we like.

  • John Longley says:

    Really good idea. My Caledonia Yawl has a centre sheet system with a cam cleat on the bottom tackle. This is fine when sailing with a crew dedicated to the main sheet but is somewhat risky sailing solo as if you have dropped the sheet and are on the rail you can’t get to it quick enough. Living in windy Fremantle this can cause the odd dunking. Yet I don’t want to put a permanent cleat on the rail as when I sail with a crew it will get in the way. So I really like this idea as when I sail solo I just pop the cleats in and off I go. Thanks for the article.

  • Tom Pamperin says:

    It’s nice to see the need to free yourself from holding the sheet acknowledged—it really does make life aboard much more pleasant. As your article makes clear, it’s simple to arrange. On the even simpler side of things, I simply tie of the sheet to an oarlock with a slipped half-hitch–making sure the knot is oriented so that the bight can’t catch on the horn of the oarlock when you pull the quick release. Of course, some may not be comfortable leaving oarlocks in place while sailing. You sure wouldn’t want to fall on them.

  • Robert Hazard says:

    I saw Ben’s setup in RAN TAN a few years ago at the Small Reach Regatta and I borrowed part of his cleat idea for my Welsford Scamp. My Scamp has a foot well in the cockpit sole, so I added a downward facing thumb cleat on the forward face of the well a couple inches below the sole. I hook the sheet under the cleat and then I can hold it against the sole by stepping on it with one foot. It takes only the lightest pressure to hold it, and simply lifting my foot lets the sheet run free. I love simple ideas that work!

  • Ralph Szur says:

    On my Penobscot 14, I have taken a turn around the dowel that is athwartships at the top of the centerboard which is to the stern when the board is all the way down. This is similar to taking a turn around an oar horn.

  • Ben Fuller says:

    I really really don’t like sailing with the rowlock horns in place unless I’m rowing. Back in my youth I had to take a person to the hospital ER who tripped on a dock and fell onto a boat whose horns were in place. A really ugly sight, blood, contusions, etc. Put ’em away.

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