Sailing with headsail only

Alan Gomes

Sustaining Member
The 25+ was a 1980 with the 4'11". My 135 was newer but had a lot more miles under it. The sail maker I took it to said it was way beyond repair and asked me to bring in all my other sails so he could advise on what I should do. He said the 110 was in perfect shape, so I had him put a luff tape and UV cover and I used that for the last 4 years. It was great for single handing and I didn't notice any loss in performance. We did use it alone when going down wind with good results, but anytime I tried to go above a beam reach I had some issues with it. The main problems were a neutral helm to lee helm and getting the boat to go through the tack.

Maybe my experience is a combination of the 135 being blown out and the 110 placing the CE too far forward under Jib alone. Or it could be the 25+ was my first boat. I had lazy jacks, a new traveler, adjustable back stay, boom vang, and a cunnignham on the 25 which made using the main easy and effective. I didn't really have any reason to experiment with jib alone after making all the improvements to the mainsail handling so . It would be interesting to go back and sail it again to see if it was a perceived issue or an actual issue with this new found perspective.
My 135% is not brand new but is still in good shape. I've not tried sailing with no main and a partially furled jib; I've only done it fully unfurled. The boat goes to weather quite well on 135% alone, whether in light or heavy air.

I don't typically sail with jib alone but have done so a number of times when I just didn't feel like going to the trouble to remove the mainsail cover and raise the main. I have been surprised at how well the boat sails. My experience is consistent with what others have reported about balance and also a good turn of speed when the wind is up. When the wind really kicks up I find that the boat also balances well with a double-reefed main and a partially furled jib (110%?). On this fractional rig even the full 135% is not exceptionally large.

I think if I were out in the San Pedro channel coming back from Isthmus cove in 30+ kts. (which has happened to me on previous boats), I'd probably strike the main entirely and just go with the jib, based on my experience with it to this point.


Member III
I can't believe how much bad information about the physics of sailing is out there. My favorite so far is "sails cant provide lift because they're made of cloth, the just redirect the wind just like your hand out of the car window" and "The main doesn't make you go faster, it's just like a barn door that helps steer the boat". DebonAir nailed it, "The 'theory' is taught as if the boat has a vertical mast.. which it never is when sailing". Unfortunately I originally wasn't looking at the correct plane and couldn't understand how it affected my situation. Then I found this video:

It's a long winded explanation, but the author takes you from the very basics to the cause of weather helm due to heel. The ah-ha moment for me came around the 22 minute mark where he showed the boat heeled over from above. This whole time I'd been visualizing the boat from the side and missed the moment applied around the CLR by the forward force of the sail (which is exactly what Debonair perfectly explained). Thanks for taking the time to write that out.
So, from the 22-min onwards portion, we learn that a boat with balanced helm when upright gains weather helm when heeled to leeward. We can predict from the last annotated diagrams that, if sail area is reduced (main or jib, or both), the CE moves forward - if it moves far enough forward, it'll again be in line with the CLR vector - at which point, the helm will be balanced again: i.e., reduce sail if heeling too much and creating too much weather helm (we all know this just from experience). If some Ericsons are exhibiting weather helm with just a jib up, it may suggest our CLR is rather more aft that we think, and/or much weaker than we think. Wouldn't you cure jib-only weather helm by reducing the size of the jib? - this would push the CE forward, creating more 'moment' with the CLR that creates more lee helm???
I haven't got my head around how much the (seemingly large) rudder area we have on some Ericsons plays into all of this: in the tutorial, the rudder was very small and had little impact on the CLR. hmmmm.

Christian Williams

E381 - Los Angeles
Blogs Author
In the real world, it's excessive heel that heads us up.

So, I figure that a case of excessive weather helm under jib alone would be more a result of heel angle than CE. So, yeah, reduce jib sail area.

This is illustrated by a characteristic of self-steering wind vanes. The vane automatically steers to the wind and magically handles any wind shift. But when a squall comes through, even though from the same direction, the boat heads up, luffs, regains course, then does it over and over again until the squall passes.

The sudden increase in heel turns the boat (which means excessive weather helm if we're trying to resist it).


Contributing Partner
The most wind I've had Terra Nova out in is 41kt with higher gusts while going over the top of Jan Juan Island one December day. The weather guy didn't predict it so oops! The 34 hit 9.76kn on a close reach with a bit of the jib rolled out. The helm only had a little weather helm. The boats manners were amazing.

Getting into Roache Harbor was more than exciting. Luckily, Roache has gigantic finger docks for 100'+ boats with decks that are higher than the sheer line on Terra Nova. I'm not sure I could have made it into a standard finger pier. The boat was heeling 15 to 20 degrees under bare poles coming in. Quite exciting while single handing. That's a whole 'nother story, though. I have faith in this series Ericsons!


Member II
I also am guilty as charged of sailing under genoa alone much more than I might care to admit except in the safety of this esteemed fellowship.

I'm almost always in headsail only configuration when singlehanding, unless I'm going somewhere that will take more than a couple hours.

When sailing with crew, I'll hoist the main if the wind is less than 12 knots. Otherwise I

Frankly my experience is the main doesn't add as much to overall boat speed as one would expect -- at least as far as the cruising sailor is concerned. Some of the more performance oriented members may call that heresy.

Years ago when I was in college I ran a sailing school at a yacht club in New York. There were many members who had boats where I never saw the main hoisted ever. I used to joke that they didn't actually have a sail under their mainsail covers... just a bunch of balled up New York Times pages. Now I'm that guy.

Loren Beach

O34 - Portland, OR
Senior Moderator
Blogs Author
Very Classy, New York Times pages... ! If you had been sailing in SF, it might have been hippie radical articles from the Berkley Barb!!
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Member III
On the other hand.. there are a lot of performance boats which have fractional rigs and large mains. In the J105 fleet I race in nobody ever reefs the main because the sail is just plain baggy when reefed and won't flatten with back-stay, and you're either trying to go upwind, where a flattened slighly luffing full main is faster than a baggy violently luffing reefed one, or you're going downwind with a large asym and the main is doing very little regardless of size.

Even the J105 with its tiny jib sails well upwind with the jib alone when it really picks up, but I can't remember any races we won that way, perhaps a few that we might have had we tried it.

Alan Gomes

Sustaining Member
This thread has made it quite clear that we need to start a support group for those struggling with guilt over sailing under foresail alone--perhaps "Foresails Anonymous" (FA). "Hi, I'm Alan and I sometimes sail without a main."

Seriously, though, I don't think it's at all uncommon for distance cruisers to do this with some regularity. I've seen it PLENTY of times on some of the various YouTube cruiser channels.

Sometimes I'll do it when I've got an hour to kill and just want to knock around under sail for a bit but don't want to spend all the time setting up and then striking the main, putting on the cover, etc. Nothing wrong with it at all. No, really!


Member III
I sail frequently with jib only. 110 working jib in most conditions. (for a long leg in light air I have a 170 nylon monster genny that is set flying from the spin halyard).
Balance is ok in part because the mast placement is more like a cutter (further aft) than a true sloop.

Drawbacks are:
1) slow response to helm, so allow extra time for turning;
2) can be trouble tacking (fall off a bit to gather way before tacking); and
3) in chop you might wish for the extra drive of the main. An alternative is to ease the jib just a bit and foot a couple of degrees. This worsens your angle to the wind but increases boat speed, so speed to weather stays about the same. And drives better through chop so net result can actually be faster.

Typical causes of weather helm are sagging headstay or stretched main.
Especially if you sail jib only, be sure the rig is tight.



John Olsen
Blogs Author
My 1973 E25 centerboard sails beautifully on all points of sail with just the 135 up (5-15 knots wind). And for casual cruising not a lot of speed difference without the main. I single hand a lot and sometimes find it nice to just leave the main under the cover and sail around without it. I have never tried it in big winds though.


Member III
I'm always amazed at how much speed I can make under jib alone. When you have a crew (family) that's more interested in napping than helping, it's often the best option.

Geoff W.

Makes Up For It With Enthusiasm
Blogs Author
I've often done the jib-only sail on a reach back and forth between Bainbridge and Seattle, usually after a day of shuttling guests around where I just want to put the autohelm on and read my Kindle. Not having to put the main up or down is truly a blessing when you can just furl up the jib and duck into the slip.

As far as performance, I've noticed that on a reach, jib-only seems a little less responsive and consistent than having both sails up. It feels a little soggy and loose, less willing to maintain its momentum through some chop. I don't know how to describe it but when the trim is perfect the whole sailboat feels like a well-tuned guitar string, just tight enough, and it resonates. I have a hard time doing that with just the jib, and my OCD blinker that says "suboptimal!!" keeps going off in my brain.

That said, I did two 3-4 hour races this weekend in decent winds and thought a few times that reefing the main wouldn't effect performance much so long as the 135% jib stayed out. I once did quite well in 15-20kts with a reefed main but no compromise on the full genoa staying out. We are jib-driven boats to be sure.