System Sailing Special Edition: For Cruisers and Short-Handed Sailors

May 29, 2020

System Sailing has helped to improve race results for sailors all over the world by applying working systems. The same systems that work for racing sailors can make the sailing experience for cruisers and short-handed sailors more enjoyable as well. Everyone wants to enjoy their time on the water and when everything goes smoothly, this sport is like no other. Creating and applying systems will provide the confidence needed to handle any condition. Use this System Sailing checklist to make sure you’re getting the most out of your cruising and short-handed sailing.



  • How long are you planning to sail? It’s good to have an idea of how long you’d like to sail so your guests can plan accordingly. Having a schedule also guides what food and beverages you may need to take along.

  • Check the weather. Build your plans around the weather and wind forecast. If you have first-timers with you, it’s probably not the best idea to take them out in heavy breeze. Choose a calm evening when everyone can relax and not worry about reefing the mainsail.


This is your opportunity to greet guests and educate them on the day’s plan and your systems. 

  • Safety. Make sure everyone knows the location of life jackets, VHF radios, and first aid supplies. Discuss what to do in the event of a person overboard.

  • Docking. Discuss both your leaving and returning systems, including assigning tasks such as tending to dock lines and fenders.

  • Sails. Do you have the proper sails onboard? Who will be hoisting the sails? 

  • The Plan. Recap the plan including time on the water, what to expect from the weather, and showing guests around the boat so they feel comfortable. I recommend showing guests how the head works, since they tend to be a bit different from boat to boat.


Make sure the boat is clean, organized, dry, and well-marked. We’ve talked about the importance of marking lines to repeat your settings more easily. Be sure to mark:

  • Genoa Leads

  • Genoa sheets

  • Mainsheet

  • Backstay

  • Furling line (full out, 1/3, 2/3)

  • Reef line

  • Halyards


Make sure the proper sails are onboard for the conditions and that there are no major spots of wear and damage on them. Keeping sails in good condition can prevent larger problems on the water. If you are sailing short-handed, you may find it helpful to mark your sails to make hoisting, dousing, and storage easier. Click here for more tips on short-handed sailing. Here are some things to consider with each of your sails.

  • Mainsail

    • Must be strong, durable, and able to be reefed. I recommend two reef points with the top two battens full and the rest mid.

    • Flaking systems can be helpful and make it easier to hoist and lower the main when sailing short-handed. You can use lazy jacks or a Dutchman system.

  • Headsail

    • Must be strong, durable, and able to be reefed. I recommend a UV cover on the leech and foot for roller furling headsails. 

  • Storm jib

    • Orange with grommets along luff for attachment to headstay

  • Storm trysail

    • Orange with reflective numbers

  • Asymmetrical spinnaker

    • Close reaching Code 0 with furling for hoisting and dousing.

    • Downwind spinnaker with sock for hoisting and dousing.


Have the proper navigation, safety, and general instruments onboard to guide your sailing. These include instruments that track wind speed and direction and compass heading, GPS chart plotter, depth, VHF-AIS, and your smart phone.


  • Mast

    • Internal halyards

    • Running lights, anchor lights, steaming lights

    • Spreader halyard for radar reflector

    • Low friction track for mainsail

    • Reef line internal in boom with lock

  • Rigging

    • Furling headstay

    • Low stretch all rope halyards and low stretch sheets

    • Adjustable backstay


Document any other systems you find useful to your cruising or short-handed sailing. Having a procedure to follow makes the crew more confident and relaxed and ultimately leads to more enjoyment on the water. Here are a few other systems you may want to document:

  • Anchoring

  • Reefing

  • Heaving to

  • Trimming to telltales vs steering to telltales

  • Depowering 

  • Helm

  • Engine and systems (batteries-toilet-through hull fittings)

Remember, do what makes sense for you and your sailing. Dowload the playbook and use sections that apply to what you need to document. If you have any questions, get in touch with Wally Cross.

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