How to sail a Nonsuch

Story by Harris & Ellis / July 2, 2023

Author: David Harris, President Harris & Ellis Yachts

In broad terms, a Nonsuch sails in much the same way as a conventional sloop—with the obvious distinction of having only one large sail. We call it a mainsail, but when you’re trimming, think of it more like a big jib. Consider that when you’re sailing upwind with a conventional mainsail, it’s only trimmed to centerline because it is back winded by the jib. Your Nonsuch mainsail should sheet in only to above the transom corner, about 15 to 18 degrees off centreline, the same as a jib on a sloop. Oversheeting is the biggest single mistake new owners make, and it results in a stalled sail and poor windward ability. The Nonsuch rig allows excellent sail-shape control, and you’ll be rewarded when you learn how to use it. Channel a giant Laser or Finn dinghy, combined with a windsurfer. It can be just as fun.

Let’s get started:

  • Under power, remove the sail cover, attach the halyard, and remove the sail ties.
  • Head the boat about 40 degrees off the wind and prepare to hoist. (Keep your mast rack and sail slides clean and properly lubricated to reduce friction.) Contrary to what you’ve been taught, on a Nonsuch you don’t want to head directly into the wind to hoist the main. It’s far easier to monitor your hoist if you can avoid the sail and boom bouncing directly overhead. (Remember, you’re hoisting from the cockpit.) The wishbone cradle lines will keep the sail contained, and you can see if tight reef lines or other restrictions are obstructing your hoist.
  • Before you hoist, make sure the topping lift is secured on the end of the boom, pull the bitter ends of the reef lines forward so that they don’t drag over the deck as you hoist (thus avoiding unneeded friction), and ease the choker.
  • Put lots of tension on the halyard—you’ll need it once the sail is full.
  • Ready? Hoist!
  • With the sail fully hoisted and luffing off the leeward side, tension the choker line to a moderate level and sheet in or bear off. Kill the engine and start sailing.
  • Topping lift tension: try to find the “sweet spot.” In light air, the topping lift should support the weight of the boom, thus permitting an open leech. In a moderate breeze, as the boom lifts slightly, the topping lift should be slightly slack. For safety, never fully release the topping lift, and remember to check that it’s taut prior to dropping the sail.
  • Sailing upwind: the choker should be set to allow the sail to “kiss” the leeward wishbone arm—less in heavier air, more in light air.
  • Reaching and downwind: for a fuller sail, ease the choker further to allow more draft.
  • Halyard tension: as with a conventional rig, you’ll want more halyard tension when you’re sailing upwind and in heavy air, and less in the light stuff.
  • When to reef: Most Nonsuches will carry full sail to about 15+ knots, but be guided by a comfortable amount of heel and the sea state. Before making the decision to reef, try flattening your sail with lots of halyard tension and apply maximum choker to help reduce the heel.
  • Reefing: this is fast and easy if done right. Identify your pairs of first and second reefing lines, i.e., the forward and aft respective downhaul lines. Ease the sheet, or head up so the sail luffs, ease the choker to near maximum, lower the halyard the depth of the reef, and tighten the forward reef line by hand to its cleat until it’s very snug. Use the winch to tension the aft reef line to within about two feet of the wishbone block. Adjust halyard tension so it’s tight, retighten the choker, sheet in, and start sailing.
  • Tacking: Simply turn the wheel to head up and around through the eye of the wind. Practice until you get a feel for how fast and how far to turn the rudder to control momentum. You’ll become good at it very quickly.
  • Jibing: This is where you need to be cautious with that huge, powerful mainsail. Unless you are very experienced, avoid flying jibes in anything other than very light air. The boom end and sheet move very fast as they cross over the aft end of the cockpit. Flag poles, BBQs, bikes, antennas, and anything else near the stern rail—including the helmsperson—are at risk of catching on the loose mainsheet. Rather, choose to “jibe to windward,” i.e., head up quickly, winching in or gathering up the loose mainsheet, tack the boat, and bear off to the new downwind course. If you do this crisply, the boat will maintain momentum all the way around in a smooth, no-fuss maneuver.

Nonsuch owners love to talk about their boats, so don’t be shy if you have questions. The International Nonsuch Association is a great resource—we recommend that every Nonsuch owner take out a membership.

Harris & Ellis Yachts has special expertise in Nonsuch (Mark Ellis is the boat’s designer), and we are always here to help.



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