What Is a Self-Tacking Headsail? And Do You Need It?

When sailing on a sailboat, there is a lot of maneuvering and adjustments that must be made to the sails in order to move the boat efficiently. These adjustments must be made in varying wind conditions to keep the boat not only moving at the speed you want but in your desired direction as well. There is technology available that will help make these adjustments for you.

What is a self-tacking headsail and do you need it? A self-tacking headsail uses a sliding system that pulls the sail in the desired direction in correspondence with the wind and direction of the boat. It is used to make your sailing more manageable, so you can focus on the mainsail and steering, but also impact performance. You do not need it, but it makes sailing easier.

Self-tacking headsails can be extremely beneficial if you want a more relaxing sailing experience that requires fewer hands on deck. Many sailors prefer the traditional tacking and trimming of sails where you manipulate the headsail yourself, but the self-tacking system can be incredibly convenient and desirable. We will jump into the details of this system, and if you need it.


What is A Self-Tacking Headsail?

Self-tacking headsails can simplify your sailing experience exponentially. The technology allows for you to remain hands free on the headsail and focus on steering and maneuvering the mainsail and other necessary sailing techniques. In this section, we will detail what tacking is and how a self-tacking headsail can lessen your responsibilities on the sailboat. 

What is Tacking in Sailing?

Tacking is a sailing maneuver where you turn the bow into the wind in order to change direction. This will allow the wind to shift from one side of the sails to the other, resulting in a change of direction. A boat cannot be turned directly into the wind, but you can use the wind but cutting across it to achieve that similar direction.

Why you would want to tack:

  • If you want to increase your speed by traveling as closely into the wind as possible. A lot of pressure is created when staying in 45-degree channels of the wind.
  • If your desired direction is into the wind. While you cannot go directly in it, you can stay close enough to work your way there.
  • To improve your sailing skills as this is one of the most common and important maneuvers you can learn while navigating a sailboat.

The boat can maintain about a 45-degree angle from the wind by zigzagging to move the boat toward the wind while tacking. During this process, the sails must be drawn tightly so that they are full, and their positioning must be shifted to the opposite side of the boat. The headsail, often a jib, spinnaker, or genoa, must shift from one side to the other during a tack.

This is shifted by a person on the boat in order to keep the wind to the correct side, depending on the direction you are turning. Tacking to one side or the other may be easier and more effective depending on the wind and weather conditions. Always be aware of which side (port or starboard) will produce a favorable ‘lift’ and what ends up slowing you down.

Traditionally, the person will have two jib sheets (sheets are specific rope for the headsail). One is used during the tack must be released, and the other brought in, so it does not impact the tack. There is a lot going on during tacking as you must shift the sails from one side to the other quickly and moving your body weight to the other side if you are working on a smaller boat.

How Does a Self-Tacking Headsail Work?

While you will still need to manipulate the mainsail on a sailboat when you tack, a self-tacking headsail eliminates the need for you to tie and untie the jib sheets to allow for the sail to change direction. A self-tacking headsail will do this for you. Typically, a smaller non-overlapping headsail is used when you want to use a self-tacking system.

A self-tacking headsail only requires one jib sheet. This jib sheet is attached to the clew of the sail, which is the outward facing bottom corner of the sail opposite of the mast. The sheet will connect the sail to the track that allows the self-tacking system to work. A track bar is mounted to the boat, and the wind dictates when the jib moves from one side to the other.

The headsail should be drawn tightly so that there is no flapping in the wind. This will increase the efficiency while sailing and not negatively impact the speed or performance of the sailboat. When it is tightly drawn, you will not have to make any adjustments to the headsail while tacking.

Quick Steps to Self-Tacking Headsail Set Up

Follow these quick steps in setting up your self-tacking system:

  1. Find your desired self-tacking hardware: Many boat and boat accessory manufacturers make self-tacking systems. Find one that works best for your individual boat and has accumulated positive reviews. You will want one that is durable and easy to use.
  2. Mount hardware: The hardware should be mounted to the bow of the boat in the center so that the headsail can easily rotate from port to starboard and back with ease.
  3. Attach jib sheet to hardware: Make sure you properly tie the jib sheet to the clew of the sail and to the sliding hardware piece on the self-tacking system. This should pull the headsail firmly, creating no slack on the sail.
  4. Check for use: The headsail should be able to move easily back and forth across the track. If this is the case, you are good to go!

This keeps you or your crew from racing around the boat the adjust the headsail while you tack. The system is entirely self-sufficient. Ensure that the system is properly mounted, and the sheet is securely fastened to the moving mechanism on the track. 

Do You Need a Self-Tacking Headsail?

When sailing in most situations, you do not need a self-tacking headsail. Oftentimes, self-tacking headsails are used by sailors who are on their own and do not have another crew member to help them. This is one of the main situations in which you would need a self-tacking system. It is also a popular option for convenience reasons if that is important to you.

Many modern sailboats are now including built-in self-tacking systems to give sailboat owners the option of using self-tacking headsail technology or not. They are no longer relying on large and overlapping headsails to increase the surface area while sailing. These boats are looking towards larger mainsails and smaller headsails without sacrificing performance.

The built-in hardware is not common on older boats and would require the addition of hardware to allow for self-tacking. Older boats also rely on larger headsails generally, which is not conducive to self-tacking. You can change to a smaller headsail, but the already smaller mainsail will decrease the overall area and could lead to decreased performance.

We have come up with some more of the benefits and drawbacks of this technology of you to consider when looking into the self-tacking headsail system for your boat.

Pros and Cons of a Self-Tacking Headsail

With almost anything, there will be positives and negatives for you to consider when thinking about using a self-tacking headsail. Some of these pros may actually be cons and the other way around depending on your sailing style and preferences.

Benefits of Self-Tacking Headsails

If you find that any of these categories describes your experience or desired experience on a sailboat while tacking, the self-tacking headsail may be for you:

  • For Heavy Tackers: If you plan to head into the wind to change direction often, then you will be tacking a lot. To make this process much easier, the self-tacking system will force you to only manipulate your mainsail and steering, without having to worry about the headsail.
  • Ease of Use: The biggest benefit of self-tacking headsails is the ease of use and convenience associated with the technology. It is one less thing you will have to worry about while navigating different weather conditions while tacking. You will have already set the headsail, so there is no trimming or adjustments needed while you sail either.
  • Personnel: If you choose to single-hand or double-hand (1-2 people on a boat), it will be much easier to have the headsail covered when tacking. This is especially true when you are by yourself, as there are only so many things you can do at once. Tacking requires multiple working parts moving at once, and the self-tacking headsail takes away one of those responsibilities. This is also a beneficial system if you are working with an inexperienced crew.
  • Relaxed Environment: With less responsibility on the boat, you can enjoy a more relaxed sailing experience. This will give you more time to enjoy the company of those on your boat and not have to constantly worry about them getting in the way when you need to have someone adjust the headsails. This is also a great solution for those sailing with children as you can keep a better eye on them with less to think about.

Self-tacking headsails are designed with convenience in mind. If this is something you value and want to maintain during your sailing trips, then a self-tacking headsail would help you to achieve that goal.

Drawbacks of Self-Tacking Headsails

Self-tacking headsails may also not be beneficial or attractive to some sailors or crews. Here are the major reasons why you would not want a self-tacking system:

  • Unnecessary If You Do Not Tack: If you do not find yourself tacking often while sailing, this may not be the best investment for you. You will really only benefit from this system if you are consistently tacking. Otherwise, you can make jig sheet adjustments rarely when you need to.
  • Takes Away Traditional Tacking: Some may find that they enjoy the full experience of tacking, which means being in control of all the sails themselves. Utilizing their crew and working through the movements and adjustments themselves is consistent with traditional sailing. This will come down to the preference of those on the boat.  
  • Does Not Work Well with Larger Headsails: Self-tacking headsails must be smaller so they can easily work their way across the track. If you only have large and overlapping headsails, these are not well-suited for this technology. Fortunately, larger headsails are not as necessary or common on more modern boats, and performance can still be top notch with smaller sails.

But as a general rule on many sailboats, a smaller headsail will decrease the sail area for faster sailing. If the headsail is smaller, the mainsail should be even larger to make up for the lack of area and serve as the major power driver.

  • Hardware Can Vary in Performance: The best self-tacking headsail systems are often those that are built into the boat. This is because they are properly configured and secure. The tracks they run along are specifically designed with the boats characteristics in mind. Systems that you add yourself may not be the best suited for your boat, meaning you must do your research on the individual boat and find the best working system available (you also have to drill holes into your boat).
  • Cost: Convenience comes at a cost, and this may be a negative for those who do not want to dish out more money on something they could do themselves. They will range in price depending on the quality and type of sailboat they are being used for, but this could set you back a couple thousands of dollars. You must determine if this convenience is worth the price.

Some of these drawbacks may actually be benefits to some people who sail. It again depends on your sailing style and what you hope to get out of the experience.

Self-Tacking Headsails Hardware Variation

There are different types of self-tacking headsail systems you should be aware of if you end up using the system. These differences will depend on the type of boat you have the desired technology you wish to use when for optimal performance while sailing.

These are the major hardware systems used for self-tacking headsails:

  • Built-in Self-Tacking System: These are found on more modern boats and will range in shape from straight to a curved system depending on the set up of the headsail and its desired configuration.
  • Jib Boom Self-Tacking System: This requires two sheets connected to the self-tacking system. One will be connected to the headsail, and the other is connected to the jib boom for greater overall movement and control
  • Curved Self-Tacking Jib System: The goal of a curved system is to keep the headsail and the sheet tension strong and consistent as it makes its way across the track. Different curved systems aimed to accomplish this. The curved design is also said to help the car move more smoothly on the track.

If the self-tacking system is not built in, you can purchase a variety of self-tacking systems to be added to the bow of the boat. This does mean you will need to make slight alterations to the boat, and extra attention should be paid to ensure the hardware is installed correctly and securely for optimal self-tacking action.

The quality and price of self-tacking headsail systems will be determined the materials that are used, the size of the system, and any additional features that are included. More expensive systems are typically larger for bigger boats and may be designed to make movement along the track much easier. You want to make an investment in a product that will really work!

Are Self-Tacking Headsails Right for You?

As you can see, self-tacking headsails pose a lot of questions about sailing technique and preference. There are many considerations you must make when deciding to use a self-tacking headsail while sailing or sticking with the traditional adjustments to your headsail while tacking. This is largely dependent on what you want to get out of your sailing experience.

If you are looking for convenience and a more relaxed sail or you are sailing with a very small staff or by yourself, a self-tacking system can be incredibly beneficial. If you want to be in control of all sailing maneuvers and do not want to risk any sailing performance with a smaller sail, you probably do not need or want a self-tacking headsail.

It is important to know that this technology is out there and has been used for centuries by sailors because it may influence the sailboat purchases and sailing styles you maintain. You now know the potential benefits and drawbacks that this system can cause and will be able to make an educated decision in determining if a self-tacking sail is important for your journeys.


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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