The mainsheet traveler is a powerful device that helps reduce weather helm, decreases heeling (which can help increase speed), and helps reduce the need to reef early. But many travelers are difficult to use and, as a result, the traveler car often just sits in the middle of its track. Why don't sailors, particularly cruising sailors, use travelers? The main culprits are inefficient hardware and a bad deck layout.
What's the Load?
The forces required to move the car up the track equal 20% of the clew load.
According to Harken, the typical lateral load on a mainsheet traveler is about 20 percent of the mainsheet load. For example, the maximum vertical mainsheet load on the traveler car on a 35-footer might be about 1,000 lbs (454 kg) with about 200 pounds (91 kg) of sideways pull on the car. The traveler's specified working load must be greater than the maximum load you expect to experience; the manufacturer's data will provide this information. If it is not, the safety factor for the car will be too low. There will also be considerable resistance when you move the car in a strong breeze, which is when you want the traveler to work at its best.
In the example above, if the traveler has a 3:1 purchase, which is typical on older boats, there could be as much as 70 pounds (32 kg) of load on the traveler line when you want to move the car uphill or, more likely, let it down. That's a lot of work for all but the strongest sailor. On newer boats a 4:1 purchase is more common, but even with a 35 footer, a 4:1 purchase will yield a maximum load of about 50 pounds (23 kg).
Once you know what the maximum load on the traveler will be, the next step is to provide enough purchase to lower the working loads to a manageable figure. For a cruising boat, I think a load of 35 pounds (16 kg) is a good number. On a 35 footer that means a 6:1 purchase.
Unfortunately, I don't see many 6:1 purchases around, although these and more powerful systems are available. The reason, I have to conclude, is that many sailors think the extra expense isn't worth it. Maybe so, but the next time you're in a breeze struggling to get the traveler to sit where you want it, ask yourself what you would pay to make the job easier.
Even if the mechanical advantage is correct, excessive friction in the track and car sheaves will reduce the effective purchase. If your sheaves don't have ball bearings or low-friction bushings, you should consider replacing them with sheaves that do. The same applies to the traveler-car bearings.
Poorly sized traveler lines can also increase friction, as when a large-diameter line is stuffed into an undersized sheave. Since traveler loads are not that heavy when there is a proper purchase, it makes some sense to use small-diameter line. For ease of handling, however, the line should be the largest-diameter line that the sheaves are designed to accommodate. Taper the splices at each end carefully—but don't jeopardize the security of the line by tapering excessively—to give the car its maximum range of motion.This will ensure that splices won't jam in the sheaves if the car is let all the way out.
The X-Treme Angle
to 90 degrees.
Once you have the right mechanical advantage and the proper line, don't squander your gains on a bad lead to the cockpit. If the lead fouls on a cam cleat, runs between two sheaves, or is chafing against the traveler beam, a hatch, or another piece of deck hardware, friction is going to increase.
Winches mounted on the coach roof often stand in the way, as do carelessly located instruments, or even a badly placed drink holder. Keep the lead fair, because the traveler line is one part of the larger system, and all components have to work together.
How do you adjust the traveler without having to leap across the cockpit? Most older traveler cam cleats have a relatively narrow arc of usefulness; you don't always have to be directly behind them, but you can't work most cams from the windward side of the cockpit. Cam cleats with swiveling and nonswiveling bases can increase working angles, some to nearly 180 degrees. This is an excellent option that will allow a fair lead to where you happen to be.
Another option is a Harken windward sheeting arrangement, where cam cleats are mounted on the traveler car and a mechanism built into the car uses the lateral mainsheet load to open the leeward cam. This means you never have to touch the leeward control line; you just move to the weather rail and pull.
The traveler line must always be able to come free of a cam cleat while under load. Learn how to "flick" the line to pop it out of the cam, even when it's heavily loaded. It's a particularly useful skill when you're sailing shorthanded and can't go forward to handle the traveler.
Another easy modification is to mount two fold-down padeyes—they should fold down so they can be sat upon when not in use—on each side of the cockpit coaming, preferably behind the wheel. Locate the padeyes down low so they won't interfere with the genoa sheets. Tie the two ends of the traveler control lines to the padeyes. When you want to adjust the traveler, simply take the slack out of the leeward line and flick it out of its cam, which, presumably, is on the coach roof. Then either pull or ease the line that runs to the windward cam.
Depending on how your boat is laid out, or how elaborate you want to make your system, you might be able to lead the traveler lines under the cockpit coaming and have them reappear near the helm station. If you make this installation, be sure to have a swiveling cam in the system so that crew positioned forward of the helm can also handle the traveler.
These systems will help optimize mid-boom sheeting controls; most work equally well with bridgedeck and end-boom configurations. The reason the traveler is often neglected in end-boom sheeting systems is that there are lots of other strings back there, and having to deal with the traveler lines just increases the mess potential. This is where a single recirculating traveler control line makes a lot of sense. A recirculating line keeps line clutter to a minimum, but you need to keep the bight short to minimize the chance of someone getting a foot caught inside it. A recirculating line can also work well in a bridgedeck layout, but it's no good for a mid-boom traveler because the bight has to run across the companionway.