Dear Robert: In fact, if we’re sailing downwind, we do have to sail back upwind to be able to put a reef in, whether it’s the 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th reef. If it’s the 4th reef, it means it is very, very windy and stormy out, so that will be more dangerous to sail upwind in those conditions, than if one is putting in the first reef.
And yes, you could take the mainsail down and sail only with the storm jib, but one thing is that it is very hard, if you’re alone, to then re-hoist the mainsail through the lazy jacks (ropes on either side of the mainsail that contain the sail as it comes down) since the batten ends always want to catch on them. So it would be best to sail with the 4th reef if possible.
In Vendée Globe 2008, I did, on one occasion, sail with only the storm jib, after we had had a crash gybe in 50 knots of wind, and the boat needed ‘front-wheel drive’ whereby the only sail would be at the front and would pull the boat, rather than having the mainsail in the back pushing the boat (and making it harder for the autopilot).
– Question from Robert, Macau, China