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How to improve spinnaker trim: Pro sailor Simon Fry shares his secrets

Professional sailor and top trimmer Simon Fry shares some downwind speed tips with Andy Rice

According to ‘Stir Fry’, as he is widely known, a good trimmer is defined by his or her obsession to make sure the boat is going as fast as possible, all the time.

“Dave Curtis, one of the greatest one-design sailors ever, once told me something that has stuck with me ever since: ‘It’s not when you’re fast that counts. It’s when you’re slow that hurts’,” he explained.

Like any great trimmer, Stir Fry feels the boat’s pain when it’s going slow. “You feel the tension in the kite sheet getting too loaded, or too light.

Simon Fry is a professional sailor with a vast wealth of experience. Photo: Martinez Studio

“But it’s more than that; it’s the hairs on the back of your neck, it’s the heel of the boat, it’s the changing pressure in your bum cheeks as the boat moves underneath you. And it’s why I only like to wear shorts.”

Maybe the hairs on his legs have become attuned to the breeze, but Stir Fry is adamant that his knees have to be exposed to the elements to get the best out of his kite-trimming abilities!

But if you’re not prepared to shed your oilskins in the dead of winter, here are five more of Stir Fry’s top tips for trimming your spinnaker.

Be a forward helmsman

Every good helmsman knows that the less you rely on the rudder for changing course, the faster you’ll go. That’s why the relationship between the helmsman and spinnaker trimmer needs to be telepathic. You’re controlling the biggest, most powerful sail on the rig, and how you trim the spinnaker or gennaker has a massive effect on steering the boat.

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So think of yourself as the forward helmsman, working in unison with the person at the back controlling the rudder, the aft helmsman. I’ve been fortunate to sail with a number of top-flight helmsmen and just ‘click’ with them.

With Guillermo Parada on the TP52 Azzurra, we don’t actually talk the same language in real life, but when it comes to knowing what the boat needs, we just seem to understand each other.

Less spinnaker curl is more

Remember when you were first learning to ride a bike? You’d steer one way, but then you’d have to steer hard the other way to compensate. Eventually, you learn to tone down those massive over-adjustments until you can steer in a straight line.

You see that pendulum swing of overcompensation in the way less experienced sailors curl the kite. Very often, less is more. If you’re nervous, I guarantee you’ll move the sheet more. So focus on reducing that overcompensation and achieving greater consistency on the curl.

downwind-sails-X44-OneSails-asymmetric-credit-Francesco-Ferri

An X44 flying a OneSails asymmetric spinnaker. Photo: Francesco Ferri

Change gear

Knowing when to change gear is a critical part of trimming. Say you’ve got the choice of a VMG spinnaker or a runner. The VMG spinnaker is probably a little flatter, made of lighter fabric, and its job is to be the right sail when the pole is not squared all the way back. It’s likely a little smaller because it has a narrower apparent wind angle.

It’s designed for sailing in the lighter breeze and you should do your due diligence before you get on the boat and work out what the crossovers are. But a good general rule of thumb is, when you bear away around the windward mark, the VMG is going to be the right choice provided the pole is not too far off the forestay.

But as soon as you find yourself squaring the pole back, the bigger sail is going to be faster because now the sail is in drag rather than flow, at which point it’s all about maximum projected area.

Remember that your sail is always working in unison with the mainsail and you’re looking to match the two together, to create a unified sail plan. For example, easing or tightening the vang will have an effect not just on the leech profile of the mainsail, it will affect the interaction between the flow exiting the spinnaker leech and the flow on the leeward side of the mainsail.

Free the kite

Downwind in a strong breeze it can be very tempting to over square the pole, to feel like you’ll stabilise the boat if you really strap the foot of the spinnaker into the jib.

Remember your job as the ‘forward helmsman’. Rather than squaring back the pole too far, let the chute fly away from the boat a bit more and free up the sail plan, otherwise the helmsman will be constantly fighting the boat. Having a freer set-up will also provide more lift and make the boat less prone to nosedive.

Variety improves

Downwind in a strong breeze it can be very tempting to over square the pole, to feel like you’ll stabilise the boat if you really strap the foot of the spinnaker into the jib.

Remember your job as the ‘forward helmsman’. Rather than squaring back the pole too far, let the chute fly away from the boat a bit more and free up the sail plan, otherwise the helmsman will be constantly fighting the boat. Having a freer set-up will also provide more lift and make the boat less prone to nosedive.

This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Yachting World.


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