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How would you retrieve a spinnaker sail?

What is the best way to retrieve a spinnaker sail? James Stevens answers your questions of seamanship

A yacht broaching with a spinnaker sail in the water
It takes a really efficient and well trained crew who have sailed together regularly to handle spinnakers faultlessly. Credit: Michael Austen/ Alamy

With a mixed ability crew, what is the best way to retrieve a spinnaker sail? James Stevens answers your questions of seamanship

Question: With a mixed ability crew, how would you retrieve a spinnaker sail?

Penny and a group of friends are racing her Sigma 33 in the Autumn Series.

Penny and two of the crew are regulars along with two beginners who, while keen, are losing valuable seconds in the race by making up sheets the wrong way round the winches and other basic mistakes.

Today there have only been a few mishaps in the 15-17 knot breeze and it’s looking promising with the spinnaker up on the downwind leg.

The spinnaker is symmetric with lazy sheets and guys.

Even the gybe goes well and Penny talks through the procedure for the drop and retrieve.

Near the leeward mark she gives the command, ‘Let go’.

Continues below…

The guy and lazy sheet are tripped from the tack by the bowman but the sheet and lazy guy are released as well from the cockpit winch, along with 2 metres of halyard.

The spinnaker is now flying like a huge pennant from the top of the mast attached only by the halyard.

At this moment the entire crew including the beginners have an opinion about how to retrieve it.

Upwind, downwind, across the wind.

Send someone up the mast, tension the halyard, loosen it , cut it, sail in circles.

What would you do?

James Stevens responds:

This is a regular sight in yacht racing much to the delight of the other competitors and there is no hard and fast rule about retrieval.

An important lesson here is that giving the command ‘Let go’ without specifying which rope, is asking for trouble.

Offshore passage

James Stevens, author of the Yachtmaster Handbook, spent 10 years as the RYA’s Training Manager and Yachtmaster Chief Examiner

Dropping a spinnaker requires good organisation and crew coordination.

Inexperienced crew tend to look at what everyone else is doing including on other boats instead of concentrating on their job.

In my experience, it is almost impossible to reach the spinnaker or attached sheet if the yacht is sailed upwind because the apparent wind increases.

Across the wind the yacht heels, so although the spinnaker is nearer the water it is still difficult to reach.

The best option is to sail downwind as fast as possible, reducing the apparent wind, and try to blanket the spinnaker behind the mainsail.

An athletic crew member with a boathook on the pulpit can hopefully retrieve a clew or the sheet.

This, of course, only works if there is sufficient sea room beyond the leeward mark.

Yes, you can pirouette and wrap your boat up like a Christmas present or you can free or knife the halyard and pick the sail up out of the water.

Either way you won’t be flying the spinnaker again that day.

It takes a really efficient well trained crew who have sailed together regularly to handle spinnakers faultlessly every time.

Even then, they need a crew boss to call the shots and manage the timings of each step

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