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Spinnaker masterclass: tailored downwind sailing

There’s more than one way to rig, hoist, set and drop your spinnaker. Choosing the right setup and skills is key to success with the kite, explains James Stevens

A yacht flying a yellow and red spinnaker sail
Set properly and using the right techniques for your boat, nothing beats a good passage under spinnaker. Credit: David Harding

There are, I suspect a surprising number of cruising yachts which have a spinnaker in their sail locker which has never come out of the bag.

The kind of pictures loved by yachting photographers of racing boats on their ear with spinnakers in the water and crew hanging on by their fingertips do little to encourage cruising yachtsmen.

On the other hand a spinnaker can take hours off a cross-Channel trip and it’s a real pleasure to feel the boat powering downwind with the thought of an early arrival.

It looks good too. But you have to know the ropes because as the pictures show it can go spectacularly wrong on a windy day.

Often cruising sailors will have learned to use a spinnaker, either in dinghies or on a racing boat.

If you try to replicate this on a cruising boat, often with a small crew and with a makeshift rigging setup, you’ll be sailing into troubled waters.

A yacht knocked down

What if it goes pear-shaped? Knowing how to control the sail, and what to do when it goes wrong is the key to mastering the spinnaker. Credit: Rick Tomlinson

Getting the rigging right for your boat and choosing the skills that are going to work best for your crew will help you keep control of the sail and maintain calm on board.

The secret when starting out is to think it through and set it in light winds when making a mistake is easily retrievable.

In displacement yachts, symmetric spinnakers tend to be the most effective way of sailing downwind.

With an asymmetric you’ll need to sail the angles and gybe, but 
a symmetric lets you sail dead downwind.

They can, however, be used when the wind angle from the bow is from about 80° to 180° so they’re very versatile sails.

The most comfortable point of sail is a broad reach at about 120° to the wind.

Spinnakers become harder to control as the wind moves forward, the apparent wind increases and the boat heels more, or with the wind right aft as the boat slows and there’s a danger of an accidental gybe especially if it’s rough.

The difficult skills are raising, lowering and gybing.

Systems like snuffers can help with this, but we’ll look at the basic skills, which can then be modified.

Once the spinnaker 
is up it is relatively easy to trim and if the wind is stable and if the helm can steer a straight course, you can enjoy fast, relaxed cruising.

Using the spinnaker: the right sails and setup

Half the battle with flying a spinnaker is making sure you’ve got your setup right before you hoist.

As we all know, the spinnaker halyard exits the mast above the forestay, while the two clews are sheeted back to the cockpit via blocks on the quarter, and the guys are led aft via blocks midships.

The pole height is controlled by an uphaul at the mast and a downhaul, which is led aft via a block on the foredeck.

The pole’s inboard end attaches to the mast, often on an adjustable track, and the windward guy passes through the jaws on the pole’s outboard end next to the windward clew.

Hardware is changing

Racing innovations are helping make life easier for cruising sailors, says David Barden, production director at Allspars.

‘Many racing teams are using modern soft attachments, blocks and rings, including soft Dyneema pad eyes combined with blocks such as Karver KBO and INO blocks that can deal with the high loads but are extremely light. These are also popular in long-distance cruising because they are robust and reliable and don’t have metal fittings that can fatigue.

‘Although blocks still produce less friction, low-friction rings are used all over boats; they work well on tweaker lines. If you are end-to-end gybing, tweakers mean you only need one sheet on each side, and you pull the windward tweaker on to turn the sheet into a guy.

‘Snugging the leeward tweaker down in heavy conditions help stabilise the spinnaker.;

Sail choice is critical

Using the wrong spinnaker could make your life difficult too, says Peter Sanders of Sanders Sails.

‘The chances are that only one spinnaker will be carried so it must cover all the conditions that the crew are capable of using it in. The problem with most symmetric spinnakers on cruising yachts is that they are just too heavy.

A diagram showing details of the boat and spinnaker

Credit: Maxine Heath

‘The cheapest nylon that you can buy is 1.5oz, therefore it is common for sailmakers to offer this weight for all yachts over 30ft, but it is heavy, bulky and requires at least 12 knots of apparent wind to stop it from hanging like a deflated balloon.

‘Sailing downwind, this means a true wind of about 18 knots, which is too much for most cruisers to consider a spinnaker. Most of the time, ‘light is right’, so 0.75oz spinnakers on yacht up to 35ft and 0.9oz above that, are much easier to handle, set and gybe.

‘If you have an old or second-hand spinnaker, it may not be the right size. The result will be instability, rolling and the possibility of broaching, which never helps relations on board. Similarly, spinnakers have some stretch to absorb gusts, but if it’s old, it will become deeper and baggier with tight leech tapes and it will retain water making it hard to set.

‘Most spinnakers today are made with a true-radial panel layout thanks to the advancement in sail design software. In the past, spinnakers were made on the floor so the middle panels were horizontally cut, making it possible for the sailmaker to shape the seams.’

Using a spinnaker: the hoist

The first hoist needs to be in light winds.

A man preparing a sail

Before you hoist, prepare the spinnaker on what will be the leeward side. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

It is easier to hoist the spinnaker with the jib set – this avoids the spinnaker wrapping round the forestay before it’s trimmed.

Secure the bag on the foredeck on the leeward side by the rail at the foot of the jib.

A man fixing a pole on the deck of a yacht

Setting the pole is the next step. Make sure that the end jaw is facing upwards so that the pole can drop down and away from the sheet in a gybe. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Attach the sheet and guy to the sail.

Double check that the sheet and guy are over and not through the guardrails – every racing skipper will have had this problem at least once.

A crew pulling a line at the mast on a yacht

If you have enough crew, it’s essential to hoist hand-over-hand at the mast, and you’ll also be able to see the masthead for when the spinnaker is set. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

The guy goes round the front of the forestay.

Hoist the heel of the pole on the mast to about head height.

The outer end of the pole should be on the windward side of the forestay.

Put the guy through the jaw of the pole.

A crew member holding sail at the bow of a boat

Once the sail is full, it’s harder to winch the guy back, so sneak the guy back, bringing the windward clew up to the end of the pole and off the forestay. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Attach the halyard to the head of the sail; this is quite tricky as it has to pass outside the jib.

Hoist the outer end of the pole with the uphaul until it is horizontal.

Have a little slack on the downhaul but secure it or it will lift up too far when the spinnaker fills.

A woman holding a line on a winch

Mark your halyard to show when the sail is fully hoisted, says rigging expert David Barden. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Using the guy pull the corner of the spinnaker out of the bag.

This is known as sneaking the guy.

Hold on to or, if short crewed, secure the sheet and guy so they don’t run when they come under tension.

Right, now for the big moment.

Steer downwind to keep the spinnaker blanketed by the mainsail and pull the spinnaker halyard hand over hand as fast as possible.

A yacht sailing on the solent

With the hoist complete, tidy up on deck, and adjust the pole and sheets to trim the sail. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

You might have to winch the last metre or so to get it to the top.

Winch in the guy which will pull the pole back and slowly steer up from a run to a broad reach.

Sheet in the spinnaker and drop or roll up the jib.

Wow! It fills and the boat speed jumps up.

Where it can go wrong

A twisted spinnaker on a yacht in the Solent

Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

It’s vital that the crew in the cockpit know what the person on the foredeck is trying to do.

Everyone needs to concentrate and it helps to have someone in charge other than the helm, even if there are only a few crew.

The ropes are often led the wrong way or twisted around another rope or wire. Preparation is the best way to avoid this.

The wind has to be very light to allow you to detach a sheet or guy from a hoisted spinnaker while you undo a tangle. Normally you have to drop and start again.

Sometimes the head of the sail fills with wind and there is a twist in the middle creating a wineglass effect.

To remove this you have to unravel it upwards. The helm has to steer downwind to blanket the spinnaker being careful not to gybe.

Pull on the sheet either from the cockpit or side deck, and try and persuade the twist to move upwards. This isn’t going to work if the spinnaker is filling at the top.

If it’s really jammed it will have to come down.

If the spinnaker fills on the way up it’s going to be hard work winching the halyard. The helm can help by steering downwind.

There are a number of other problems such as hoisting it the wrong way up which means dropping it again and hoping no one notices.

Trimming the spinnaker

Set it right

The spinnaker is most efficient when there is a flow of air across it.

The leading windward edge should be pulled aft with the guy until it is close to curling inwards.

The height of the pole should be adjusted so both clews of the spinnaker are the same height above the deck.

Wherever the leeward clew is, adjust both ends of the pole to match it and keep the pole horizontal.

Reaching

A yacht with a blue and white sail

When reaching, make sure the pole is not touching the forestay. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

If the course is a beam or close reach the guy is eased forward and the sheet wound in.

The pole will need to be lowered to keep the luff tight and the clews level.

Ease the uphaul and tension the downhaul and slide the heel of the pole down the mast. Avoid allowing the pole to press against the forestay as this can cause damage to the foil track for the jib, and in extremis can break the pole.

The main usually has to be sheeted in further than normal for this point of sail to prevent it from being backwinded.

Be ready to ease the main and kicker if you become overpowered.

Running

With the wind further aft the pole is brought back by winding in the guy and easing the sheet all the time keeping the leading edge almost curling.

A spinnaker blowing in the wind

With the pole too high, the sail pays off, inducing heel rather than drive. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Remember to ease the pole downhaul as the pole comes back.

A blue and white spinnaker on a yacht

With the pole too low, the luff is pulled tightly, luffing too early. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Keep the spinnaker close to the boat – don’t let it fly too far away from the forestay or it will rock from side to side.

With wind astern the sail is more stable if the sheet is pulled down to towards the toe rail halfway down the boat by a barber hauler.

a spinnaker

Pole back to keep the belly of the sail close to the forestay. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Racing sailors never cleat the guy or the sheet.

What can go wrong

Oversheeting the spinnaker makes the boat less stable and heel over more.

In windy weather,  this can cause the boat to screw up into the wind in a broach and it is invariably accompanied by a lot of sail flapping and an alarming amount of heel.

The main and spinnaker sheets need to be eased to allow the helm to steer downwind and get the boat back on its feet.

Releasing the kicking strap will lift the boom and allow wind to spill out of the head of the main.

A yacht with a flapping sail

If you oversheet the spinnaker, it can cause the boat to become unstable. Credit: Rick Tomlinson

This is important if the boat has heeled so far over in the wind that the boom is dragging in the water.

A common mistake is to have the guy too far forward with the sail billowing like washing on the line.

The boat will heel over more than with the correct trim and you’ll need to use more helm, which is slower.

Choose your gybe

Gybing is quite difficult when sailing shorthanded, so many cruising yachtsmen only set the spinnaker when there is a long reach ahead and lower the sail if a gybe is involved.

But of course a gybe is much quicker than dropping and resetting the sail.

On a boat over about 10 metres it is much safer to have twin sheets and guys.

Each clew of the spinnaker is connected to two ropes. The sheet is attached to the sail cringle and the guy is attached to the sheet on the back of the snap shackle.

Each corner of the sail has one rope under tension and the other, the lazy sheet or guy, slack ready for the gybe.

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The lazy sheet should be resting above and not below the end of the pole.

It is helpful to have the guys and sheets made of different colours as there is going to be a lot of rope in the cockpit.

The reason for this system is that during the gybe, the spinnaker can be sailed using the two sheets and no pole while the guys are swapped over on the end of the pole.

Sos the foredeck crew is not having to handle a spinnaker pole with a bar-tight rope on the end of it.

Talk this one through before you start. Everyone needs to understand what is happening at both ends of the boat.

The dip pole gybe

Steer on a very broad reach without collapsing the spinnaker.

Raise the heel of the pole up the track on the mast. Wind in the lazy sheet on the windward side on a winch.

A man wearing a lifejacket holding on to two lines

1. Grab the guy. Prepare for the gybe by taking the lazy guy forward to the bow. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

The guy, which is through the pole, is now slack.

The foredeck crew releases the jaws on the end of the pole and the guy will lift out leaving the spinnaker flying with the sheets and no pole.

The helm has to steer carefully to keep the spinnaker filling especially if it starts swaying from side to side.

A man setting up a dip pole gybe

2. Catch the pole. If there’s space, a dip-pole gybe can be easier if the bowman is in front of the forestay. As the pole swings across, clip in the new guy. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

The cockpit crew ease the pole uphaul allowing the end to drop while the foredeck crew swings the outer end of the pole just above the deck inside the forestay.

If you have the luxury of a bowman they should be on the pulpit facing aft with the new guy in their hand waiting to drop it into the jaws of the pole.

The cockpit crew needs to ensure there is plenty of slack in the new guy.

A pole gybe with a spinnaker

3. Pole across. During the gybe, the spinnaker is flown without the pole, which requires careful helming. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

At this moment a mistake occurs which has happened on nearly every boat I’ve sailed on.

It is very easy to drop the new guy into the jaws the wrong way round so there is a twist when the pole goes up again and the spinnaker is on the new gybe.

A crew member wearing sunglasses checks the spinnaker on a yacht

4. Flying free. During the gybe, the cockpit crew need to keep the sail flying. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

The bowman shouts ‘Made!’ when the new guy is in the pole.

The main is sheeted in and the helmsman gybes as the new guy is wound in, the downhaul eased, the pole raised and the old sheet eased to allow the new guy through the pole to take the strain.

Spinnaker

5. Reset the sail. With the pole on the new side, winch on the guy and set the sail. Note that the jib sheet has been kept on top of the pole, ready for when the spinnaker drops. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

This isn’t something to try for the first time on a windy day, but it can be taken in slow time in light winds while everyone gets their heads around what’s happening.

Cruising crews are generally short handed so take it steadily and carefully – it takes months of practice for a racing crew to gybe the pole to make it look like an extension of the boom.

End for end gybe

This is a technique used on dinghies and smaller yachts.

It is easier and much safer with twin sheets and guys.

The pole must be attached to both the uphaul and the downhaul with a bridle.

A sailor using an end for end gybe

The pole is taken off the mast in an end-for-end gybe, so bridles for the uphaul and downhaul are necessary

The crew ease the guy and fly the spinnaker with the sheets alone.

The foredeck crew takes a bight of the new guy to the mast, detaches the pole from the mast and inserts the new guy into the jaw.

The pole is now pushed out to the new side, the old guy taken out of the jaw and the pole secured to the mast.

The dip pole is more complicated but safer for new crews.

What can go wrong

The cockpit crew need to watch the foredeck carefully.

It is really annoying to be perched on the pulpit or by the mast and not have sufficient slack on the new guy to drop it into the jaws of the pole or have insufficient ease on the uphaul to pass the pole under the forestay.

Crew on a yacht

Make sure you give the foredeck enough slack. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

The cockpit crew should avoid winding in the new guy before the pole has been hoisted up on the new side.

It takes quite a lot of skill to steer and give instructions. Better to have the crew boss calling the gybe without having to worry about steering at the same time.

If the spinnaker collapses it can wind itself around the forestay.

Most problems with a spinnaker are best sorted by steering downwind, or by dropping it.

Using a spinnaker: the drop

Hatch drop

There are several ways of doing this. The most common is to retrieve the spinnaker down the main hatch.

Again,  this is easier with twin sheets and guys. Hoist or unroll the jib. Take a bight of the lazy guy directly from the sail on the leeward side under the boom over the rail and into the main hatch.

A crew sitting on the deck of a yacht adjusting guys

Pass the lazy guy aft to the companionway hatch while the crew prepares to gather in the sail. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Ease the guy until the pole is just off the forestay. Steer downwind.

The person lowering the halyard makes sure it is clear to run.

A spinnaker being dropped on a yacht

With the guy eased, the sail will stream out like a flag behind the main. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

At this point the cockpit crew can either let the guy and lazy sheet run through the pole on the windward side or the foredeck crew can ping the snap shackle releasing the sheet and guy from the windward corner of the sail.

Either way the sail is now flapping like a huge flag behind the main, held by the halyard and a crew member in the main hatch, holding the lazy guy.

A dropped spinnaker on a yacht

Don’t drop the halyard too quickly to give the crew time to gather in the sail. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

The halyard is eased quickly and the hatch crew gather as it comes down,  trying to avoid dragging it in the sea.

Lower the pole and tidy up the lines.

Letterbox drop

On boats with a loose-footed main the spinnaker can be retrieved by passing the lazy guy between the foot of the main and the boom.

A letterbox drop of a spinnaker

A letterbox drop can help avoid trailing the spinnaker in the water. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

The spinnaker is pulled down in the lee of the main through this slot into the main hatch – a technique known as a letterbox drop which is effective in removing any wind in the spinnaker and making it less likely to trail in the water.

What can go wrong

If the helm steers on a reach rather than a run the spinnaker is harder to retrieve because it won’t be blanketed by the main.

The first third of the halyard should be dropped quickly to de-power the spinnaker but no more or it ends in the sea.

A spinnaker in the water

Keeping the spinnaker clear of the water when dropping it is key. Credit: Rick Tomlinson

It’s really important that the spinnaker does not drop into the sea while still held by three corners or the boat will end up as a trawler pulling a huge bag of sail through the water.

You must release the windward ropes fully before lowering the halyard so it is held by only two corners.

It is equally important not to release the ropes from both clews or the sail ends up flying horizontally from the top of the mast.

Steering downwind is the only way of getting it back.

Using a spinnaker: snuffers

To save all this hassle it is possible to rig a snuffer, which is a giant collapsible tube which can slide up and down the sail.

The spinnaker is set with the pole, sheets and guys ready and hoisted like a sausage with the sail in the snuffer.

Using another halyard in the snuffer, the tube is pulled up, releasing the sail from the deck upwards.

A sailor using a snuffer

Pull the snuffer over the sail before dropping

Once set, the folded tube stays at the head of the sail.

To retrieve the spinnaker, the boat is sailed on a run to blanket the spinnaker and the snuffer tube is pulled back down.

What could be easier – except of course if it jams on the way down. But it is simpler than the traditional drop and the spinnaker doesn’t need repacking

A snuffer being used on a spinnaker

A snuffer can take the stress out of setting the spinnaker, though they sometimes jam. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

With a normal drop the cabin by the main hatch ends up full of spinnaker and it is time to repack it.

Many racing boats have a hook on the deckhead in the cabin which takes the head cringle.

This allows the crew to work down the two edges of the sail from the top undoing any twists.

crew packing away a spinnaker on a yacht

Repack the spinnaker by following the tapes. Credit: Richard Langdon

Having reached the clews, the three corners are gathered and the sail pushed into the bag keeping the corners on the top.

James Stevens

James Stevens, author of the Yachtmaster Handbook, spent 10 of his 23 years at the RYA as Training Manager and Yachtmaster Chief Examiner

The skill is to prevent a twist when it is rehoisted.

Another slower and safer technique is to find the head, sit on it so you know where it is and work down one edge flaking as you go.

When you get to the clew, sit on the folds and work down the other edge from the head.

Sit on all the folds and pack into the bag carefully,  leaving the folds until last. If it goes up with a twist the beers at the bar afterwards are on the packer!

Decades ago when offshore racing was less frenetic, sailors used to drop the spinnaker at night.

That is unthinkable when racing now but a good idea for cruising sailors.

Some of my most memorable cruising has been sailing on a summers evening in light airs with a spinnaker powering us towards our destination knowing that the extra speed has allowed us to arrive before dark to enjoy that special thrill of entering a harbour at the end of a great sail.

Thanks to UKSA in Cowes for the use of their Sweden 43
www.uksa.org
01983 294941

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