Spinnakers for cruising

Many cruising sailors look on a spinnaker as some sort of malevolent entity, waiting to pounce on the unwary, wrapping itself around forestays, broaching the boat unpredictably or shredding itself without warning at vast expense. Horror stories are sometimes published describing blood-curdling tales of shooting the wrapped spinnaker to pieces with a Very pistol, yachts with young children aboard hurtling downwind at eight knots or more, yachts T-boned when spinnakers on other boats get out of control, and so on.

Honestly, it doesn’t have to be like that. Jill and I invariably sail with no other crew, flying our large, masthead spinnaker on every possible occasion, launching it in true winds of up to about 15 knots and holding on to it for some five or so more than that. The principles for using it are well publicised and not covered in depth here. For short-handed crews, particularly those not as young as they were, I describe a few small requirements and techniques that will make things easier.

The first requirement is that the sail should be contained in a special bag, called a ‘turtle’. This is broad-mouthed, supported around the mouth by battens to enable it to launch and be recovered quickly. It has a base of netting to allow water to drain from it if the kite gets wet. On the outside there are several ties and hooks to help hold it open and attach it to the boat. Ours has Velcro loops on the inside, to which the corners of the sail are attached when the sail is stowed, avoiding embarrassing hoists next time the sail is flown. To this end it also helps to have the head, starboard and port clews identified on the sail.

For us, the biggest contribution to handling the spinnaker safely is the lazy sheet/guy system shown in the diagram. This means that a sheet and guy are permanently attached to each clew of the sail, run through their turning blocks and with their own winches. Having this arrangement not only makes gybing much easier but also can assist when recovering the kite, as there is always a line to haul in. Each sheet and guy are permanently connected at the swivel and snap link and the lines themselves are left rove through their blocks for the whole season, tied to the guard wires in a ‘cowlick’, highlighted in the photo.

Hoisting and recovery carried out by two people (or even by one and an autopilot) are pretty much exactly the same as with a large crew, with a few exceptions:

On a run, the turtle is clipped to the guard wire immediately ahead of the mainsail. It is visible on the starboard side in the photograph. The genoa is furled and the sheets/guys are attached to the sail. Cleating the sheet in the winch so that it is just slack at this stage makes filling the spinnaker after the hoist almost automatic. Haul in the halyard, then the guy, which sets the sail. We always drop the halyard down the companionway steps where it is out of the way and remains snag-free. Any adjustments of pole height, sheet trim, etc can now be made.

It is during gybing that the lazy sheet/guy system comes into its own. Jill steers as close to downwind as it is safe to do. I haul in both sheets until the guy goes slack, then lower the pole uphaul before walking forward. I remove the pole end from the mast and connect it to the lazy guy on the other side of the boat. Next I swing the pole across and clip its other end to the mast after disconnecting the active guy. This operation is far easier if the boat does not have a baby stay, when the pole can be dipped through to the other tack without disconnecting it from the mast. The boat is then gybed and the new active guy is hauled in.

At the recovery stage our technique differs a little from the advice usually given. In order to avoid the necessity to repack the sail down below, we recover it into the turtle, not down the fore hatch or companionway. I release the guy from the winch, letting the pole fly forward. I walk forward to just ahead of the boom and grab either the lazy guy or the sheet and begin to haul in the foot of the sail. Jill releases the spinnaker halyard clutch and, with one turn around its winch, lowers as required. Meanwhile I stuff the quiet sail, completely blanketed by the mainsail, back into the turtle. Only when it is back in the turtle, with the clews attached to their Velcro loops, are the sheets and guys detached. The pole can then be lowered and stowed away, sheets and guys hauled back to the cockpit and coiled.  The whole process usually takes us something like half a mile to complete.

A few tips that are not in the usual instructions for spinnaker flying – our pole is rarely in line with the boom. The boat is far more stable with the pole set further forward than this. We did away with the usual wire bridle above and below the pole; it led to too many stumbles on the foredeck. We have used a solid yoke at the centre of the boom for many years, without problems.

Given the correct equipment, good technique and cooperation between crew it is immensely satisfying to be doing six or seven knots downwind under a kite, rather than three or four under plain sail, or worse listening to the engine. Try it out when the wind is light and the sea flat, build up experience of how it all fits together and before long you can enjoy some of the best sailing you will ever know.