In the latest instalment of her series on double handed sailing skills, Pip Hare explains the best processes for handling symmetric spinnakers
Double handed sailing skills are increasingly important to master as the recent boom in double handed racing, both inshore and offshore, continues and boats designed for couples to cruise two-up become ever more popular. We now regularly see crews of two managing all sizes of boat, and sailing them with the same efficiency and expectations as full crews.
These techniques are designed for double handed crews sailing a yacht with an autopilot, and an asymmetric spinnaker. We’re sailing a J/99, which has a fixed bowsprit and hanked-on jib. Thanks to Key Yachting for their support.
Many new designs now favour asymmetric spinnakers for downwind sailing and we’ve covered those techniques in earlier articles (see yachtingworld.com/tag/double-handed). However, the symmetrical spinnaker still has its place in both the cruising and racing worlds and for many boats will give better downwind VMG performance than the asymmetric alternative.
Learning to manage this type of sail as a double-handed crew is a very attainable skill and should not be considered risky. We’ll break down the key components to managing a symmetrical spinnaker, starting with hoisting and dropping in this article and moving on to gybing in next month’s issue.
For both hoists and drops you’ll need one crew in the cockpit managing lines while the other is on deck managing the sail. The autopilot should steer throughout these manoeuvres, and it’s well worth investing in a remote control to allow steering adjustments from any position on the boat. For both the hoist and drops, set the pilot to steer to a true wind angle. This should be deep, to reduce the apparent wind and provide shelter under which to launch the spinnaker.
Set the pilot to steer a wind angle of around 160° true, or a little higher in lighter airs to stop the boom from falling into the boat. Leave the jib up throughout the hoist. It should be over-trimmed from a downwind sailing position, with the foot just inside the guardrails, leaving enough room for the spinnaker to pass between the sail and the wires without getting trapped. Check the head of the jib is not twisted off to leeward as the spinnaker can get tangled in the leech while hoisting. To eliminate twist, either sheet on or pull the jib car forward.
Clip the spinnaker bag on behind the jib, then check sheets and guys to leeward will run free, while those to windward are through or over the spinnaker pole. With the spinnaker bag firmly closed, set the spinnaker pole to the correct height and lock it off, you may need to help the guy through the end of the pole. At this stage, the crew in the cockpit should set the downhaul, pulling it on to a position which will allow the pole back to mid deck level but no further – the foredeck crew can always hold the pole in position to test this setting.
While the pole is being prepared the cockpit should be set to hoist: load the windward guy onto a primary winch, make sure the halyard jammer is closed, tweakers are off, the leeward guy is free to run and the leeward sheet loosely loaded on a winch. There’s a lot to do in the cockpit, it must be done in sequence and ensuring your working area is snag free will help.
Once the pole is set, pull the guy on to bring the spinnaker tack to the end of the pole. Watch the spinnaker bag – you may need to loosen the forward strap and help the guy out but don’t let the bulk of the sail pull out early. Wooling or zipping the leading edge of the spinnaker will help stop an early launch. Pull on the guy until you can see the tack has reached the forestay. For a safer launch, leave the pole at the forestay, which will keep the bulk of the spinnaker in the shadow of the jib. To get the sail filling earlier, bring the pole aft – this is only advised in lighter winds and once you’ve had a bit of practice.
Once the tack is set, pull the halyard. The foredeck crew will need to open all bag straps then move quickly to the mast and hoist. The aim is to hoist the spinnaker to full height before it fills. I achieve this by ensuring the spinnaker sheet is set with enough slack to allow the sail to flap; do this by either locking the sheet off to a known mark which you use for every hoist, or by taking two loose turns around your trimming winch which will provide just enough friction to allow the sheet to pull gently out, but not run free.
If the sail does fill before hitting the top, ease the guy forward to the forestay but no further, ease the sheet, bear away gently in increments of 5° and this should depower the sail. Try to continue the hoist in time with the boat. As it rolls, or as the sail flaps, pull the halyard up. For best results don’t resort to the winch unless you are at over three-quarters hoist.
Once the spinnaker is hoisted, sheet on, pull the pole back and then drop the jib, remembering to collect the spinnaker bag on your way back to the cockpit.
As ever, preparation is key. Hoist the jib and sheet it to just inboard of the guardrails. One crew will be sitting on the side deck or in the companionway ready to gather the sail, the other is in the cockpit managing lines. All lines need to run smoothly and you cannot spend enough time preparing the cockpit. Check all windward lines will run, including the lazy sheet as well as the guy. Make sure the halyard is out from below decks or under your feet.
The overview of this technique is to first drop the spinnaker into the shadow of the jib, then let the windward corner go, gather the foot of the sail in under the boom, then ease the halyard in time with the sail collection and pass the spinnaker directly down the companionway.
Set the autopilot to steer at a deep wind angle – this could be as low as 170° true, so long as there is enough wind strength to keep the boom outboard. In lighter winds, sail a little higher. Position one crew on the side deck or in the companionway ready to gather the spinnaker, they will have the lazy guy in their hands, to pull the spinnaker towards them.
Once lines are ready to run, ease the working guy gently forward to the forestay – beware that in bigger breeze this may result in an initial power up of the spinnaker causing the boat to roll as the centre of effort of the sail goes up. However, the spinnaker should then deflate behind the jib.
Once the pole is at the forestay let the guy and windward sheet run – it’s a good idea to remove stopper knots – this will allow the spinnaker to fully depower and ‘flag’ from the leeward corner.
When the spinnaker is flapping, pull the lazy guy until the clew is in your hands, then gather the foot of the sail. For smaller spinnakers you may need to make a small ease on the halyard to get all the foot in. I do this by pre-setting 1m-1.5m of slack between the jammer and the halyard winch. When I open the jammer the sail will drop to its new position made off on the winch.
Once the foot is gathered into one, lower the halyard in time with the pace at which you can drop it below. After initial stages the halyard will need less control and can be left with one or two turns on the winch to provide friction, while both crewmembers manage the spinnaker.
Keep an eye out for snags and make sure the leeward sheet gets released during the drop sequence. As soon as the spinnaker is under control below decks, drop the pole gently to the foredeck and take your time to get all lines back to where they should be. Even when racing it can be more expedient for a double-handed crew to keep the bow pointing downwind while the spinnaker aftermath is tidied away. Providing a more stable, drier platform allows the work to be done more quickly and with fewer errors.
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