Cruising sailor Iain Simpson gives downwind sailing tips on using twin headsails and mainsail for faster and easier passagemaking

As exciting as it sounds to fly coloured sails at sea, when it comes to passage making downwind in open seas with a less than idyllic weather forecast, the last thing most cruising yachtsmen want to consider is flying the spinnaker, particularly through the night. Here are some downwind sailing tips from my experience.

If faced with running dead downwind, what’s the best solution? My answer is what I’ve named the Simbo rig, or simple bow rig.

What is this? In short, you keep the mainsail set and use twin headsails as well. What is required are two identical working jibs with a high cut clew, set in twin forestay grooves and hoisted on a single halyard. Each sail has its own set of jib sheets. The twin jibs fly perfectly together without any noticeable additional wear compared with flying a solo jib.

When bearing away on a run, you furl the twin jibs and raise twin whisker poles, each with its own uphaul, foreguy and afterguy. It is easier still if you have measured marks around the fore and midship cleats to keeps the whisker poles at right angles to the yacht and level with the horizon. Once set they are never adjusted.

The jib sheets are run under the retractable whisker pole bolts which then enables one to return to the cockpit and pull the jibs out to their respective whisker pole with the outer running sheet, leaving the inner reaching sheet to cross over the foredeck and run idly back through the opposite whisker pole to the cockpit on the other side of the boat.

Once set, the wind flows into the mainsail, around the mast and on into the weather jib when it is then deflected into the leeward jib that would otherwise have remained blanketed by the mainsail. On executing a gybe all that is required is to haul the mainsheet, the separated twin jibs and their accompanying whisker poles, guys and boom lifts remain unaltered.

In a rising wind the twin jibs unlike with coloured sails, can be reefed from either side on the furler or struck, to suit the prevailing weather conditions. One person can control the Simbo Rig from the cockpit, night or day in fair or foul weather. The only time one needs to leave the cockpit is to raise or lower the whisker poles.

When reverting to a reach, one comes onto the wind and lets the backed weather jib fly to leeward when the previously dormant jib sheet then becomes the dominant upwind leeward jib sheet. The whisker poles can remain set until the apparent wind is 60 degrees off the bow. On hardening up further to the wind, one can release the jib sheets by retracting the whisker pole bolts and stowing the poles. Conversely, on returning to a run, one merely bears away, releases the upwind leeward reaching sheet and pulls the sail across the foredeck to weather with the opposing running sheet through the weather whisker pole. A one man job in either direction.

Of course many sailors have used the ‘barn door’ system of flying twin headsails downwind since time immemorial. However, only at the expense of striking the mainsail and scandalising ones working rig which can become a problem if needing to revert to the mainsail and headsail unexpectedly in changed weather conditions and/or at night which then requires crew to go on the foredeck to strike spinnaker poles and reset the headsail and haul up/out the mainsail.

Bear in mind that this may well be required when tired off-watch crew are sound asleep. Furthermore, with only the two headsails set on opposing spinnaker poles the yacht will role considerably downwind and also run the risk of dipping the spinnaker poles into a seaway.

It is not the setting of the twin jibs that determines the Simbo Rig but rather, the flying of the mainsail in conjunction with the jibs and the interaction between these sails in maximising ones downwind performance.

With the Simbo Rig, ones working rig is always to hand to meet changing conditions under the control of just one person to deal with gybing, running, reaching and back to running without the necessity of calling upon off-watch crew mates. The only time one is required to go on the foredeck is to raise or strike the whisker poles. Furthermore, one can hold the Simbo Rig without undue concern, dead downwind right up to gale force winds in the knowledge that it can be reefed or struck from the cockpit with ease.

There is no pressure exerted by the leeward set whisker pole on the mast which translates into a substantially reduced downwind roll. All the power is contained within close proximity of the yacht with the whisker poles measuring only half the length of the foot of the jib from tack to clew. The mainsail on the other hand is 45 degrees off the stern so that it does not directly oppose the weather whisker pole which is always set at 90 degrees off the bow.

The Simbo Rig provides a set of sails that will meet all likely needs and eventualities when passage making, overcoming the need for additional crew on longer hauls which apart from the peace and quite and a feeling that ones privacy has not been invaded, also makes the stocking of provisions much easier and more economical. And all this is before one starts to discuss the expense of coloured sails!

All plain sailing, you might say!

Twin headsails

Twin headsails

Twin headsails and mainsail, the 'Simbo Rig'

Twin headsails and mainsail, the ‘Simbo Rig’

FAQs about the Simbo Rig

Q. What is the Simbo Rig?

A. The Simbo Rig is a ‘one stop sail plan’ that enables a yachtsperson to sail on all points of sailing with just the one suit of sails for handling all likely weather conditions.

Q. Why is the rig called ‘simple’?

A. Because once hoisted it can remain set for the duration of the season/passage overcoming any requirement for sail changes.

Q. Is it easy to handle?

A. it can be controlled by one person from the safety of the cockpit and apart from the hoisting/striking of the whisker poles, requires no foredeck work.

Q. What equipment is required to accommodate the rig?

A. Two identical working jibs and two sets of jib sheets plus ideally, two sets of genoa cars/fairleads. This will accommodate ones sailing requirements from a close haul through to a broad reach.

Q. Do the double set of jib sheets confuse or complicate procedures?

A.  No. Not if they are colour coded with the outer running sheets being a different colour/fleck to the inner reaching sheets.

Q. Are their any incidental advantages of having two jibs flying with two sets of sheets?

A. Yes. One can adjust the set of the sails under load without risking straining a wrist by first adjusting the unloaded downwind jib sheet to subsequently allow it to capture the loaded upwind jib without having to carefully control the loaded upwind sheet’s release. One can also adjust the genoa cars under load by resting the upwind jib on the downwind jib to take the load off its car and then after adjusting the car and tightening the sheet, do the same with the unloaded downwind jib sheet/car. In the same way, one can just as easily re-reeve the sheets from outside to inside the cap shroud for a closer sheeting angle and vice versa.

Q. How can one person handle the tacking of four jib sheets?

A. By first releasing the upwind leeward sheet to rest the sail on the downwind jib and then release the downwind sheet on tacking. On coming through the wind take up on the new downwind sheet which captures the upwind jib following which one can then make up the non loaded upwind sheet at ease.

Q. What about bearing away on a run?

A. You will require two whisker poles the length of half the jib foot, measured from the tack to the clew. Two fore guys and two aft guys plus two boom lifts.

Q. How are the jibs hoisted?

A. On one jib halyard up the twin grooves on the jib foil. I advise replacing the halyard snapshackle with a strong s/s screwed shackle with attaching dyneema /spectra line to secure the head of the sails to cope with the extra load and swivelling factor. I also prefer making off the tack of the sails with a dyneema/spectra line.

Q. Do the twin jibs cause additional wear when flown together?

A. No. In fact by switching them around each season from port/starboard, I think their life is prolonged.

Q. What is the procedure for going onto a run from a reach?

A. Furl the twin jibs, rig the whisker poles on their boom lifts, attach the guys, re-reeve the sheets and return to the cockpit to pull out the two sails to their respective whisker poles.

Q. How does one revert to a reach from a run?

A.  By bringing the boat up on to a reach to allow the weather jib to back and release its sheet for the sail to return to leeward and be captured by the downwind jib.

Q. Having reverted to a broad reach from a run, up to what wind angle can you continue to fly the whisker poles before lowering them?

A. Up to a fine reach i.e. with the apparent wind 60 degrees off the bow. I would mention that I have found it an advantage to set the twin jibs off the leeward whisker pole on a broad reach, particularly in light airs.

Q. At what wind angle does one separate the jibs to bear away onto a run?

A. The twin jibs will separately fly downwind set from their respective whisker poles, with a wind angle of 150 to 180 degrees off the bow. If one knows that the run will only be on one tack, it is not necessary to raise the leeward whisker pole as it is the redirected wind that keeps the leeward sail set, not the whisker pole. Therefore, as there is no pressure on the leeward whisker pole the incidence of rolling downwind is significantly reduced. I would also mention that with the reduction in downwind rolling and the usage of short whisker poles, it is extremely unlikely that a pole would be dipped into a seaway and suffer breakage.

Q. How does one gybe?

A. Merely by handing the mainsheet. The twin jibs remain untouched as the whisker poles are always set at right angles to the boat, fixed by their fore & aft guys + topping lifts.

Q. Can the twin jibs be reefed on the run?

A. Yes. Unlike coloured sails, the jibs can be reefed underway by furling them in from their respective sides. Furthermore, if hit by an unexpected squall, 50% of the sail area can instantly be dumped by reverting to a broad reach and releasing the weather jib sheet for the sail to fly to leeward and be captured by the leeward jib.

Q. Does the whisker pole retractable bolt cause undue wear to the sheet over a protracted passage i.e. Atlantic crossing?

A. For an Atlantic crossing, I prefer to run the sheets through a double block attached by a spectra loop to the retractable whisker pole bolt.

Q. What about the sheeting angle of the whisker pole to the fairlead/car?

A. On a day run under Simbo Rig, I adjust the fairlead/car position to the aftmost extremity of the genoa track to reduce the working angle. However, when crossing the Atlantic or running for days on end, I prefer to run the sheets from the whisker poles back to a banjo turning block on the capping rail afore the pushpit and back up to the cockpit winches for a kinder lead.

Q. Who would most benefit from adopting the Simbo Rig?

A. Families and short handed yachtspeople especially those crossing oceans such as in the ARC. The rig can be flown with confidence under total control by one person from the security of the cockpit in fair and foul weather, night or day. One is always prepared for the unexpected eventuality with the correct complement of working sails to hand.

Q. Which yacht rig is best suited for the Simbo Rig?

A. A bermuda sloop with aft swept-back spreaders with no forward lowers. This allows the whisker poles to be stowed up the ‘spinnaker’ track with their fore & aft guys together with toping lifts attached to measured marks, when they can then be lowered to insert the sheets under the retractable bolts in the knowledge that the poles will set at right angles to the boat and horizontal with the horizon. On subsequently releasing the jib sheets from the retractable whisker pole bolts, the poles can then be re-stowed up the ‘spinnaker’ track and clipped at the outer end to the deck fitting.

The Simbo Rig works equally well of course, with a yacht with forward lowers such as with my Najad 570. However, in this case one has to manually transfer the whisker poles from their fore facing mast/ deck mount to attach to the side of the mast which in my case, is to the Selden ‘spinnaker’ pole/mast fitting protrusion. This works fine, it’s just a little ‘pedestrian’ by comparison with the first described whisker poles to ‘spinnaker’ track forward mount.

Depending on ones winch/cleat arrangements on either side of the mast, it may be possible to have the whisker poles set on tracks on each side of the mast to allow for the first procedure.

In either case, carbon fibre whisker poles are to be preferred.

Q. What about other rigs?

A. I suspect that the Simbo Rig may work well on a cutter rig with poled out yankee jibs or even a slutter rig with twin inner working jibs providing they were large enough. Also with a catamaran with the twin jibs sheeted out to their respective hulls which would overcome the necessity for whisker poles. However, I have no personal experience of this and therefore can not offer up any advice.

Iain Simpson has sailed the NW coasts of Europe extensively over the last 60 years. Initially on his father’s C&N bermuda cutter Patna. Since then he has owned a succession of ocean sailing yachts. During the last decade he has made six transAtlantic crossings and is currently transiting the Med. He currently cruises in his Najad 570, Song of the Ocean.

For more on his voyages, visit his website,