Jonty Sherwill asked crew boss Guy Salter for his tips on getting round the bottom mark without getting into a tangle
The leeward drop and mark rounding was looking fine and you were about to nail a few more places, so how come just two minutes later you are looking at barely a metre of the head of the spinnaker showing above the waves, with a bar taut halyard stretching to the halyard sheave as the only attachment to the boat?
Keeping the kite dry during a spinnaker drop will be the goal of any crew, but even for an organised team it can get a lot more complicated, no matter how strong the wind.
The long run on this inshore race may have started well enough, but with at least one spinnaker gybe required to get to the leeward mark the building breeze and short sea have caused plenty of boats to broach.
Your decision to drop the kite, gybe the boat and then rehoist left you feeling more confident as you approach the leeward mark. But with the focus now on hoisting the jib and preparing for the final drop of the day, no one has been looking aft to spot the next big gust.
With the mainsail and jib now flogging, the boat heeled over and with the spinnaker sheets over the side what options are open to you? Is there any way you can recover the spinnaker or has the moment come to make an expensive decision and call for the halyard to be knifed at the mast?
1. Avoiding the trawl
Only release the tack line (asymmetric) or let the guy/brace (symmetric) onto the headstay if the sail is fully under control, ie the crew look likely to keep it out of the water, otherwise you are in an extremely dangerous area and likely to trawl.
Always dump the halyard to collapse the kite – and do this fast. The boat will stand up and the spinnaker should float out to leeward on a boundary layer of air between it and the water for a few seconds. If you have let out a bit too much halyard then start pulling it back up again – the important thing is that the kite has collapsed and the boat has stood up.
Get your bow crew to try to stay on their feet when pulling the kite down as this eliminates them getting trapped under the sail and enables them to pull the part that is most in need, eg nearest the water.
2. Down the hatch
The forehatch is the best option for a drop as it’s ‘cleaner’ to get the sail down and avoids snags on the rigging. It’s preferable to have a dedicated crewmember below the hatch to get the sail below safely and quickly.
The person on deck doing the drop can assist by telling the person below to pull at front or back of the hatch depending on where the majority of cloth is, which helps getting the spinnaker below quicker. The only reason to drop into an aft hatch is if you can’t access the forehatch owing to an owner’s cabin or there’s no hatch at all.
3. Clear calls/timing
Practise a system with someone counting down from five to the drop; this prepares everyone and helps you perfect your system, eg the helmsman turns the bow down on the count of 3, the pole goes forward on 2, the halyard gets released at 0.
Also, the person pulling the spinnaker down should let the helmsman know when they are in control of the drop so the helmsman can turn the boat up again, Allow time for a practice hoist, a couple of gybes and the drop to get the crew in the ‘zone’.
Then, when racing, as you approach the mark, assess whether going for an earlier drop would be tactically more beneficial. It is often better to have the full crew on the rail and the spinnaker tidy as you come on the wind as you’ll be faster and able to out-manoeuvre your opponents.
By pushing the drop you rarely gain any advantage as overlaps are already established — unless tide is a factor. Always give yourself room to unload the spinnaker by turning downwind, otherwise drop early as you’ll be more efficient under the jib.
4. Leeward, windward or Kiwi?
The decision about which drop to choose is multi-faceted. Wind strength, next hoist and mark approach are the key components. Come into a mark on a tight reach and you only really have the leeward drop as an option.
If you are in medium to light breeze and are gybing at the mark, or it’s under a minute before rounding, then the ‘Kiwi drop’ (drop and gybe simultaneously, to end up with kite on the windward side) is good as it allows the spinnaker to be sheeted on until the gybe.
As the spinnaker backs onto the jib blow the halyard and the kite will fall onto the deck. Too early on the halyard and it will be over the front, too late and it’s on the rig, acting as an air brake. Make sure the pitman is looking up and is ready to release the jammer – no need for any turns on the winch, just use force and open that jammer up!
The windward drop is a tactical manoeuvre used to get the gear ready for the next hoist. If you are hoisting out of the forehatch there should be no reason to send someone below to pack as long as you don’t disconnect sheets and tack line/guy.
5. Lighter winds
The windward drop in lighter winds is often faster as the jib helps to collect the spinnaker. The downside is the danger of putting a bow-shaped hole in it, so timing is everything and the only way to get that right is to practise, and often.
On the windward and ‘Kiwi’ drops it is best to get the pole off, or at least the outboard end on deck, to allow the jib to pass through without getting caught. Get the inboard end down also, but avoid the schoolboy error of dropping it all the way down so it hinders the forehatch drop and stops you from closing the hatch.
Guy Salter started as a bowman and has competed in two America’s Cups, two Volvo Ocean Races and been part of a world match race winning team. Proud to have worn a Southampton Football Club shirt round Cape Horn, he’s nowadays a crew boss on J Class yachts, a Wally Cento Magic Carpet 3 and other racing and superyachts