Offshore racer and MOD70 skipper Brian Thompson offers tips and advice on the best way to deal safely with a spinnaker snagged on a racing mark.

It looks a rather pleasant day on the Solent with 15 knots and sun, and crews are enjoying what they probably believe is a decent race. However, as can be seen in the image Jitterbug has got into a bit of a pickle. The helmsman doesn’t seem to have noticed what’s happening, although I suspect the mainsail trimmer is just about to tell him!

There could be a few scenarios, so I am not 100 per cent sure what happened in the run up to this incident, but I think Jitterbug is on a different course from some of the other boats around.

The camera’s long lens makes it hard to tell where exactly they are in relation to the mark, but I think they are rounding/passing the mark to starboard, and not port as you would first imagine, because the wake is on the other side.

The other possibility, which I really don’t believe is the case, is that the halyard popped out of the cleat as they were passing the mark.

Assuming the most obvious starboard mark rounding/kite-hoisting scenario, I would suggest the eager team hoisted the spinnaker too early and, as you can see, they hadn’t borne away enough and were still on a beam reach. As they hoisted the kite on a very tight leg it immediately flew aft and got snagged on the Flying Fish mark.

Thompson’s advice on how to recover

The kite is badly damaged and, although it may not be irreparable, the skipper will certainly not want to lose all the sheets, halyards and tack lines by cutting them all free at this point. I can see there is enough wind to power the boat, so I would carry on and try to let the spinnaker rip itself off.

It sounds a bit unpleasant, but it should happen quickly in those conditions. Once they become detached from the mark they need to pull in the remainder of the sail as quickly as possible. Not so good is the fact that fragments of spinnaker cloth will probably remain on the mark for all to see.

In light winds, sailing on like this would be more difficult because there probably wouldn’t be enough power to rip the spinnaker off or it might get jammed on the luff tapes. In that situation, it would be a case of untangling it. If they were really tethered to it, they’d have to let all the sheets, halyards and tack lines go, then motor back and retrieve it.

Whatever the scenario, the situation will undoubtedly become a bit chaotic, especially with other boats approaching the mark. It is important therefore, to remain calm to avoid a crisis involving accidental gybes, people ending up in the water, or colliding with other boats.

Because it will happen quickly, I think it will probably be possible to scoop up the remainder of the kite/sheets, hoist another kite and be racing again before they know it.

It’s worth pointing out that if they continue to race, they’ll need to carry out some penalty turns for touching the mark. If they do end up having to turn on the engine they’ll have to retire from racing.

Quick tips

  1. Immediate action: When there is enough wind to power the boat, continue on course.
  2. Observation: Crewmembers should keep an eye out for other boats around.
  3. Tidying up: Remains of spinnaker should be ‘scooped’ up as soon as possible.

How to avoid the situation in the first place

When everything is pinned in, it would be better to delay the hoist until it is possible to bear off a bit more and the boat is well clear of the mark. It is natural for the helmsman to want to hoist as soon as possible, but this image shows it was clearly too early.

In terms of when to hoist, it would generally be a call from the back of the boat by the tactician or helmsman because they know how far to judge it. It is important therefore to make sure whoever is calling the hoist is aware of how close to the mark they are.

And remember, although this picture looks bad, it could have been so much worse!

About the author

Brian Thompson (54) is one of the world’s most respected offshore racers, having notched up over 35 world speed sailing records, including the Jules Verne record as crewman on the maxi trimaran Banque Populaire V in 2012. He finished 5th in the 2008/9 Vendée Globe and is co-skipper of Phaedo3, Lloyd Thornburg’s successful MOD70.