Professional ocean racer Richard Mason on how to reduce the risk of a nose-dive on a breezy day with the spinnaker up. Interview by Sue Pelling. Photo Paul Wyeth.
The quarter tonner class has a reputation for some incredible broaches, but it is possible to recover from burying the bow. Although everything aboard the quarter tonner in the photograph looks to be under control with young Jason Carrington doing his bit on the bow, it is important to remember how the situation could easily go terribly wrong. I’ve seen those quarter tonners on the Solent do some spectacular wipe-outs.
It is obviously pretty windy because the boat is burying the bow but I think there could be two possible scenarios here. The first is that the crew has just completed a big bear away round the top mark. The second possible scenario is the crew is on the approach to the leeward mark.
If you do find the bow starting to bury it is important not to panic. You need to get the crew weight aft as soon as possible to balance the boat and to help lift the bow. Generally don’t sail too low in these conditions; you need to be slightly higher to keep the bow up.
When the nose gets completely buried there is a danger of losing steerage and rolling out, which will probably end up in a Chinese gybe, and is definitely not recommended.
- In the cockpit: keep the crew weight well aft
- Afterguard: keep heads out of the boat and aware of what’s going on
- On the bow: always remember ‘one hand for yourself, and one hand for the boat’
In the first scenario, assuming it is a bear away round the top mark, find a nice exit angle – not too high or too low – and a decent lane down which you can bear away. If the bowman goes forward it is important they keep their weight out, and aft as much as possible. The helmsman should sail a bit higher than normal until things settle down because this helps to keep the boat under the spinnaker, while lifting the bow a bit.
It is important for the crew to have a plan in place before they go into the top mark. Everyone needs to know what they are doing, and the vang needs to be freed off. The skipper shouldn’t be afraid to delay the hoist for a bit until things settle down, particularly if there is a lot of traffic or a heavy gust is coming through. In a heavy sea state, such as out by the Needles, it sometimes pays to sail on a couple of hundred metres or so beyond the top mark where there could be longer wavelengths. A steady boat makes everything easier.
The second scenario could be an approach to the leeward mark. If that is the case, the crew, once again, needs to plan an early, safe spinnaker drop. Everyone should have their weight aft and the boat should be under control.
Pick a good time, and sail at a good angle relative to the mark, one that allows plenty of room to bear away, de-power the boat and hide the spinnaker behind the main when it is dropped. The crew needs to control the sheets as it comes down.
It is all about strategy, maintaining control, avoiding collisions and, of course, not losing anyone overboard. I always say one hand for you, one for the boat and, as can be seen in the image, Jason, the bowman is doing just that.
Whatever the situation, it is particularly important for someone to have their head out of the boat keeping an eye on the gusts as you go into a manoeuvre like that. Keep a check on the vang: you need enough tension so the boom is not skying and unbalancing the boat, which could force a Chinese gybe, plus you need to be able to release it if the boat rounds up.
Staying underneath the spinnaker
The general rule of thumb for sailing downwind in a big breeze with a symmetrical spinnaker is to keep the bow of the boat underneath the spinnaker. If the boat goes too far to weather you’ll get rolled, which can cause a Chinese gybe. If the spinnaker is flying too far round the back of the boat you are also going to wipe out, so it is all about staying in control and finding that nice balance: that sweet spot.
If you do suffer a Chinese gybe, blow the spinnaker halyard straight away. If you let the pole forward, lock it off then blow the halyard. That way the sail should never go under the boat.
To build confidence for windy conditions it is important to practice manoeuvres. Be aware that wipe-outs happen every now and again, and make sure you learn from them. The key is not to panic and, when there is big breeze, make sure that once the kite is up, the spinnaker halyard is run down the hatch to avoid snags when it needs to come down in a hurry.