In the fourth part of our series Dan Bower looks at downwind sailing techniques, including sailing with poled out headsail and main for stress-free ocean cruising

BST logoSailing with a poled out headsail on one side and your main secured on a preventer on the other is a stable and comfortable set-up for long-distance downwind sailing. You need to have a good helmsman to make sure there are no accidental gybes, but we find that if people are struggling to steer, the autopilot does very well. Or if there is enough wind and a big swell we will often lower the mainsail altogether and run with a poled out headsail.

With decent 20-25 knot tradewinds, we hardly lose any speed and we have no danger of breakages if there is an accidental gybe. This year we sailed nearly 1,000 miles from Saint Lucia to the San Blas islands with a poled out headsail only, staying ahead of bigger boats with full sails by virtue of being able to hold a straight course, dead downwind.

Pole safety

First some important points to be considered when using a pole. On some boats the pole is stowed up against the mast when not in use. This is a good system as it keeps it out of the way and makes putting it up and down safer and easier.

For poles stowed on deck, the operation of putting the pole up can be harder. Trying to handle a heavy pole with the deck swaying requires a degree of strength, balance and co-ordination, particularly until the inboard end is safely attached to the mast.

One key point is to make sure that when you are handling the pole, you always keep on the inside of it, so that if it suddenly swings, it won’t knock you over the side. Also try to avoid standing underneath it at any time. Pole fittings can fail and you don’t want to be underneath if that happens!

Rigging the pole

It’s a good idea to attach your outboard end line – ‘pole up’ – before moving the pole. Take up some slack so that the person on the bow is not having to deal with the entire weight. Once the inboard end is safely attached to the mast, you can connect all the other lines.

The ‘pole down’ stops the pole from rising and the guy controls the fore and aft movements of the pole. These lines usually both attach to a webbing strop on the bottom of the pole, or directly onto the pole itself. Finally put the headsail sheet into the jaws of the pole – these should always be facing upwards.

You are now ready to set the pole and this will also require the help of crew in the cockpit. The person at the mast hoists the inboard end – this should be level with the height of the clew of the headsail – once you are happy with the height, you could mark the mast for future reference.

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Then hoist up the outboard end of the pole; the bowman helps to launch the pole and makes sure it is clear of the pulpit, the cockpit team pull on the guy to pull the pole back away from the forestay. They also check that the pole down line is clear to allow the pole to come back.

It is important that the pole doesn’t end up resting on the shrouds. Make sure the pole looks level before securing all the lines. You are now ready to bring the headsail onto the pole. Once the headsail is set, there are some checks you should make.

What to check for

Is the pole clear of the shrouds? On some boats the forward lower shrouds are quite a way forward so you may not be able to bring the pole all the way back to 90°.

Are there clear leads for all the lines? We bring the headsail car much further aft or sheet through a spinnaker block when poled out, but depending on how your boat is set up, you may need to rig an extra block on the toerail for the headsail sheet to go through.

The guy will probably also need to be rigged through an extra block on the toerail. Make sure there are no areas where any of the lines can chafe.

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Also check the pole down lead. On one boat I had to employ an extra subtle bit of rope which stopped the pole down from chafing on the guardwires. Remember what you can get away with on a day of racing round the cans at home you won’t be able to out on the open ocean where you could be on the same gybe for days at a time.

Is the outboard end pole up line clear and not tangled round anything? This should, of course, be done before you attach it to the pole. It is also worth considering beforehand how this line exits the mast. On Skyelark we fitted an extra halyard guide below where the line came out to eliminate any chafe caused by the sheave, which is not designed for the line to be out at 90° for long periods.

Is the inboard end of the pole locked? On Skyelark we have a winch to move the inboard end up and down. It’s important to check that the winch is in the locked position once you are happy with the pole height.

Are the jib sheets chafing in the end of the pole? If you are rigged with the pole in the same position for a few days, it is worth checking to make sure you are not getting any chafe on the jib sheet where it lies in the pole jaws. On some boats if you fit a snatch block on a short strop through the jaws and run the jib sheet through the block this can eliminate chafing problems.

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Stitching leather round the sheets can also help, but test this first as it may stop the sheet running smoothly through the end of the pole. On Skyelark we have stitched outer sheaths of rope round the jib sheets to protect them from the pole jaws as well as fitting stopper balls by the knots to stop the pole chafing against the knot of the bowline.

Reefing when poled out

When heading downwind in a reasonable swell with the pole out, putting a reef in can require a bit of planning. The headsail is easy; it can just be furled away, but to reef the main means coming up to the wind a little. In a swell you still need some power in the boat to keep it stable and you don’t want to head straight into the wind and swell or you will be taking water over the decks, and the boom and reefing lines will be thrashing overhead.

Our method is to semi-furl the headsail and gybe it over – the pole remains in place. We then trim the headsail for a close reach and bring the boat up towards a beam reach. The headsail is now powered up to drive the boat and, since it’s oversheeted, this backwinds the main, allowing you to take a reef easily with the boom and lines over the side and out of the cockpit. Once the reef is completed, the main can be reset and the headsail can be brought back onto the pole.

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When reefing the headsail, the pole position must also be moved forward to ensure that the clew is still tight onto the pole. To do this you can either furl the headsail completely and reset the pole before bringing the sail back out, or our method is to overease the sheet and reef the sail accordingly, release the pole guy and take up on the pole down to bring the pole forward to its new position and trim the headsail, adjusting the pole down as required. Resecure the pole guy.

Twin headsails

This is where you hoist two similar-cut headsails on the same foil, using the twin groove and usually the same halyard. Each sail has two sheets. This method allows you to furl the sails in together and reef them.

By fixing each sail with a pole – you can also use the main boom – you are able to sail up to 25° either side of downwind so it is quite flexible. A higher angle means putting both sails on the same side, the upwind one resting on the downwind one – you can then hoist the main and sail quite conventionally.

Twins are a favourite of short-handed sailors, the main advantage being that you can easily reef without leaving the cockpit; the furling line reduces both sails by an equal amount and for this it is a neat arrangement.

The main downside, in my opinion, is managing to hoist or lower them in a blow – just dealing with one heavy headsail with a full crew can be tricky. Putting up the ‘twins’ in a marina is hard, so managing them short-handed at sea would be near impossible.

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The most likely issue to arise would be the failure of the halyard or the head shackle, which would cause both sails to fall simultaneously – this can be avoided by always leaving a couple of sail wraps around the foil. I would also perform a rig check after each passage to check the shackle is moused and the halyard is not chafed, which is more likely than usual with twice the load.

For twins to work, the sails should preferably be of identical cut and size, but it is most important that the luff length is the same – a strop can be used to make up the difference so they tension uniformly on one halyard. If different sail sizes are used then put the smaller one to windward. They can be gybed by furling the sails and releading the sheets from the winch end (taking one behind the forestay).

Do’s and don’ts

√ Do keep the pole ‘braced’ with the three control lines, so that it doesn’t swing out of control at any point.

√ Do check for chafe regularly and also give both pole fittings the once over when the pole is down – pole fitting failures are relatively common after prolonged downwind sailing.

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√ Do always use a preventer.

x Don’t stand on the wrong side of the pole when manoeuvring it into position.

x Don’t stand under the pole at any time.

x Don’t forget to mouse all shackles with wire or a cable tie to reduce the possibility of a halyard shackle coming undone and dropping one or two headsails in the sea.

Top tips

  • When reefing the headsail, we always pull the furling line by hand – winches (particularly powered ones) can cause too much loading on the foil. By hand you can feel the load and make sure the sheet is amply depowered.
  • Experiment and find the best way of protecting your jib sheets from the jaws of the pole.
  • Check all blocks and leads to eliminate any chafe problems.
  • Briefings in advance and clear communication between foredeck and cockpit will make everything go much more smoothly!
  • When using our larger 120 per cent headsail we will always furl it before gybing it onto the other side, whether we are using a pole or not. There is always the danger of wrapping a large headsail in a knot around the forestay and it can be very difficult to sort out, particularly if it is windy. If you do get a wrap, the only technique we have found to work is to drop the main and motor in circles to unwind it.

Dan and Em Bower

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Dan and Em Bower, both in their thirties, are lifelong sailors. Six years ago they bought Skyelark of London, a Skye 51 by American designer Rob Ladd, built in Taiwan in 1986, and have been sailing and chartering her ever since, making some 12 transatlantic crossings and covering around 60,000 miles.

Part 5: Spinnaker for ocean passages

How to set up your spinnaker safely for long downwind passages

See videos for all the parts here

12-part series in association with Pantaenius