Sailing downwind under spinnaker needn’t be daunting if you bear in mind Dan Bower’s advice in part 5 of our ocean cruising series

BST logoThey say gentlemen don’t sail to windward. This is very true when looking to cross oceans the right way, with the tradewinds. Ocean crossing should be a downwind experience and it is important to set up the boat correctly for a comfortable and fast passage.

Having the right combination of sails that are easily deployable, changeable and reefable with your chosen crew numbers is something that needs serious thought before you put to sea. This is complicated because it is often difficult to simulate ocean conditions near your home cruising port.

Rig a preventer

One of the main considerations for downwind sailing is what happens when you gybe unintentionally. It really is a matter of when; it’s rare that we’ve done an ocean crossing when it hasn’t happened at least once – the result of an autopilot glitch, a tired crewmember or just an unexpected wave or windshift from a squall.

As long as the boom is properly prevented and the course is quickly corrected, it doesn’t need to be a drama, yet as you walk the docks after the ARC, for instance, it is unusual not to see a couple of broken booms because of poorly rigged preventers.

There are two main types of preventer, a ‘boom brake’ system and a fixed line. The boom brake is a friction system that does not fix the boom rigidly, but slows down the rate that it can come across, taking all the power or ‘punch’ out of the gybe. It also has the advantage that the sail doesn’t remain backed, which can sometimes make coming back onto course difficult.

See our test of boom brakes and preventers here.

The other more widely used solution is a gybe preventer line. The main points for this are that it should be attached to the outboard end of the boom – not halfway down – that it should be releasable and adjusted from the cockpit, and preferably can be attached without the boom being centred.

On Skyelark we keep a line permanently rigged; this is attached to the end of the boom and is long enough to reach forward to the kicker attachment. Whenever the preventer needs to be rigged, it can always be reached. We then run a control line down each side. This starts in the cockpit and goes through a stand-up block on the foredeck and clips with a snapshackle to our permanent preventer.

We have two control lines, which can be used either for the pole down or preventer as both are often used at the same time. If you don’t have stand-up blocks, or an attachment for a snatch block, then passing the line through a bow cleat can suffice. Care should be given to line leads to minimise chafe.

Downwind under spinnaker

Of course, prevention is better than cure, so when under autopilot we always use the windvane mode when sailing downwind and set it to a conservative angle.

Another useful aid is to fly a staysail when running; this can help (a little) with boat speed, but is also an excellent early warning for gybing, particularly for new or inexperienced helmsmen. A backing staysail will do no damage to itself or the rigging, but it is a great indicator of being dead downwind, particularly if the headsail is poled-out or a spinnaker is flown.

Choosing your spinnaker set-up

Consider the times and wind speeds that the spinnaker is going to be flown when cruising. The reality for us is that it’s fairly rare, and on our last five ARC crossings I could count the days on two hands. If we have in excess of 20 knots of wind, which is typical in the Atlantic trades, then we go just as well under full white sails, so for us it’s really a light wind sail.

However, our white sails are maximised for downwind performance, we have straight spreaders and use a 130 per cent genoa. On rigs with heavily swept spreaders and non-overlapping sails, the spinnaker will become more important.

On the ocean swell an underpowered boat is a pretty unpleasant place to be; the rolling motion backs the sails alternately, and the noise and rig punishment is gut wrenching. For those moments the spinnaker comes into its own – not just for boat speed, but for stability.

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Skyelark carries three spinnakers: two A sails – a runner and a reacher – and a conventional symmetrical kite. The running sail is fantastic in flat water, but it moves around too much in a swell, so should be discounted as an ocean option.

The reacher is regularly used between 90° and 120° in lightish breezes when our white sails are underpowered, but the symmetrical spinnaker is definitely the choice for ocean crossing.

Trying to go downwind with an A sail is always a compromise between speed and wind angle, and often as not on a heavy cruising boat the extra distance sailed doesn’t pay off. As you may have deduced already if you’re following this series, we go for conservative when it comes to sailing oceans, so we use a heavyweight cloth despite the light winds, so that it can still be flown if caught by a surprise squall.

Spinnaker drop

Once the kite is up it’s important to know how to get it down quickly and safely, and to brief the crew accordingly so each person knows what to do. On Skyelark we are always rigged ready for the drop and have a takedown sheet prepared, and the halyard flaked and ready to go.

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We favour a letterbox drop at sea, but we usually have big crews. Socks/snuffers can be useful for smaller crews, but consider how to drop the sail if the snuffer gets stuck, which only seems to happen when you’re in a hurry and the wind is rising!

Exotic spinnakers deserve a mention. A Parasailor is the one of choice for many short-handed crews; its horizontal ‘wing’ is designed to make the sail more stable, to provide lift to the bow and to depower it in the event of a squall. I’ve heard it claimed to be safe for up to 40 knots – when I’d be happy with half a headsail. It’s versatile, too, and can be flown with or without a pole, and even on its own without the mainsail.

It is heavily promoted to ARC crews, which may explain its popularity. In our opinion it ‘solves’ a problem that doesn’t exist and the thought of having a spinnaker up without a mainsail to drop it behind on a short-handed boat is unnerving.

What if it all goes wrong? Well, I guess you could cut it free and kiss goodbye to £15,000.

Getting a wrap

One of the biggest fears when flying spinnakers is the dreaded wrap – when it goes a bit wrong and gets itself caught around the forestay. This can be a nightmare at sea and in extreme cases can require a trip aloft to sort out the problem. Happily, there is a solution in the form of a wrap net or semi-unfurled headsail.

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A wrap net is sail-shaped and usually made of strips of webbing. It’s hoisted in the foretriangle and prevents the spinnaker from crossing inside the forestay and wrapping. On a cruising boat it is possible to achieve the same result with a quarter-unfurled headsail sheeted fairly tight. This doesn’t really affect the air flow to the spinnaker and can also serve as a gybe guide.

Chafe is the enemy

As always, consideration needs to be given to chafe, so make sure that sheet leads are clean – snatch blocks or barber-haulers can be useful for this. What can be fine for the occasional downwind round the cans doesn’t always stand up to days at sea.

Deck inspections and chafe checks should be a daily occurrence, and particular care should be given to rigging terminals, gooseneck and kicker fixings. We move our spinnaker halyard a little each day to minimise chafe and check the condition of the halyard each time it is dropped.

You can get protective, sacrificial sheaths to go over the lines (like an extra braid coating). We use these on our guys and also ‘donuts’, Nylon disks that prevent knots and splices getting caught in the pole jaws.

Do’s and don’ts

√ Do watch out for all potential chafe points on halyards and lines.

√ Do use a boom preventer.

If in doubt, do drop the kite sooner rather than later.

√ Do keep upwind of the pole while manoeuvring it around the deck.

√ Do check for chafe, particularly spinnaker lines and pole up.

√ Do have a plan B if your snuffer gets stuck at an inappropriate moment.

√ Do pad your spreaders to protect the mainsail.

x Don’t fly the spinnaker if there are squalls around, particularly at night.

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

x Don’t sail overcanvassed when the wind is rising.

Top tips

  • Crew briefing is very important. Make sure everyone is clear about their roles during spinnaker work.
  • The spinnaker halyard should always be flaked ready to run as soon as the kite is up.
  • If you see a small tear or rip in the spinnaker cloth, fix it immediately before it becomes a more serious problem.
  • When dropping a spinnaker, head downwind as much as you can without gybing. The spinnaker will get blanketed behind the mainsail and will be easier to gather in.
  • Woolling the spinnaker can make hoisting easier and safer, particularly if it’s windy or if you’re on a larger yacht.
  • Check all lines are led and attached to the spinnaker correctly before hoisting it. It’s much easier to sort this out before the sail comes out of the bag!

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 6: Anchoring in coral

There are places where you simply can’t avoid this, so Dan Bower has some tips

See videos for all the parts here

12-part series in association with Pantaenius