In the second of a new series on double handed sailing skills, Pip Hare explains inside gybes with an asymmetric spinnaker with two onboard
Double handed sailing skills are increasingly important to master as the recent boom in double handed racing, both inshore and offshore, continues and boats designed for couples to cruise two-up become ever more popular. We now regularly see crews of two managing all sizes of boat, and sailing them with the same efficiency and expectations as full crews.
These techniques are designed for double handed crews sailing a yacht with an autopilot, and an asymmetric spinnaker. We’re sailing a J/99, which has a fixed bowsprit and hanked-on jib. Thanks to Key Yachting for their support.
Gybing a spinnaker double handed is tough. The boat is sailing fast, timing is critical and there are high loads involved. In this masterclass we look at a technique for safely inside gybing an asymmetric spinnaker which will work in any breeze on all sizes of boat.
Double handed sailing skills: Inside gybes
Inside gybing is where the clew of the spinnaker passes between the luff of the sail and the forestay and it’s a method that will work for boats with all but a very short bowsprit. I use this technique myself when solo gybing my IMOCA 60 Medallia.
One of the great risks of gybing the spinnaker short-handed is that the sail will ‘wine glass’, either allowing the head to rotate around the luff, or the whole sail to wrap around the forestay.
This usually happens when there is little sheet tension in the spinnaker and/or the sail is blowing forward, allowing the head to wander and cause havoc. When one person alone is managing the sheets, it’s going to take time to get the new sheet on and wrapping the spinnaker is a big risk.
This method of gybing aims to keep a positive pressure in the head of the spinnaker at all times by pulling the sail around to windward before the gybe. The helmsman ensures the head of the spinnaker is being blown to leeward while the crew – or trimmer – pulls the clew to windward.
Even if the crew has to put the sheet on a winch and grind, the helmsman should still be able to keep the sail from wrapping.
The method described is not instant, and it will require practice, but with patience and confidence it’s a technique that works in all breezes.
Leave plenty of time and sea room to set up. Between you, talk through the manoeuvre and run down the same checklist each time to ensure you’re both ready. With no extra hands to manage snags or tangles, preparing your lines is essential to reducing risk of foul ups.
With practice, a double handed gybe in lighter airs or with a small spinnaker can easily be executed in the same way and at the same pace as a fully crewed gybe.
However, for bigger spinnakers and in heavy airs you need significantly more ‘runway’ to allow time for one person to pull the spinnaker round. Ensure you have enough sea room to gybe and be ready for the manoeuvre early.
Once preparations are complete, start your gybe. Speak to each other constantly about what’s going on – it can be hard to understand if there are problems or how easy the other person is finding their job without communication, especially when one of you is facing forwards.
The trimmer should stand in the central cockpit, facing forwards and focussed on pulling the spinnaker around the forestay.
The helmsman, meanwhile, should be able to see the head of the spinnaker and their focus is on ensuring the head is being blown to leeward.
Initially the helmsman will steer down to reduce the apparent wind, stopping short of dead downwind. As this happens the trimmer will ease the sheet, allowing the spinnaker to continue flying.
While the helmsman slows the rate of turn, the trimmer will continue easing the sheet until the spinnaker clew is just forward of the forestay At this point the spinnaker will be collapsed but blowing out to leeward.
The trimmer should not ease the clew any further forward than the forestay as this will allow more of the sail forward than is necessary, making it harder to sheet back in and increasing the risk of a wrap. Once you’ve eased to this point, lock the sheet back off on its winch. Let the helmsman know you are on your mark.
This sheet position for when the clew is just forward of the forestay can be easily found beforehand by tying your sheet ends to the forestay, then rigging them as normal while you are on the dock and placing a mark on the sheet next to the winch drum.
Pull the spinnaker to windward
Once the trimmer has eased to the mark, the helmsman must find their safe ‘resting’ wind angle. This will change with wind strength and conditions. It is as low as possible, to decrease the apparent wind, but high enough to maintain a positive pressure in the head of the sail. Generally, between 170° and 160° TWA.
The helmsman should watch the head of the spinnaker while feeling the heel of the boat and the effect of waves. If the head of the spinnaker becomes unstable or soft, steer gently upwind. If the boat starts to heel and feels in danger of rounding up, steer gently downwind.This will take a lot of concentration. It’s a hard skill to master, so practise in lighter conditions first.
While the helmsman is maintaining a safe course, the trimmer is pulling, almost forcing the spinnaker around to windward.
With the old sheet locked at the mark, pull on the new sheet until it is taking the load of the clew and pulling against the leeward sheet. At this point, release the leeward sheet, ensuring it will run snag-free.
My best advice for the trimmer from here is to just pull. Your focus should be on pulling the clew of the spinnaker around the forestay at the expense of everything else. Try not to get distracted. Believe it will come.
When you can’t pull by hand any more, load up the winch and grind. Aim to pull at least the back half of the spinnaker through to windward before steering through the gybe.
If you’re finding it hard to pull the sail round by hand, work with the motion of the boat. Time your effort with the spinnaker collapsing or the boat accelerating and don’t be afraid to pause if the sail loads up. It’s the helmsman’s job to keep the sail from wrapping.
If you absolutely cannot pull by hand, load up the winch, get your head down and just grind.
Making the Gybe
The gybe is carried out once enough spinnaker has been pulled to windward to ensure control of the head during the gybe. You’ll get an eye for this, but aim for at least the back half of the sail.
The helmsman will need to steer positively through the gybe, an action that should force the rest of the spinnaker between its luff and the forestay cleanly. The turn will need to be at a reasonable pace initially to force the sail through the gap, then slow down the rate of turn coming out of the gybe to avoid broaching to windward, as the spinnaker will initially be over-sheeted.
If the main is sheeted in during the gybe the helmsman can release it with one hand as they complete the turn.
The trimmer needs to be ready to ease the spinnaker sheet once the sail has blown through, as it will now be over-trimmed. In bigger breezes be ready for a long, smooth ease of the sheet. Make sure you’re not standing on the sheet, take the winch handle out and use the minimum wraps necessary to hold the sheet on the winch.
If the mainsail is not centred then you may end up gybing the spinnaker and sailing goose-winged during the gybe. In this case the mainsail may need help to gybe and the crew can lock the spinnaker on the winch, then turn and gybe the main, either by sheeting it in or throwing it across by the falls. If in any doubt sheet the main in before the gybe. Once both sails are gybed, ease the tackline off, retrim tweakers and trim the sails for your new course.
Dealing with Wraps
As soon as you see the head of the sail wrap you must take action to avoid it getting worse. Initially I’d try reversing the wrap by ‘undoing’ the steering. If the spinnaker twisted during the gybe, then gybe back immediately. If the head twisted when you steered downwind before a gybe, head upwind. Around half of the time this quick opposite reaction will result in the spinnaker unwrapping itself.
In light airs it may be possible for a wrap to be undone by pulling down hard on the leech. In this scenario the trimmer will go forward, the helmsman will steer downwind to reduce the apparent wind and collapse the spinnaker, while the trimmer grabs the clew and pulls down hard – ‘walking’ their hands up the leech of the sail. This should chase the twist up towards the head of the sail where it will eventually spin out.
As soon as the twist is clear, the helmsman will need to steer firmly upwind to ensure positive pressure stops the head of the sail twisting again.
If it’s not possible to steer or pull out a wrap out then act quickly and take the spinnaker down before things escalate. Engage the autopilot, and both get involved in the drop.
If the spinnaker is only wrapped around itself then you can drop in the usual way behind the mainsail. If the sail is also wrapped around the forestay you may need to gather it in on the foredeck. We’ll be covering spinnaker drops later in this series.
If you’re new to short-handed sailing, or the breeze has built, don’t overlook the option of dropping, gybing under white sails, and re-hoisting. Even when racing there are times when this option can be favourable. Sorting out a gybe that has gone wrong can incur a bigger time penalty than a neat drop and re-hoist.
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