In the fourth of our series on double handed sailing skills, Pip Hare explains dropping an asymmetric spinnaker for shorthanded crews
Taking a spinnaker down without the aid of the snuffer or furler is when double handed sailing is a challenging manoeuvre. This will be your biggest sail; it is slippery to grab hold of and the sheer volume of the spinnaker makes it powerful and unruly. But, like all our double-handed manoeuvres, with good planning and technique this sail can be tamed.
If learning as a double-handed crew, practise your technique in lighter winds, to establish who does what, and where to be positioned.
Every time you hoist the spinnaker, make sure you’re ready to drop at any time, especially if doing single person watches. Talk through the manoeuvre ahead of time, agree roles, communication and process so if you need to make a quick drop you’re confident it will go well.
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.
For double-handed teams, a stress free drop can turn into a nightmare with a rope snag. If a rope catches, even for a couple of seconds, it can lead to the spinnaker refilling and flying back out of the boat with loads too heavy to overcome. All lines associated with the drop: halyard, pole out, tackline and lazy sheet must be well prepared by either flaking or coiling, then laying out on a clear piece of deck to run free. Lines not associated with the drop should be tidied away into pockets or temporarily thrown down the companionway steps.
Dropping is a two-person job, so set the autopilot to steer to a True Wind Angle (TWA). This should be deep to decrease the apparent wind and help with depowering the sail, but not so deep that the mainsail is at risk of gybing – this can especially be a problem in waves. I would recommend between 155° and 165° TWA. Leave the mainsail out in its normal downwind position and if the pilot is struggling to hold the course due to lack of speed, then increase the response level during the manoeuvre.
Once you are both in the cockpit, hoist or unfurl the jib and set it to a slightly overtrimmed position. If the jib is too far out it will interfere with the passage of the spinnaker to the cockpit. If the jib is sheeted too hard, steering can become difficult and wind will be able to circulate behind the sail and refill the spinnaker. Aim to have the clew just inside the guard rails.
Once all lines are ready to run, bring either your lazy sheet or drop-line round, outside the jib and shrouds and under the boom to the side deck. Think about where you want to position the crew for the drop. I normally have one on the side deck, next to the companionway – this is usually the strongest crewmember and they are positioned to pull the spinnaker round and under the boom. The other will manage halyards and join with stuffing the sail down the companionway when they are able, this being done from the companionway entrance.
The key to success when dropping an asymmetric spinnaker double-handed is to pull the foot of the sail round behind the jib and then the mainsail as quickly as possible to get it to deflate in the shadow of the main. I always aim to drop down the companionway hatch, rather than forward, as the mainsail will give more protection than the jib, and it allows both crewmembers to get their hands on the sail together.
First, depower the spinnaker. This is done by releasing the front corner of the sail, letting go of the tack line quickly and allowing the spinnaker to ‘flag’ out from the leech. Be aware that in stronger winds this depowering will only be momentary.
Quite quickly the spinnaker can refill and fly up to the extent of the tackline, making it unstable and harder to pull down. You must be ready to pull the tack back behind the jib and main immediately. Once the spinnaker is blanketed you can slow down your work rate.
It’s important not to drop the halyard quicker than your crew can pull the sail in. Experiment with leaving the jammer open but one or two wraps of halyard around the winch. Then with both crew pulling the spinnaker down the friction of the rope around the winch should be enough to control the speed of the drop without intervention.
To pull the spinnaker round you can:
- Use a dropping line sewn into the centre of your sail by the sailmaker. With this set up, once the tackline is released and the sail deflates, pull the dropping line fast to bring the centre of the sail behind the jib. Keep pulling until you have fabric in your hands, then force the bulk of the sail down the companionway and focus on bringing the tack back before pulling the sail down.
- Alternatively, use the lazy sheet to pull the clew of the sail into the boat, then, once the clew is in your hands, work along the foot, gathering it together and pulling the tack backwards. Once the tack and the clew are together and the sail is a deflated tube of material, ease the halyard in time with the spinnaker being stuffed down the companionway. Both crew can work on this.
With both methods, ensure the tack is not allowed to fall over the side into the water as it can quickly fill like a net and drag the rest of the sail over with it. If the spinnaker is behind the mainsail, you have time to pause the drop and get control. Do not keep dropping the sail down if the sail on deck is not under control. Once the sail is down, immediately unclip all of the corners, then check there are no lines trailing under the boat or along the hull – especially if you decide to let the tack run free. Take your time to rerig the lines, then pack the spinnaker, ready for the next hoist.
In windier conditions, if sailing a boat with an easy-to-rig, externally led tackline, remove stopper knots before the drop so in the event the sail tries to repower or falls over the side the tackline will run out and the sail will remain deflated. This could end up with a line in the water but in my experience this has been the lesser of two evils.
Easing the spinnaker halyard a couple of metres, just after the tack has been blown, can make it easier to pull the spinnaker into the cockpit under the boom. To do this, pre-set your halyard by making up the winch with 2 metres of slack between it and the jammer (ensuring this hank of rope cannot get tangled on anything else). Going into the drop all you need to do is open the tackline, then the spinnaker halyard jammer. The halyard will drop to the winch as the tackline runs out.
In bigger breeze a letterbox drop is a good method to get the spinnaker safely down. I’d not recommend using a dropping line for this, instead stick to using a lazy sheet and gathering the foot together before easing the halyard. This drop is the same process as a conventional drop but the spinnaker is passed through the gap between the boom and mainsail before heading down the companionway. This allows the spinnaker to be pinned tightly behind the mainsail during the drop and, as it passes between the mainsail and the boom, all the air is squeezed out of it. The boom also provides purchase against the sail trying to pull back out again.
Set up for the drop in the same way, but lead your lazy sheet through the ‘letterbox’ slot instead of under the boom. Once again, let the tack go to start the drop, pull the clew through the letterbox, work your way along the foot to the tack, then ease the halyard and pull the whole spinnaker through the gap and down the companionway.
Unclip lines and re-lead them as soon as possible – don’t forget they are led over the boom. If you have lazy jacks or a lazy bag, you’ll need to roll these away or lead them forward to do this drop. If you’re not able to get them out of the way then you won’t be able to do a letterbox drop.
Flaking Vs Coiling
Flaking is organising the rope into long hanks. It’s done on a hard surface like the cockpit sole or a side deck. For shorter lines, like the tackline or pole out, the hanks can be laid out side by side – with enough space this is the most snag resistant method of rope preparation. Start at the fixed end of the rope and lay out the longest hanks possible without getting in the way of other boat functions.
- Pros – Almost impossible to snag
- Cons – Requires a lot of room
For longer ropes like sheets, or where there’s less room, lines can be flaked with hanks on top of each other rather than side by side. This time start with the bitter end, lying it out with hanks as large as practical, passing the line through your hands to remove kinks and knots and piling the hanks one on top of the other. This should look like a pile, rather than an orderly coil. The aim is that when the line runs it’s always feeding cleanly from the top of the pile.
- Pros – Ensures the line is organised to run from the top of the pile
- Cons – Can get tangled around feet and other objects. Must be organised just before a drop
There are two ways of coiling lines: figure-of-eight and flat. I’d always recommend coiling longer lines like halyards and sheets in a figure eight as it’s a more natural way for the line to lie. Coil from the fixed end so you can ‘chase’ any kinks down the length of the line and out at the bitter end.
For drop preparation make large coils using a winch at one end and your hand at the other, create even figure eights with the line. Once at the bitter end either leave the line hanging over the winch for storage (if the winch isn’t in use), or capsize the coil and place it on the deck or a cockpit seat, so the bitter end is on the bottom and the fixed end will run out first.
Coiling lines is the best way to be prepared for an emergency drop. It’s not always convenient to leave them on winches – instead you could install rope tidies to hang the coiled lines ready to go.
- Pros – Can be done ahead of time, takes up less room than flaking
- Cons – Can develop snags if coils don’t sit perfectly on top of each other
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