In the first of a new series on double handed sailing skills, Pip explains hoisting 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.
Learning to manage your autopilot well is as important as handling sails for all short-handed manoeuvres. As you start to gain experience it’s a good idea to record settings that have worked with wind angles and response levels for each manoeuvre, and include setting up the pilot in your checklists.
For spinnaker hoists set the pilot to a true wind angle to ensure you don’t get caught out by gusts or wind shifts. If you have a pilot that automatically switches between true and apparent wind, check which one you’re using. If true has not been selected, try turning the pilot off, pointing the boat downwind and then re-engaging wind mode. Failing that, manually select true wind mode.
If hoisting at a racing mark, you’ll set up the spinnaker and perform the pre-hoist actions while on compass mode or sailing at a high wind angle. If there’s the luxury of time and space, I perform the whole manoeuvre at a low wind angle to keep the foredeck relatively flat and the apparent wind low. Your hoisting wind angle needs to be low to decrease the apparent wind, but not so low the spinnaker is allowed to twist during the hoist. The stronger the breeze the lower you can sail; aim for between 150°-165° true wind angle.
Double handed skills: Set up to hoist
Once the pilot has control, the helmsman can move forward in the cockpit to ensure halyards, tackline and sheets will run free while the trimmer heads to the foredeck and plugs the spinnaker in. I always launch my spinnakers from the bag, rather than out of a forward hatch, when double handed sailing. The bag can be moved around the foredeck easily and keeps the sail well contained pre-hoist.
When and how you set up your bowsprit will depend on your boat. If flying an asymmetric from a conventional spinnaker pole, set it up before bringing the spinnaker on deck. If your bowsprit extends then set up the spinnaker and pull out the pole as part of your hoist. If you have a fixed bowsprit then roll straight into setting up the spinnaker.
Attach the bag to leeward, underneath the jib, making sure it is clipped on quite far forward to minimise the amount of tack exposed before the hoist. Attach the sheets, halyard and tackline. Check that you’ve not trapped lazy sheets under the spinnaker bag. Release the corners of the sail from the bag, but keep the bag itself loosely done up to avoid the spinnaker escaping too early.
At this point it’s a good idea to set the jib trim to the optimal position for a hoist. This may mean trimming it in. The function of the jib now is to provide a wind break behind which the spinnaker can go up. If headsails are too eased, the spinnaker halyard can end up fouling on the leech of the jib. As a rule of thumb, I trim the headsail so the foot is inside the guardrail and there’s enough room for the spinnaker to pass between the foot and the rail. If in doubt, trim the jib in.
Once the sail is plugged in and lines set, confirm by voice or hand signals that both crewmembers are ready and go for the hoist.
Double handed skills: The hoist
During the hoist, one crewmember will remain on the foredeck, the other will manage the cockpit and the pilot will drive. Communication is important and for the crew in the cockpit it’s essential to remain facing forward, and trying to keep a good view of the spinnaker if it snags or looks like it might come out of the bag early.
To ensure the tack does not escape from the bag, the tackline jammer must be open with the line clear to run. The foredeck crew can keep a hand on the forward end of the spinnaker bag if necessary.
From the cockpit, pre-set the spinnaker sheet so the sail will fly loosely after the hoist. The sheet should be tight enough to stop the sail from flying forwards and flogging, but not so tight the spinnaker will fill and heel the boat over. The further back you pull the clew, the quicker your spinnaker will fill, so while learning or in more challenging conditions, keep the clew in the bag. For a quicker fill help the clew out of the bag placing the sail on the deck, inside the guardrails, this way it should be protected from the wind and safe from falling over the side. I aim for the clew to be pulled back level with the shrouds, and then locked off on the winch.
Once the sheet is set, pull the tack to the end of the sprit. The foredeck crew may need to open the front of the bag and help the tack out and over the pulpit. At this point the sail may start to inflate so keep the back of the spinnaker bag closed – in windier conditions consider wooling the kite (see panel above right). Once the tack is at the end of the pole, lock it off in the cockpit, open the spinnaker bag and move quickly on to the hoist.
The hoist should be performed with one crew at the mast and the other tailing in the cockpit. Keep the jammer closed, but don’t put a turn around the winch unless you intend to grind the halyard; this will only add friction to the system. It’s a great idea to have cam cleats on the mast so the foredeck crew can temporarily lock off the halyard before it loads up. These should only ever be used as a temporary measure and the halyard always tailed through to the main jammer as soon as possible after the hoist.
Place full hoist marks on the halyard, at the mast and by the cockpit jammers so that both crew can easily see if the sail is up, even in the dark. If you’re not able to hoist the sail in one go, you can either ease the spinnaker sheet until the sail flogs and then sweat the halyard at the mast, or for smaller distances load the halyard onto a winch and grind up the rest without easing the sheet. After the hoist, drop or furl the jib – the spinnaker may not fly until the jib is either eased, or dropped.
As soon as your spinnaker is in the air, think about how you are going to drop it. Flake your lazy sheet, halyard, tackline and stow them in a place where they can easily be managed.
Snuffers take some of the risk out of hoisting and dropping spinnakers but will add weight to the top of the rig and the resulting sail may end up compromised on size, volume and hoist height.
Set up for the hoist in the same way, attaching lines, setting the bowsprit and pulling out the tack. You could drop your jib before hoisting the snuffer as working on a clean foredeck can make it easier to manage snuffer lines, but remember the jib can still provide some shelter in windy conditions. Do not pre-set your spinnaker sheet prior to hoisting a snuffer – it’s important the clew does not pull out before the sock is raised.
Hoist the spinnaker in the sock, making sure the snuffer lines go up cleanly with the sock. If your spinnaker halyard is well above the forestay it might be possible to lead the snuffer lines around the front of the boat and unsnuff the sail from a position to windward of the forestay. This may not work for fractional sails, where to avoid friction against the forestay a position to leeward can be better.
Ensure the spinnaker sheet is pulled on at the same rate the sock is being lifted. If necessary, pause on hoisting the sock to allow the sheet to catch up. If the spinnaker starts to fill from the bottom, it can funnel air up into the sock and the snuffer will lift on its own, this is fine so long as the foredeck crew has their feet clear of the snuffer line and is only pulling on the upline. They simply need to keep pulling the upline to take up the slack.
Once the sail is flying, tie off the snuffer upline to ensure the sock does not drop down over the head of the sail. I bring mine back to U-bolts at the base of the mast with quick release knots. Try to keep the up and down lines separate so they do not twist, and it’s a great idea to have a coloured mark on the down line so it’s easy to identify in the dark.
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