This article was originally published on SailNet in November, 2000.
As Ed Baird, Tom Burnham, and I approached the weather mark in the last race of the finals at the 1999 US Olympic Pre-Trials for the Soling, we knew a smooth and fast spinnaker set would make life much easier. We were up 1 race to 0 in the best-of-three final, and as we approached the mark, we were trailing our nearest competitor by less than a boatlength. A good set would put us right on his transom and give us more options to pass him on the final run.To make a smooth and quick transition from upwind to downwind sailing; To end up sailing fast with the kite trimmed correctly, ready to jibe if necessary; To allow the crew to get into a downwind mindset faster than the competitors.
We executed a good set and closed to just a few feet behind with our bow just to leeward of the other boat's transom. Now we were basically in control, despite the fact that we still trailed. The other boat made a move to jibe and we jibed immediately, right on his air. We were able to stay clear, roll over the top of him, and ultimately win the race—and the event. During the course of that race, there were a number of things that we had to do well to win, but in retrospect, it’s clear that executing a good, quick bear-away set was the most critical. In this case a good set gave us options and kept us in control.
Most experienced racers know that all good bear-away spinnaker sets have several common objectives:
Now, let's look at a step-by-step breakdown of the elements that go into a smooth, fast, effective set. For the purposes of illustration, I’ll use a Soling with our team Ed (helmsman), Tom (bow), and myself (middle) on board, but the general concepts apply to any keelboat with a symmetrical spinnaker. The following guidelines are scripted for fleet racing using mark roundings where the mark is left to port.
The Approach As you approach the weather mark, it is important to keep sailing the boat fast and not get caught up in obsessing about what needs to be done when rounding it. The maneuver really needs to be second nature for the entire crew and that's where practice pays off. The tactician or another dedicated person should be watching the compass to figure out what sort of a shift you are in as you round, which will help you determine if you should bear away and continue or set and then jibe immediately. In this case, we are in a left-hand shift, so we’ll bear away and continue.
Getting the Pole Up In a smaller boat with a non-overlapping jib, you can set the pole no matter what tack you're on as you approach the mark. If you are coming in on the port-tack lay line, getting the pole out to leeward will make for a quicker tack-set around the mark, but we’ll discuss the details of that in another article. Either way, try to do as much as you can from the rail. Having your weight there will help the helmsman turn the boat around the mark. Using an ink mark on your topping lift will help you set the pole to the appropriate height prior to the hoist. Our Soling is set up so that Tom can hoist the topping lift and put the pole on the mast by himself. My job is to make sure the spin gear is uncleated and free to run so that he won't have to ask for it.
Pre-feeding the Guy In some boats, it's a big advantage to pre-feed the guy and sneak the tack of the kite all the way to the pole end before you round the mark. In other boats—typically smaller ones—you don't need to have it out that far. Either way, make sure the clews aren't caught on anything life lifeline stanchions and are ready to run free. After putting up the pole, Tom opens the spinnaker bag, frees up the clews, and takes the halyard out of its clip. Meanwhile, on board our boat, I am still hiking, watching the compass, and racing in an upwind mode along with Ed.
The Rounding As you round the mark, make sure that most of the crew keeps hiking the boat flat so that you’ll need less rudder to turn the boat. Before I leave the rail, I ease the cunningham (if it is on) so that the main sets up nicely right away. Ed eases the main, and lets the rig go forward as we round. In a Soling, we also let the shrouds go forward at this point, setting up the rig for downwind. I don't see much reason to ease the jib too far. If you ease it too much, then the kite can get caught underneath it as it gets hoisted, and having an eased main and a slightly sheeted jib should allow your boat to bear away a little more quickly.
The Hoist Once the bow is through the turn, I leave the rail and Ed calls for the hoist. Whether it’s the helmsman or the crew boss or the tactician who makes the call, the crew should really wait for the hoist call so that the maneuver is coordinated. It is also critical that the guy gets squared as the halyard goes up to avoid any potential wraps. If possible, the helmsman should let the crew know if he or she will be staying on a hot angle or steering down all the way. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page, and that the pole is not over or under-squared. On our Soling, we rig it so Tom pulls up the halyard, Ed trims the guy back on the set, and I feed the kite out of the bag and then jump on the sheet. Make sure the kite gets out and away from the boat. The tendency for many less-experienced trimmers is to over-trim right out of a set. It’s important to get the spinnaker eased right away to a fast setting, with a nice curl. If you over-trim, you risk having the boats behind close the gap and ruin any clear air you might have gained with your quick set.
After the kite is up and drawing, getting the jib down or rolled up on the furler (and keeping it out of the water out of the way) right away is the first priority for the crew. If you do this too early though, the headsail can get fouled in the spinnaker as it goes up, so don't be too anxious. But the quicker the jib is out of the way, the quicker you’ll get into your fast downwind mode.
At this stage it's extremely important to focus on just the necessary things—getting the outhaul eased, the backstay untensioned, the crew weight in the most productive spots, etc. Any sort of extra cleanup should wait for a while after the set because the priority is to get the boat moving at optimum speed first then to start looking aft for pressure and shifts and focus on the quickest escape from the crowd. I strongly recommend against sending anyone up to the bow right after the set because that will only serve to bury the bow and slow the boat down. Only do what is necessary to get the boat moving at optimum speed.
Just like everything else in sailing, a little time spent practicing beforehand will make your life easier once you're out on the racecourse. Doing the little things correctly, like executing a good bear-away set, can gain you boatlengths and keep you sailing fast around the race track. Good luck, sail fast, and have fun.
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