A few years ago, while competing in the US SAILING's Match Racing National Championship, Mason Woodworth, Randy Shore, and I witnessed firsthand the importance of being able to execute a good jibe-set. Luckily for us, we were on the winning end of that maneuver.
When approaching the final weather mark of a critical race late in the event, we were trailing our competitors by about a boatlength. We decided that we would split with them around the mark, no matter what. If they jibed-set, we would bear away, and if they bore away, we were intent on jibe-setting. In order to be ready for either option, we had decided we would set without a spinnaker pole, leaving us the flexibility for either maneuver. Our competitors decided to bear away and so we jibed around the mark and set. Our set was a good one, and it ultimately put us in good position for a little increase in breeze—just enough to allow us to get around the other boat and win the race.
That incident took place in a match-racing event, but knowing how to jibe-set can be a boon in any racing format. In an earlier article (Bear-Away Spinnaker Sets), I discussed the various steps for executing a good bear-away set. Many aspects of the jibe-set are similar to the bear-away, but there are a few critical differences. For the purposes of this article, I'll make the following assumptions:
1. We are fleet racing on windward-leeward course, with the top mark to be left to port.
2. We are sailing a boat with a symmetrical spinnaker.
3. We have taken down the spinnaker at the previous leeward mark on the port
side of the boat.
(It makes a great deal of sense to take the spinnaker down on the port side almost all of the time when rounding marks to port. By taking it down on the port side, you are automatically set up to execute either a straight bear-away set or a jibe-set.)
A jibe-set can be more difficult than a bear-away in some ways, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. It simply requires more rotation of the spinnaker to avoid getting it caught up and wrapped in the rigging.
The Approach As with a bear-away set, it is important to keep racing the boat upwind all the way into the mark. The tactician (or whoever is watching the compass) should keep an eye on the wind shifts as the boat closes on the mark. Knowing what phase the wind is in will be important because it will be one of the determining factors regarding whether to bear away or jibe-set. For the purposes of this article, we'll say that the wind is in a right-hand shift, so a jibe-set makes sense. As you head into the mark on starboard, keep as much crew weight on the rail as possible to keep the boat moving fast upwind.
Since you'll be jibing around the mark, you don't want to deploy the pole until after the jibe. On smaller boats, some crews prefer to set the spinnaker without the pole, just to get the sail up and drawing. Whether you set with the pole or without it, make sure that all the gear is ready to go. The clews of the spinnaker should be free and disentangled from any obstacles, and the halyard attached to the head of the spinnaker. A slow rotation of the kite will prevent you from having a good set. On bigger boats, some crews prefer to hoist the pole on the inboard end so that only the topping lift has to go up. Then they jibe the headsail over the pole. Having a mark on your topping lift is important as well because it will allow you to easily set the control to the optimal spot immediately after the jibe.
In some boats, pre-feeding the guy is critical. On smaller boats it is not as important. At a minimum, make sure the hatch or bag is open and ready to go, and keep hiking.
The Rounding Keep hiking the boat around the mark so you will need less rudder to turn the boat down. If you have the cunningham tensioned, ease it as you leave the rail, and in bigger breeze (and especially on a bigger boat with a large main) have someone ease the vang around the mark. This too will help the boat bear away quickly. The vang will then have to be trimmed back to a good downwind setting, so make sure know what that is or you have good marks on it. Ease the main and jibsheets and try to focus on making a smooth, fast turn around the mark.
The Hoist There should be one person responsible for calling the hoist, and the entire crew should wait for that call. Once the call is made, the halyard should go up quickly and the afterguy should be pulled back quickly and aggressively. The sooner you get the spinnaker out of and in front of the boat the better your set will be. As a trimmer, I prefer to visualize the jibe-set as a bear-away set first followed by an almost simultaneous jibe. As you rotate the spinnaker during your jibe, make sure someone is ready to act like the "human guy" pushing the afterguy out until the pole is up. On a big boat, make sure someone has that assignment full-time. On smaller keelboats, the trimmer can do this himself once he crosses the boat.
Once the jibe is complete, and the jib has crossed the boat, the pole can go up. The sooner the better, but if it takes a moment to get it up, that won't be the end of the world. The important thing is get and keep the spinnaker flying, relying on your "human guy" to help you out. During the jibe, it's important to sheet the jib in tightly on the new side so that the spinnaker can go up with minimal friction, especially in lighter winds. Then the jib should come down as quickly as possible. The windier the conditions, the less effect the jib will have on the spinnaker, but you'll want to get it out of there as soon as the spinnaker is drawing.
Red Light As with any spinnaker set, focus on the necessary aspects of getting the kite deployed and the boat sailing fast downwind. After that, I recommend a "red light" for other adjustments and duties that can wait until later on in the run so that the whole team can focus on boat speed. Make sure the backstay is eased, and the outhaul released, and the vang set. Then get the crew weight in the most advantageous position for the given conditions. These are really the principal considerations right after the set.
As I wrote in my previous article, practice will make this maneuver less difficult and the mystery will eventually disappear. Envisioning the maneuver as a no-pole, bear-away set with an immediate jibe might help in the execution. Personally, the mental picture is more palatable and the pieces of the maneuver fit together better when seen this way. No matter what, having the ability to execute a good weather-mark rounding will be a critical weapon for you and your crew, and being able to execute a perfect jibe-set adds another arrow to the quiver. So practice, practice, practice. Good luck and sail fast.
Considering the Factors
When it comes to spinnaker sets, the most important decision will occur several boatlengths prior to the windward mark—will you bear away or jibe? A big factor in making this decision will be the angle of the wind, but there are other important considerations as well.
There may be more wind or favorable current on one side vs. the other of the racecourse. And the traffic on the layline to the mark might prohibit a jibe-set. If you are sailing in a big fleet, be cautious when considering a jibe-set. It's probably the wrong call if you anticipate a long line of boats coming into the mark on the starboard-tack layline. The air underneath these boats—into which you will be jibing—will be spotty and disturbed. In this case it will almost always make better sense to bear away, sail for a few lengths and then jibe.