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The Basics of Doing the Bow—Part Two

This article was originally published on SailNet in January, 2001.

Helping to get your skipper off the starting line without any fouls or being over early is just one of the tasks assigned to the bowman.
In my previous article The Basics of Doing the Bow
, I discussed some of the essential elements required to succeed as the bow crew aboard a racing boat. Now the next step is practicing. As a bow crew, you need to develop techniques that will enable you to execute each maneuver in your repertoire comfortably and quickly . The variables involved often include the team that is backing you up. In a smaller boat with fewer crew, you are usually on your own and can only expect to get help when the veins start popping out on your forehead. With larger boats, there are usually more people available to assist, and that ordinarily means a mast person and a floater.

In this article, I'll concentrate on boats with symmetrical spinnakers and conventional spinnaker poles, and I'll save the intricacies of dip-pole jibing as well as asymmetrical spinnaker jibes for a later article. Thankfully, the confusion created by last-minute changes in headsail selection is normally not a factor because most boats that use the end-for-end approach ordinarily carry only one headsail for each specific wind range. In many cases, however, the bow person will do the work of the pit crew, which can make for a few action-packed moments up front.

The tricky part of doing the bow comes with the actual sail handling. Of course the maneuvers involving the headsail are easy. On most boats you just have to be sure that all of the hanks are on (or the luff tape is run through the prefeeder and into the luff groove), and that the headsail sheets are led correctly. If the boat you are sailing is set up with the bow crew in charge of the genoa halyard, make sure you have a good gauge for the halyard tension with settings marked for the various conditions and for the different headsails. Prior to the start and before each leeward mark rounding, you'll have a firm idea of the tension needed and you can get the halyard set at least to ballpark accuracy.

For the bow person on almost any size boat, there aren't really that many maneuvers to master. You'll need to know how to pack a spinnaker, how to run the spinnaker gear (sheets and guys), how to skirt a headsail, how to douse a spinnaker, and how to jibe a spinnaker pole, among other skills. The last maneuver listed, the jibe, is often the one most critical to your boat's performance. The goal for each kind of jibe is the same, but the technique will vary depending upon the conditions. The idea is to rotate the spinnaker around the bow and get the pole attached to the new guy and then back on the mast without having the spinnaker collapse. Simple, right? Here's a quick overview of the different kinds of end-for-end jibes you'll need to master, along with a few pointers.

Perfecting a few light-air techniques will enable the aspiring bow person to execute maneuvers in those difficult conditions with relative ease.
Light-Air    Rotating the spinnaker during light-air jibes is critical, and even though the trimmer has more control over this maneuver than anyone else on board, if the jibe goes badly, you know who will get the blame. Chances are your boat will be sailing higher VMG angles in these conditions, so it will have to be turned dead downwind as the pole is squared, and then the boat will continue the turn, heading up to the new reaching angle. This is a big turn, which means big rotation for the sail to keep it full. To successfully complete the rotation, the bow person's contribution to the maneuver is to trip the pole out early from the spinnaker guy. This allows the trimmer to get the new sheet all the way around the boat while easing the new guy to the headstay, keeping the sail flying without under-trimming it. Along with a perfectly timed turn by the helmsman and the rest of the crew rolling the boat, an early trip by the bow person will help keep the sail full.

While all of this is happening, you'll have to attach the spinnaker pole to the new guy, then push the pole outboard and forward and finally attach the inboard end to the mast. It is important to push the pole forward, toward the headstay, on the new windward side. Pushing perpendicular to the boat, or anywhere other than forward, will be the equivalent of pulling the guy aft. Doing that while the boat is heading up to a reaching angle will cause the sail to collapse or become over-trimmed.

Moderate-air conditions mean business as usual for the bow crew.
Moderate-Air   Under most circumstances, moderate-air conditions are a cakewalk for the bow person. Downwind, most boats with symmetrical spinnakers can sail pretty low, and a jibe in this situation will require less of a turn and consequently less rotation of the sail than a light-air jibe. The same technique applies as in the light-air jibe, but the turn won' t be as radical or the rotation as aggressive.

Heavy-Air    Jibes in heavy air are usually the most difficult jibes to pull off, and they can also be the most photogenic. The boat barely needs to turn and the spinnaker barely rotates, but the boom and the spinnaker pole need to switch sides, both of which can happen almost effortlessly or with great difficulty. Often, all of this can occur at once, setting up a domino effect where bad things happen one after the other.

The secret here is to perform the maneuver while the boat is moving fast, which often means while surfing down a wave. When the boat is going fast in this fashion, the apparent wind is reduced, which in turn reduces the loads on the boat, sails, and equipment. It's ultimately up to the helmsman to pick the spot, and call for the jibe, but this is a maneuver where the bow person truly earns his or her keep. As the boom gets thrown across, the spinnaker pole should be unloaded and therefore easily detached from the mast, snapped onto the new guy, and then back on the mast.

In heavy air, proper timing on the jibes can mean the difference between success and survival on the racecourse.
This maneuver for the bow person is really no different than the moderate-air jibe. If you've perfected that, the heavy-air jibe is the same, just faster. The difficult part usually comes at the end of the jibe, when the bow crew needs to get the pole back on the mast, but the load on the pole surges almost exponentially. Be patient, and hopefully if the boat's heading is dead-downwind and the spinnaker is squared, the pole won't be needed immediately. If you don't get the pole reattached before it loads up, just hold on to it and wait for the next wave so that you can get the pole back on the mast when the sail isn't so loaded up. If a more pressing situation develops for some reason, ask loudly and clearly for help. Usually it just takes an adrenaline-fired burst in the heat of the moment and an extra hand from the person behind you to complete this job.

In the next article on doing the bow, I'll cover the remaining maneuvers that face those game enough to spend their racing hours up at the pointy end.

Suggested Reading List

The Basic of Doing the Bow by Rich Bowen

Communicating on Board by Betsy Allison

Making Mark Roundings Work for You by Dan Dickison

SailNet Store Section: Spinnaker Poles

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