Have you ever found yourself in the back half of the fleet during a race, or even an entire regatta? Perhaps you have even had some good company back there in the cheap seats with the local fleet champion or someone else with stellar credentials sharing a bad race with you. Let's say you're on the approach to the downwind finish line of a windward-leeward course thinking ‘this one couldn't be over soon enough.' You're in a tight pack of four boats approaching the finish line, and everyone is watching the local hero at the tail end as if to say "Boy, Brad sure is having a bad one." Suddenly, that boat jibes onto starboard towards your group of three and you wonder, ‘Why did he do that?' Then the realization hits, and your boat along with the other three scramble to jibe as pandemonium ensues. Fifteen seconds after jibing onto starboard, Brad and his team execute another perfect roll jibe to port and go on to finish the race ahead of all of the rest of you.
Wait a minute. How did that happen? You've probably heard the answer many times before—practice, practice, practice. (Of course it doesn't hurt to maintain your competitive attitude all the way across the finish line even if you're at the tail end of the fleet because every point counts.) But that boat made you look like a chump because he knew exactly how to handle the situation, and had a crew that knew how to execute a flawless jibe. Remember, when you're sailing down wind, the boat with the opportunity to attack is the boat behind. That's something to keep in mind whether you're ahead or behind.
The critical aspect of that boat's last-minute success in the foregoing scenario is knowing how to jibe. For boats that jibe their spinnaker poles in the end-for-end fashion, there are three basic techniques to perfect. There is the light-air jibe, the moderate-air jibe, and the heavy-air jibe. Let's take a look at each of them in turn and hopefully won't have to suffer the above fate again.
Light Air The key to a successful jibe is the rotation of the spinnaker around the front of the boat and keeping the sail full and drawing throughout the maneuver. In light conditions (depending upon the kind of boat you sail), you will most likely be sailing higher apparent wind angles in order to keep the boat speed up. With this in mind, it would be very difficult to bear away, squaring the pole, then jibe the pole and head up on the new jibe, while keeping the spinnaker full as you would ordinarily do. In light conditions, it is easiest to trip the pole before the boat is aimed dead downwind. This allows the helmsman to turn the boat a little more quickly and the spinnaker trimmer to rotate the sail with the turn of the boat.
The early trip of the pole, combined with a nice roll from the rest of the crew (we'll cover roll jibes in another article later on), facilitates the turn and the rotation of the sail, all of which combine to help keep the sail full. If you attempt a more conventional jibe, waiting to trip the pole until you are squared downwind, chances are the spinnaker is going to collapse and possibly wrap itself around the headstay. After that the bowman will become a nylon silhouette on the foredeck, unable to trip the pole away from the spinnaker because there is no pressure in the sail to help the new sheet out of the jaws at the end of the pole.
Moderate Air In moderate conditions, it is much easier to pull off the "textbook" jibe. You will probably be sailing deeper angles in this pressure, which will result in less of an extreme turn for the helmsman, and thus less rotation for the trimmers because the pole will be more square to begin with. The upshot of this for the bow crew is that this person can trip the pole from the mast and the sail (simultaneously), and then clip into the new guy and then the mast in pretty short order.
Bigger Breeze As the breeze continues to build, things always get more exciting and boat handling becomes a little more challenging, particularly downwind. Hopefully, you and your team will already have had a chance to iron out the basics in more manageable, lighter conditions. Essentially, the same techniques apply in heavy air, but it pays to be a little more careful about picking your spot to turn the boat. If it is windy, chances are there will be some waves accompanying the breeze. Ideally, the opportunity to make your maneuver will come when the apparent wind diminishes, in other words, when the boat and sails are less loaded because you're riding down a wave. If you can find a moment when the boat is surfing down a wave, this will decrease the load on the rudder, allowing the helmsman to turn the boat more easily. The load on the sails will also be reduced, which allows the boom to be thrown across boat and the spinnaker pole to be jibed more easily.
All of that sounds pretty simple just reading it, but the key to success is getting out on the water—before any big regatta—and practicing the boat handling. If you have to, get out there with your race crew during the Tuesday night series, but even better organize a couple of hours of practice after work or on a Saturday afternoon.
One thing I've learned is that practice works best when it's more difficult than the racing you do. If it isn't, try to make your practice sessions more challenging. Always go out to practice with a list of goals in mind, and discuss specific maneuvers that you want to improve on. Start out easy, picking or setting a couple of marks that are fairly far apart, as you complete each lap or two, pick a closer mark or move your marks closer together. Take breaks when there are mistakes and discuss what is happening. Take a moment to drink some water, eat some snacks, and then try it again. If you can, try to have someone in a motorboat watching, and later on making suggestions. And if possible, rotate crewmembers into the motorboat so that everyone has an opportunity to see the action from off the boat. Then end the session with a round of maneuvers in rapid succession or at least a very short windward-leeward series with at least six jibes on each downwind leg.
When race day finally rolls around, the team will be confident in its ability to execute the required maneuvers flawlessly, and this goes doubly so for jibes. You'll find that it will also be easier to anticipate the timing of each maneuver with other competitors around you. And practice like that will give your helmsman more confidence in certain situations, such as a tight mark roundings or a close port–starboard tack crossings. Before you know it, you'll be jibing like pros.
Technique and Timing
Timing is everything, goes the old maxim, and when it comes to end-for-end jibing, that wisdom applies in spades. On most boats, end-for-end jibing a spinnaker pole is a one-person job, which makes the timing—and technique—all the more important. Some foredeck crews prefer to release the inboard end of the pole before the outboard end, and some vice versa. It's all a matter of what works for you and what will keep the sail flying through the jibe.
Once the jibe has been called, the foredeck crew must spring into action, which ordinarily means bracing him or herself against the mast in order to keep both arms free for the procedure. The first step is to grab the old sheet (which will become the new guy) and then trip the outboard end of the pole to release the old guy. However, if it's windy, the pole is likely to be under a great deal of load and it might require two hands to safely detach it from the mast. If that's the case, grab the old sheet after the inboard end of the pole is free. Put the new guy into the outboard end of the pole as the boat moves through the jibe and then quickly thrust the pole outward and reattach it to the mast. If the boat is performing a reach-to-reach jibe, the bow person should have plenty of time to do the job, but avoid getting caught behind schedule because once the boat starts heading up on the new jibe, it will be increasingly difficult to reattach the pole.