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Spinnaker Fundamentals

This is Part Six of a six-part series on Learning to Sail excerpted from Colgate's Basic Sailing, used as a text at the Offshore Sailing School. Steve Colgate calls upon a vast experience gleaned from teaching thousands of students and competing at some of the highest levels of the sport. The following article deals with symmetrical spinnakers. (Review Part Five).

Flying this downwind sail means both an increase in boatspeed and concentration.
We will conclude this series with a basic rundown of spinnaker work, for those beginners—and there are always a few—who instinctively master the essentials of sailing early, and thirst for the delight (and extra challenge) of sailing under this most picturesque of sails.

The spinnaker is like a large parachute that pulls the boat downwind. It can be set with the true wind direction anywhere from dead astern to about abeam. It's made of light nylon and adds so much sail area to the total sail plan of the boat that speed is markedly increased when a spinnaker is set.

The spinnaker is not a one-person project. Knowing the difference between the sheet, guy, and other sail controls is essential for crew communication.
Refer to Figure 1 and learn the various lines involved with spinnaker work. The spinnaker is hoisted by the spinnaker halyard. One corner is held in place by the spinnaker pole which is always set to windward opposite the main boom. The corner attached to the pole is the tack of the spinnaker and attached to it is the spinnaker "after guy" or more commonly, "guy." The free corner of the spinnaker has a sheet attached to it like any other sail. The only tricky thing about the foregoing terminology is that during a jibe, the pole is switched over to the new windward side and the old guy becomes the new sheet (attached to the free corner of the sail), while the old sheet becomes the new guy (running through the jaws in the end of the pole).

There are two lines to hold the pole in position—the topping lift to keep it from falling when the spinnaker isn't full of wind, and the foreguy (some people call it the spinnaker pole) downhaul to keep the pole from "skying" (pointing way up in the air) when the spinnaker is full.

Preparation for Setting    Starting at the head of the spinnaker, run down both edges one at a time folding each accordion style, holding the folds in one hand as you go. This will ensure that the spinnaker isn't twisted. If two edges are untwisted, the third one—the foot in this case—also has to be straight.

A flock of Colgate 26s with students honing their chute-flying skills.
Then, holding on to the folded edges and all three corners of the sail, stuff it into whatever container the boat uses to set the spinnaker from. This used to be called a "turtle" because it was originally a plywood board covered with black inner tube rubber with an opening at one end. When the spinnaker was stuffed in it, with the three corners hanging out the open end, and placed on the foredeck of the boat near the bow, it looked like a turtle. This term has been carried over even though spinnakers are now stuffed into bags, buckets or even cardboard boxes.

The halyard, sheet, and guy are then connected to the three corners. Make sure the halyard is attached to the head of the sail—the corner with the swivel. Since the spinnaker is vertically symmetrical, you can attach the sheet and guy to either of the other two corners. Make sure the sheet and guy are outside of everything on the boat (shrouds, stays, etc.) before connecting them.

Keeping the spinnaker pole at right angles to the apparent wind will help you achieve the proper trim. Also keep the clews level and the pole perpendicular to the mast. 
In the case of a Colgate 26 or larger boat, the spinnaker is usually set on the leeward side. In smaller boats, where there is danger of capsizing if a crew member goes to the leeward side of the boat, the spinnaker is set to windward and pulled around the jibstay.

Next, set up the pole to windward with the guy running through the outboard end.

The Hoist    The key to a good set is to separate the lower corners of the spinnaker as the halyard is being raised. Often this means cleating the sheet and pulling the tack of the sail out to the pole as quickly as possible with the guy, unless you have enough crew to have a person on the sheet also. The halyard should be pulled up smartly so the spinnaker will neither fall overboard into the water nor fill with air before it's all the way up. If the latter happens, the person on the halyard may have difficulty holding on unless they get a wrap around a winch or cleat in a hurry.

The Set    There are a few simple rules that form a good foundation for basic spinnaker work:

  1. Set the pole at right angles to the apparent wind. Use the masthead fly since it's in less disturbed air than the shroud telltales and make sure the pole lies perpendicular to it.
    A bird's-eye view reveals that bringing the pole back means easing the sheet, trimming the afterguy, and moving the pole in unision.
  2. Since the spinnaker is a symmetrical sail, it should look symmetrical. Neither corner should be higher than the other. If the clew is higher than the tack, the pole should be raised to even them out.
  3. The pole should be perpendicular to the mast so it will hold the tack of the spinnaker as far away from the blanketing effect of the mainsail as possible. If the pole needs to be raised, as in rule 2, don't just pull the topping lift (which raises only the outboard end), but raise the inboard end also if it's adjustable.
  4. Ease the sheet until a curl appears along the luff of the "chute" (short for parachute spinnaker, as it was formerly called) and then trim it back until the curl disappears. The spinnaker trimmer will have to watch the luff of the spinnaker constantly, because the moment he or she looks away the chute will collapse, almost as if it were waiting for him to look away.

If you follow these few basic rules you shouldn't have any trouble learning to fly a spinnaker.

The Jibe    There are two basic types of jibes: the "end for end" jibe used on small boats with light spinnaker poles and the "dip-pole" jibe used on larger boats when the pole is heavy.

Dousing the chute and keeping it out of the water requires careful crew choreography.
We'll concern ourselves with the former since it is applicable to the type of boat most sailors learn on. The person on the foredeck stands behind the pole facing forward. Just before the jibe, the foredeck crew disconnects the pole end from the mast and from the guy at the same time. As the boat turns downwind, he or she grabs the sheet and snaps the jaw of the pole over it. Then the pole is passed across the boat and the free end attached to the mast. Meanwhile, the person in the cockpit is easing the sheet and trimming the guy as the boat turns into a jibe. This keeps the spinnaker downwind and full of air. The skipper pulls the main across and, if it is blowing hard, after the boom crosses the centerline, he or she turns the boat back downwind to keep it from broaching (rounding up broadside to the wind) which it has a tendency to do after a jibe.

The Douse    Taking a spinnaker down is much like running a movie of the hoist backward. First grab the sheet as near the clew as possible and pull it into the cockpit so the spinnaker will come down behind the mainsail. Second, let the guy run free and start gathering in the foot of the sail. Third, lower the halyard fairly fast, but not so fast that you get ahead of the crew gathering it in lest the sail should fall in the water.


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