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Racing on a windward-leeward course, with an offset mark after the weather mark, when should my crew hoist the spinnaker pole? Should it go up right at the weather mark, or a couple of boat lengths before? My boat is 42 feet long.

Dan Dickison responds:
Thanks for your question. Because I'm not familiar with your particular boat and the way that it's set up, I'll have to keep my response somewhat general. However, I'm assuming that with a 42-foot-long boat, your spin pole is probably fairly long, say roughly 15 feet and change. If it's a carbon-fiber pole, it can be easily handled by one person, with someone else tailing the topping lift. If it's made of aluminum, one person can probably handle it, but he or she will need slightly more time to get it set. I mention this because it's one of the primary factors governing when you should set your spinnaker pole.

There are a couple of other important factors that will help you to determine exactly when to get the pole on the mast and the outboard end hoisted. The first is traffic. If you round the mark without any other boats nearby, you can execute the work with the pole at whatever pace you choose. If you've got one or more boats overlapped or near enough to you to cause you to delay your set, that may or may not dictate when the pole should and can go up. Ordinarily you'd want the pole on the mast with the outboard raised and ready to support the spinnaker as you round the weather mark.

The other two factors include the distance between the offset mark and the weather mark and whether you're sailing with a well-practiced crew. (If I had a relatively inexperienced crew on board, I'd probably do everything very early, including getting the pole on the mast and getting it hoisted into position. Early, in such a situation, would probably mean raising the pole with three or four boat lengths left until the weather mark.)

Let's say you're ready to round the weather mark and you have no other boats nearby to otherwise influence your actions. If the offset mark is more than six or seven boat lengths away from the weather mark, I'd recommend that the bow person jump up from the rail to attend to the pole just as you round the weather mark. If this person is experienced, it shouldn't take him or her more than about 10 seconds to get the inboard end of the pole up and then help guide the outboard end into position as the pit person hoists the topping lift. After that, the bow person should still have sufficient time to undo the spinnaker bag (or open the hatch if you set from inside the boat) and then get to the halyard to be ready to jump it when the hoist is called.

Now, everything that I've told you up until this point assumes that you have a conventional spinnaker pole and not a bow-launching pole, and that you intend to execute a bearaway set and not a jibe-set. My remarks also assume that your crew already has the spinnaker attached to its gear (sheets, guys, and halyard) at both the clews and the head, and that the guy is in the jaw at the outboard end of the pole. It also assumes that you won't need to tack your boat before the mark. Also, remember that some boats have spinnaker pole systems that are a little more complicated than others, which essentially translates into more time needed for the bow person, so you have to factor that variable into the timing as well.

I hope this helps answer your question. If you and your crew have the time to practice, I'd recommend that you go out and do a half dozen spinnaker sets after rounding a weather mark and an offset mark. Each time you should note the time needed to get ready for the set. After you've done that you and the rest of the crew will have a much better handle on just how much time (measured in boat lengths) will be needed to get set for the hoist. Best of luck to you on the racecourse.
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