There is nothing quite like a day in the trades with a warm wind at your back and the horizon ahead stretched in a wide arc like open arms just waiting for you. You are romping downwind with every inch of sail set, your boat rollicking and reveling in the conditions while you hang on tight with a knot the size of a monkey fist in your gut. You hate sailing downwind because you’re afraid — afraid that the boat will get out of control or something will go wrong. Yet, at the same time, you want the thrill of the ride, and so you keep the sails set. Welcome to a place where we’ve all been. The place between fear and fabulous sailing. Now is the time to learn more about sailing off the wind, so that you can be better prepared the next time you’re out there. I hope this article arms you with the knowledge you’ll need to sail safely and have more fun, especially when sailing downwind.So what are your choices? Well, it depends upon your boat, the number of crew you’re sailing with, and how you like to sail. Are you a singlehander who likes to go fast? I am. I sailed across the Atlantic alone last year and managed to sleep while sailing with a big asymmetrical set. My laptop recorded a top speed of 15 knots while I dozed, oblivious to the spray flying. I also sailed to the Caribbean and never set a spinnaker at night because the crew were not confident in their ability to get it down. (Or were they more prudent than I? Probably.) Let’s assume you are a voyaging couple who have some blue-water experience, a well-found boat and a slight need for speed. Your boat came with all the bits needed to set a spinnaker, but you are not sure if it’s a good idea. I think it is, especially during the day when you can see the weather coming. Remember that at night with cooling air and warm water you’re going to get small, localized squalls that can thump you when you least expect it, so for now let’s concentrate on spinnaker sailing during the day, and something a bit more conservative for the dark hours. Setting a symmetrical spinnaker shorthanded can be an exercise in preplanning and diligence, but the results are worth the effort. There is no better way to sail downwind than with the pole pulled aft and the chute square to the breeze. All it takes is a creative way to set the thing, and a creative way to douse it. Never forget that it is always easier to set a spinnaker than it is to get rid of it. There are two ingredients to a successful set. A pole guy and sock, in that order. A pole guy is a separate line that runs from the end of your spinnaker pole and through a block on the deck to its own winch. It is there to set and secure the position of the pole independent of the after-guy, which is attached to the clew of the sail. With the pole guy in place you can set up a trip mechanism to release your spinnaker in a sudden emergency. You need a Sparcraft shackle and a short length of line. When you set the spinnaker, run the short length of line through the Sparcraft shackle (that attaches to the clew of the spinnaker), attaching it to the spinnaker pole. With the pole held in a fixed position by the pole guy, you need only surge the after-guy to trip the spinnaker. The pole remains firm, and the short length of line snaps tight and exerts pressure on the Sparcraft shackle which opens and releases the clew, and down it comes. Well, down it comes as long as you have part B of the equation in place.
Part B applies to both symmetrical and asymmetrical spinnakers. In order to set and douse them you need a spinnaker sock. Asymmetrical spinnakers work fine because you can set and douse the beast in the lee of the mainsail. With a symmetrical spinnaker set on a pole, however, it’s a different story. You need to square the pole before setting the chute, and that becomes more of a challenge. There is, however, a simple trick you can try that works. A proper setIn order for your spinnaker to set properly, you need to have your pole squared and your sheet set before the spinnaker fills with air. Set it too early and the spinnaker will oscillate like the pendulum on a runaway grandfather clock. Here is how you do it. Set the sail in a sock with the clew attached to the pole, Sparcraft trip mechanism in place. Set your sheet so that when the sail opens it will have the correct tension. (You should mark the sheet with whipping and magic marker so that you know precisely where to set it.) Run the set and douse lines from the sock through a double cheek block that you pull out to the end of the spinnaker pole with a third line run through a fairlead. You need to have the control lines for the sock led through a block directly under the sock for it to work. The ends of the control lines run through the cheek blocks and to you on deck. (If you run the control lines for you spinnaker sock through a ratchet block attached to a secure point on the rail of your boat, you will find it easier to set and douse the sail. It is safer and more effective to be pulling up from a block on the rail using your arms and back than it is to hang on to the lines and pull down.) Once the pole is in place with the pole guy, the clew of the spinnaker pulled aft, and the sheet set, you can then raise the sock and set the spinnakerit’s that easy. Until you need to get it down! You have to douse it in the lee of your mainsail and the only way you can do that is to trip the spinnaker with your trip mechanism, release the line that holds the control lines for the sock, and let the whole shebang float into the lee of the main. At this point it is an easy maneuver to douse the sail.
The same applies for asymmetrical spinnakers. They are a versatile, efficient and enjoyable way to sail off the wind if you learn a few simple rules for getting them up and, more importantly, getting them down. You don’t need a bowsprit; however, one is nice to have if you can somehow add it. It allows you to get the sail out away from the effects of the rest of your sails and to set better. If you do not have one, run a tack line through a block on your bow making sure that there is no chafe point. The sailing equipment company ATN makes a piece of hardware called a tacker. This allows you to have the tack of the spinnaker kept snug up against the forestay instead of sagging off to leeward. You want the sail area to be as far forward as possible, otherwise the spinnaker will drag you sideways causing a lot of leeway.Size and shape of the asymmetrical spinnaker is also critical. While it’s not always true, a rule of thumb is that the wind flows across an asymmetrical, and down a symmetrical spinnaker, so you need to sail accordingly. Because you are not able to rotate the asymmetrical around square to the wind, you will need to sail higher wind angles to keep it full and pulling. This in turn will lead to more gybing, but the good news is that gybing is easy, especially if you have a sock. Simply douse the sail, re-lead the sheet and tack lines, and reset the sail on the other side. When dousing the sail be sure that you are working in the dead air behind the mainsail. Run off to a broad wind angle so that there is a lee. Never try and get the sail down on a reachit will flap out to leeward, making it impossible to douse. With the wind angle right, release the tack line and let the sail float toward the main where you will easily be able to snug it with the sock.
Many of you will be feeling a bit seasick by now. There is simply too much to remember, too many details that might go wrong, and too short a space of time to execute it safely. I don’t blame you, but try this when there is little wind and you will get the hang of it. If you don’t like the idea of spinnakers, there is always plan C, and plan C is your secret weapon. When I sail alone I have just the sail to help with my downwind performance. I designed it as a foolproof way to gain sail area and speed while not jeopardizing my safety. I call it the rattler. It works on the simple theory that sailboats prefer to pulled than pushed. You need sail area up front to draw you along, rather than a big mainsail shoving your bow down and tripping you up. Double-headsail rig
The rattler is essentially two wing-on-wing headsails joined at the luff and set either on your forestay, or on a roller-furler just in front or just behind it. You set the sail with your spinnaker halyard, tweak the windward side out with your spinnaker pole or whisker pole, and sheet the other side through a block on the rail. A well-proportioned rattler should not be much less sail area than a spinnaker; however, it has the advantage of being secured so that it doesn’t oscillate, and is easier to set and douse. It’s made from nylon so it doesn’t weigh much and it stows easily. On my boat the sail hanks on to the forestay, and the spinnaker halyard is led aft so that it can be reached from the cockpit. When I set the rattler, I often deep reef or douse the mainsail where there is no chance of an accidental gybe, and run downwind with the sail pulling me along. If a sudden squall happens, I simply dump the halyard and the whole thing falls to the deck. When the squall passes its a simple matter to hoist the halyard again. All the lines are in place, and within seconds the sail is set and drawing.If you are one of those who still have hanks on your headstay, the rattler will set with hanks run down the middle of the sail. You only need a few of them, widely spaced, to secure it to the forestay and stop the oscillation. If you have a rolled-up headsail on your forestay, you can set the rattler on its own roller-furling unit just in front of or just behind the forestay. The two wing-on-wing headsails are joined in the middle with a low-stretch line like Spectra or Vectran. With the halyard hoisted tight against the line, it stops any oscillation, and you can set and douse the sail with a quick pull on the roller-furling line. You can have the line led aft to the cockpit so that the sail can be set and doused without having to go onto the foredeck. In all it’s a great alternative to a spinnaker without much loss of performance.
The Amel Super Maramu 2000, 53-foot voyaging vessels built in France, make use of this double-headsail arrangement with a double pole system and fittings that allow an owner to set up a double headsail and lock everything into place. This setup then requires a minimum of attention until it’s time to douse the headsails.
Finally, if you are of a conservative nature, or simply have ample time to get there, you can roll on downwind with a poled-out headsail. It is a safe and secure way of sailing off the wind. You might have noticed, however, that your boat is easier to steer (read easier for your autopilot) when you have good boat speed. Wallowing along with too little sail up is hard on the helm, so don’t be afraid of setting sail. By squaring your headsail to the wind and securing it with the pole, you have little chance of anything going wrong. A 100% to 110% fairly high-cut jib works the best. If the sail is too large it will flop around, and if it’s too small, there will not be enough power there to move you along. You can go one better by setting another sail to leeward. There is a lot of wind that flows across a poled-out headsail, and another jib set to leeward can harness this breeze and move you along. Even a small sail like a storm jib works (remember buying the sail and thinking you would never use it?). It collects the wind off the poled-out jib, powers you along, and as a bonus, it balances the helm allowing you (or your autopilot) to steer a straighter course. If you feel a need to reduce sail, reef the main. It’s not doing much other than loading your helm.
So, there you have some suggestions for safe and simple ways to sail with the wind at your back. It is truly one of life’s great pleasures and so much more enjoyable without the knot in the belly. Try out some of these ideas when the wind is light, and sail conservatively at night, but in the heat of the day give it a go.