It was mid January when we left Mexico, heading north with the current between Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsular, sailing in light easterly winds yet making 8 knots over the ground with the help of the current as we passed into the Gulf, Mexico to port and Cuba not so distant to starboard.
Because of the time of year, I had increased the number of crew from 2 to 4 as I anticipated that we would encounter some pretty strong fronts a little further north and later we did. But for a couple of days out there in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico we had light southerly winds and we flew the Spinnaker from dawn till dusk, taking it down before dark while there were plenty of crew around to help.
Those two days were magical. We were all relaxed and content, headed homeward in perfect conditions. Deep deep-blue seas, electric blue skies across which floated tranquil patches of fair weather cumulus, and the boat frolicking along behind the huge red white and blue spinnaker. It was calming and exciting all at once. Two days sailing that I will never forget.
But often flying a spinnaker is far more demanding, requiring extra gear, more work and involving a higher risk of damage to boat and crew. For all these reasons, many sailors opt to never try using their spinnaker even in the most benign conditions. In this short column there is clearly not sufficient space to describe fully how to rig, hoist, set, trim and lower a spinnaker (whole books are written on the subject) but with some basic instruction, a couple of diagrams and the right (ie light) conditions, you should not be put off flying a spinnaker.
Types of spinnaker
First though, I must distinguish between a cruising spinnaker (chute) and a regular spinnaker (Fig 1). Cruising chutes are used like a giant genoa. Made of spinnaker material it is not easy to tell what type of spinnaker you are looking at until you take it out of the bag. Cut asymmetrically, the cruising spinnaker has three distinct corners like a genoa. At the tack, there is often a short line spiced on and a piston hank or snap shackle. A cruising spinnaker does not require the use of a spinnaker pole so it is easier to use than a full spinnaker but the disadvantages are that it is difficult to jibe (it's often easier to drop it on one tack, jibe, and reset on the other) and it cannot be flown when running.
A true spinnaker is cut symmetrically about a vertical line starting at the head and running down the middle of the sail. The two bottom corners are constructed and sewn identically and are impossible to tell apart unless marked by red and green luff tape as is often the case. A true spinnaker always requires the use of a spinnaker pole but can be jibed (though some would argue, not easily) and can be used on all points of sail from a beam reach to running.
A spinnaker sock is a long tube, usually made of spinnaker material, with a hoop at the bottom and a shackle and block at the top. Spinnaker socks make setting and furling a spinnaker relatively easy. Once all lines have been attached, the long tube (with the spinnaker inside it) is hoisted with the spinnaker halyard. Once this has been cleated, the hoisting line is pulled which pulls the bottom hoop upward gathering the sock in bunches at the top and allowing the spinnaker to fill. Furling is the reverse procedure.
Spinnaker socks are a great piece of cruising equipment particularly if you will be sailing short handed.
A spinnaker pole is really a boom for the spinnaker. Its length is about the same as from the foot of the mast to the forestay. When rigged, the inboard end is fitted to an eye on the mast and it is held in place by one or more lines depending largely on the situation and size of the boat. Figure 2 shows a plan view of the lines often used to set a spinnaker pole.
Rigging a true spinnaker (for cruising)
You will need:
- A spinnaker halyard which runs to a swivel block located clear of the forestay at the mast top.
- Lines running forward to each bottom corner of the sail (these will become either a sheet or guy depending upon the tack)
- A spinnaker track on the mast or, at a minimum, a fixed spinnaker pole fitting
- Spinnaker pole topping lift (uphaul) to hold the pole up and a downhaul / foreguy to hold it down and forward
To prepare for setting your spinnaker you should take the spinnaker out of the bag and then repack it ensuring that there are no twists in the sail (which could cause it to hourglass when set) and that the three corners are all at the top of the bag. The spinnaker can then be taken forward and the bag clipped on forward of the forestay (it will often fit between the stay and the pulpit). The sheet and guy can then be attached.
Next you will want to set the spinnaker pole. The spinnaker sheet should be passed through the jaws of the pole at its outboard end and the pole then raised up to a horizontal position using the uphaul. The foreguy can be then set to stop the pole hitting the shrouds.
Hoisting the spinnaker
Position crew ready to adjust the sheet and guy or, if short handed cleat these off temporarily
Hoist the spinnaker with the halyard making sure that it comes out of the bag easily and does not catch on anything. If sailing downwind when hoisting, the sail should balloon out in front of the boat (in light winds you should not have a problem pulling up the halyard even with the sail filling but you may want to have a couple of turns on a winch just in case)
Trimming the spinnaker
Adjusting all of the lines on a spinnaker takes some practice but the following few rules will get you started:
- Adjust the spinnaker pole so that it extends out opposite but in line with the main boom
- Adjust the inboard end of the pole so that the pole is horizontal
- Make sure that the clew and tack of the spinnaker are approximately level
- Let the sheet out until the luff of the sail begins to curl then sheet it in a little (trimming the spinnaker is a full time job on a race boat - as is adjusting the pole- but when cruising you can over-sheet a little and then cleat it)
Lowering a spinnaker
Though there are times when you may want to lower the spinnaker on different points of sail, the easiest method (even when using a sock) is to turn the boat on to a run (with the mainsail fully out) then let the pole go forward so that the spinnaker falls behind the mainsail where it will lose its wind. You can then gather in the foot of the sail and pull in on deck as the halyard is lowered or, when using a sock, pull the sock down to furl the sail.
Don't put stopper knots in the ends of the sheets or guys
Do check to make sur all lines are led correctly before you hoist the sail
Do practice all this in light winds
Do take down the spinnaker early if the wind is building