There’s more than one way to rig, hoist, set and drop your spinnaker. Choosing the right setup and skills is key to success with the kite, explains James Stevens
Tailor how your spinnaker is set up and the skills you use to make downwind sailing a doddle
There are, I suspect, a surprising number of cruising yachts which have a spinnaker in their sail locker that has never come out of the bag. The kind of pictures loved by yachting photographers of racing boats on their ear with spinnakers in the water and crew hanging on by their fingertips do little to encourage cruising yachtsmen. On the other hand a spinnaker can take hours off a cross-channel trip and it’s a real pleasure to feel the boat powering downwind with the thought of an early arrival. It looks good too. But you have to know the ropes because it can go spectacularly wrong on a windy day.
Often, cruising sailors will have learned to use a spinnaker either in dinghies or on a racing boat. If you try to replicate this on a cruising boat, often with a small crew and with a makeshift rigging setup, you’ll be sailing into troubled waters. Getting the rigging right for your boat and choosing the skills that are going to work best for your crew will help you keep control of the sail and maintain calm on board. The secret when starting out is to think it through and set the sail in light winds, when making a mistake is easily retrievable.
In displacement yachts, symmetric spinnakers tend to be the most effective way of sailing downwind. With an asymmetric you’ll need to sail the angles and gybe, but a symmetric lets you sail dead downwind. They can, however, be used when the wind angle from the bow is from about 80° to 180° so they’re very versatile sails. The most comfortable point of sail is a broad reach at about 120° to the wind. Spinnakers become harder to control as the wind moves forward, the apparent wind increases and the boat heels more, or with the wind right aft as the boat slows and there’s a danger of an accidental gybe especially if it’s rough.
The difficult skills are raising, lowering and gybing. Systems like snuffers can help with this, but we’ll look at the basic skills, which can then be modified.
Once the spinnaker is up it is relatively easy to trim and if the wind is stable and if the helm can steer a straight course, you can enjoy fast, relaxed cruising.
James Stevens, author of the Yachtmaster Handbook, spent 10 of his 23 years at the RYA as chief examiner Set properly and using the right techniques for your boat, nothing beats a good passage under spinnaker
What if it all goes pear-shaped? Knowing how to control the sail, and what to do when it goes wrong is the key to mastering the spinnaker