Making Spinnaker Work Child's Play

It’s early in my first season in a Pacer.   We’ve rounded the first windward mark up with the leaders, it’s a sparkling sunny day with a nice breeze and the prospect of skimming down the reach under spinnaker beckons.  Sure, my kids haven’t had much experience with the spinnaker, but how hard can it be?  After having the spinnaker flog the entire reach while waiting for my struggling 10 year old crew to get the spinnaker pole onto the mast, both our faces red with frustration and the rest of the fleet long gone, I realised it was much harder than it looked!  The problem was that neither my son or my (bigger and older) daughter had the strength to push the spinnaker pole out.  It took the rest of the season to work out how to make it possible.  We’re now doing much better, so for others experiencing the same frustration; let me share what I have learned.

First, let me say that my boat has a conventionally rigged spinnaker system using spinnaker bags.  Some other skippers have solved the problem by installing a twin pole self-launching and retrieving system.  This is a much more complex system, but means the pole is launched by some fancy rope pulling, rather than the crew performing a merry dance at the front of the boat trying to push a pole around at head height.  However, for those of us with conventional single pole systems, I have found that the key to making spinnaker work child’s play is to do all spinnaker work with minimal load on the spinnaker pole.

Launching The Spinnaker

The following assumes the spinnaker is being launched from the leeward spinnaker bag. A hoist from the windward bag involves and entirely different technique.

When launching the spinnaker, no load means the pole is clipped onto the brace (windward sheet) and pushed out with the brace absolutely slack and the windward spinnaker tweaker (some people call it the twig line) off.  We’ve found that even having the tweaker on makes it more difficult to push the pole out, so it’s better to leave it off all together.  In most cases, the spinnaker pole is set just before reaching the mark while still going upwind on starboard tack.  As soon as the pole is up, the windward tweaker is pulled on tight.  While the crew is getting the pole ready, the skipper should be gathering up both the spinnaker sheet and brace and making sure they are both uncleated.

On my boat once we reach the top mark the mainsheet is eased and cleated and the boat is turned down onto a very broad reach. Once the boat is borne away, the crew starts to hoist the spinnaker.  While the spinnaker is going up, the skipper balances the boat with the brace in the sheet hand and the spinnaker sheet in the tiller hand.  With no tension on any of the sheets, the spinnaker goes up quietly, blanketed by the main and jib.  When the spinnaker makes it to about three quarters of the way up, the skipper starts pulling on the brace while still holding the spinnaker sheet in the other hand.  Pulling on the brace spreads the spinnaker out so that it suddenly fills with wind with a “pop” and you’re off!  In lighter winds, pulling on the brace also pulls the pole back, so the crew often needs to push the pole forward to the spinnaker clew before reaching for the spinnaker sheet.  While the crew is doing this, the skipper adjusts and cleats the brace with one hand while easing the spinnaker sheet with the other, so the spinnaker should be close to being correctly sheeted by the time the crew takes over the spinnaker sheet.

Some boats have the spinnaker halyard led to the middle of the boat so that the spinnaker is hoisted by the skipper.  If that’s the case, the skipper and crew swap roles: the skipper hoists the spinnaker, while the crew holds the sheet and pulls on the brace.  However, I expect that the skipper would have to make the final adjustment of the brace because the crew will not have enough strength to get it to the correct position once the spinnaker fills – particularly if there is any breeze around.

The final activities are:

  1. the crew eases the jib sheet (rounding the mark with the jib still on it’s upwind setting helps turn the boat downwind, and makes it easier to pull the spinnaker up).
  2. the crew pulls the windward tweaker on tight (may need the skipper’s help in a breeze).
  3. the skipper lets the centreboard up and grabs the mainsheet again.
  4. The skipper adjusts the boat’s course towards the next mark.

If you get a well practiced routine going using the ideas above, the whole exercise above takes about 5-10 seconds.  Much better than flogging the spinnaker down the entire first reach!

A summary of the roles and responsibilities of the skipper and crew are as follows:

 

Skipper

Crew

Preparation

1

Ease main as bearing away to a broad reach, then cleat main.

Make sure both tweakers are off and both sheets are uncleated

2

Grab spinnaker sheets – sheet in tiller hand, brace in sheet hand.

Grab brace from in front of the side stay and stand up

3

 

Pull brace to the end of the spinnaker pole and attached it.

4

 

Push pole out and attach to mast

Hoist

 

 

5

Keep boat balanced, while spinnaker is hoisted

Hoist spinnaker

6

When spinnaker is ¾ up, pull on brace then cleat.

Push pole forward

7

Ease spinnaker sheet once spinnaker has filled.

Pull  windward tweaker on

8

Give spinnaker sheet to crew

Take spinnaker sheet from skipper and sit down

Clean Up

 

 

9

Let centreboard up

Ease jib

10

Head towards gybe mark and grab mainsheet.

 

Gybing The Spinnaker

Gybing the spinnaker, the key is to again to minimize load on the brace as the pole is pushed out.  This is largely the responsibility of the skipper!  The keys to this are:

  1. Over-square the spinnaker pole just before gibing.  This pulls the spinnaker all the way over to the old windward side, which helps turn the boat through the gybe, but also puts the spinnaker largely behind the main once the boat is gybed.  If done properly, the spinnaker stays full, but because it’s partly blanketed there is a reduced load on the spinnaker sheets.
  2. Just before gibing, make sure BOTH tweaker lines are off.
  3. Ensure you are on a broad reach or a run while the pole is going out on the new gybe.  At the gybe mark, this may mean steering wide on the approach, bear away onto a run, gybe at the mark while on the run, push the pole out, then head up towards the next mark.  If you head up before the pole is attached to the mast, your crew will never manage to attach it!
  4. ease the brace while the crew is pushing the pole out the last 50cm – just let it run through your hand as the pole goes out so that the crew is not pushing against a loaded sheet. Once the pole is on the mast, the skipper can pull the brace back to the correct position.

A summary of the roles and responsibilities of the skipper and crew during a gybe are:

 

Skipper

Crew

Preparation

1

Uncleat brace

Check sheets are clear of tangles

2

Bear away while pulling hard on brace to over-square the spinnaker

Make sure both tweakers are off

3

Take spinnaker sheet from crew

Ease sheet while skipper bears away

Gybe

 

 

5

Steer the boat onto a run

Initiate the gybe by pulling on the boom

6

Keep spinnaker full while pole is swapped over

End-for-end the spinnaker pole

7

Ease brace as the pole is pushed out the last 50cm to minimize load on the brace

 

8

Swap hands – tiller to old sheet hand, brace to new sheet hand

 

9

Adjust & cleat brace

 

Clean Up

 

 

10

Give spinnaker sheet to crew

Pull windward tweaker on

11

Grab main and steer towards next mark

Take spinnaker sheet from skipper

Conclusion

I have been sailing for many years, but never found anything written to help an adult understand how to help a child work with a spinnaker.  A child does not have the strength to work with a spinnaker pole that has any load on it.  However, whether the crew can do his/her job is mostly up to the skipper.  Hopefully using the ideas above you can minimize the load on the pole, the job gets done, and you will both enjoy your day out sailing!

Alan Riley 2847 Amen

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