Spinnakers – An Introduction for Cruisers and New Racing Sailors

Away from the race course in sailing, you don’t often see spinnakers being flown in anger. You maybe see the odd bow pinned assymetric cruising shoot  hoisted, with it’s rolled condom of a ‘snuffer’ aloft, but in general a trip doon-the-watter when there is no regatta activity reveals a petty few spinnaker scenes . Such a loss to sailing ! I mean they not only make you go faster but they most often look rather pretty !


On the Windward-Leeward or round the Nav’ Cans, you can often see an interesting range of spinnaker skills and abilities, and sometimes they do catch out the best of them! Spinnaker work for racing or for cruising demands practice and a crew who have the knowledge to get the best out of the spinnaker, but more importantly get out of trouble if somethings goes wrong or the wind suddenly gets sqaully.

Let me presume that you have perhaps done some spinnaker work or are buying a new boat.

Why Bother With Those Fancy Coloured Sails?

Aren’t they just hassle?

The thing about spinnakers is that they really boost the speed over the water, and they add a lot of interest to what could be a rather mundane tour down wind in 6 knots of breeze on a day just ambling around otherwise, when perhaps you start thinking about the ‘donkey’. For the helmsman they can be easier to steer to than a poled-out genoa, and for a sharp eyed crew, they can be flown in a relaxed manner, one eye on the gusts behind. However they can present a lot of challenges and at either end of the scale, drifting vespers or gale building, they can be more than just a handful, and ruin your day if you aren’t sharp.

I can think of many days crusing earlier in life when we just idled along on a run or broad reach with a lazy genoa not wanting to help matters much, when in fact with a little training and an attentive helm, you can enjoy extra speed and interest in your passages with the wind ab’aft.

Getting Started?

There are two very good starting points for a boat owner looking to get into spinnaker work, and the first is to indeed, pole out your jib or genoa with a whisker pole as they are called, or a redundant spinnaker pole if it is the right length. This gives you a good idea of goose-winging on a broad reach and as you bear away to a run, how the boat handles. Also you can practice gybes, by either end to ending or dip poling. This is a very place to begin training up a crew, because the pole has to go over and then the boom goes over, and then the helm has to do the same correction to avoid a broach, especially when running afore the wind in a rolling sea.

The second approach is to down-size! Our first option here is to get a tour out in a racing dinghy or day sailing boat, then get trained up by a willing and communicative helm’, and maybe race a little as reserve crew – that will sharpen you up and as a helm yourself, you should appreciate the limitations of the crew’s actual speed of work, and be able to look for signs that things are going wrong or slower than you may like.

The other side of downsizing is using a smaller spinnaker – for example in a big wind, the Beneteau 36.7 class here elected to allow the use of a small, inside forestay spinnaker, hoisted ont he reserve jib halyard. The spnnaker is about the size of a Sonata’s for reference. It looks a bit odd, and often gets a cleavage round the forestay, but it works in force 6 better than a jib and much safer than the full spinnaker. If you haven’t two jib halyards then you could experiment in light airs by taking the jib down first and hoisting the small spinnaker on the one halyard.

To Assy’ Or Not To Assy’?

Assymetric spinnakers and their close relatives, the bolt roped Gennaker*, have been a boon to modern sailing. Without their develiopment in classes like the Int 14 and 18 foot skiffs, we quite probably would have seen a  decline in racing if you ask me. They add a lot of excitement in light displacement boats, while also simplifying spinnaker work in any boat quite a lot simpler.

M32 with Gennaker at speed! (c) 2017 Author

(Gennakers are actually a light sail like a spinnaker, but with a ‘bolt rope’ ie line in their luff such that they are held near the centre line and most often can be used higher on the wind than an Assymetric Spinnaker. It can be debated that all ‘Code Zero’ topsails are Gennakers. Some people call Assy’s Gennakers, but don’t bother correcting them unless they carry both types of sail )

It is a little ironic and lost on more than a few, that this latter day ‘high tech’ phenomenom actually is so very similar to the days pre spinnaker, when large sails were hoisted from wooden bowsprits, often with a pole to help them protrude out on the leeward side, or allow goosewinging. Even the ‘balloon’ sails of the 12mRs and J-class boats were still an aerofoil section, and that changed when spinnakers came in, with their symmetrical, deep bell shape.

The aerofoil shape is the key to the performance of these sails, but also limits them to sailing on a broad reach and not a run, per se. However in faster boats, like say the Melges 24 I sail on or most any racing dinghy with assy’, you start to generate so much apparent wind that you can sail DDW (dead down wind) while actually aerodynamically you are sailing a broad reach, the wind having come forward with your movement. More on that later and how to trim spinnakers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Decisions decisions then? Well in fact if your boat does not have a bowsprit or a long spinnaker pole then you will not get a great benefit from an “A-Sail”. The types of cruising chute as they are called which pin down the bow on the anchor roller, are limited to sailing quite high wind angles because they are in the shadow of the mainsail. Generally speaking this is a beam reach and forward to a tight reach that they work, where-as a protruding bow sprit boat will allow for broad reaching.

At the other extreme of assymetrics we have ultra light displacement , ie planing boats, which really benefit from having a long, often 1.5 to 2.5 m bowsprit. Here you can get planing on a reaching course and as the speed builds, bear away while sailing in fact a reach due to the apparent wind going forward. This can be done with a great deal of ease. I remember test sailing the ’39er’ on a windy day in mid summer and the sheet loads once we got plkaning were light, while the speed was phenomenal. Gybing is also a piece of cake, really just a bit more effort ( if any ) than gybing a large genoa – there is not pole work, and most often no need for anyone to go up on the foredeck.

Symmetrical spinnakers then have their drawbacks when it comes to higher speed and ease of sailing. Another example for comparison I can think of, is that our club bought a fleet of RS Fevas and I managed to rig most of them with spinnaker on the first day our youth sailed them. I said I didn’t think we would get our spinnakers up, but all those who had them rigged, got them up, and I don’t even think I showed them how it was done. Ok

Feva at Finnøya

RS Fevas at Finnøya , a super training boat for youth © 2010 Author

some were tacking round with them and making a mess, but there was no harm done. It was inuitive really, just a slight progression from using the jib. I don’t think the same gang in 420s would have mastered a single spinnaker hoist on their first day out! There is just so much more work for the crew and attention to detail for the helm. As the boat gets bigger you probably want to use lazy sheets and guys which add a great deal of security, but also more compelxity.

What are then if any, the drawbacks of assymetrics on a bowsprit? Well firstly they tend to have a larger sail area by design for the boat in order to give a real VMG benefit. That is to say, because the boat will spend more of its time reaching or broad reaching, it has to be more powerful than a normal spinnaker in order to make leeward progress faster. This is because you have to ‘tack down wind’ which means just gybing a lot more often to get down, using the lifts to gybe over on, instead of sailing pretty much DDW with a symmetrical. So that sail area can affect handicap adversely if you are thinking of ripping apart fibre glass and sticking in a ‘prodder’. Also it is a lot of sail area to manage during hoists and retreivals (take downs, douses) More on that in a future blog on advanced techniques.

 It is rather also a case of horses-for-courses. A symmetrical spinnaker has some drawbacks as we know, but if you sail mostly up and down Loch Fyne or the River


US 15 “Vim” 12mR (c) 2016 author

Crouch, then you could be well served by a sail which lends itself to stable, dead down wind running and thus good VMG. Despite the move to very many new racing boats being assymetric with bowsprit, one boat the RS Elite, if I am not wrong, was developed specifically with river sailing in mind where you do not want to be ‘tacking down wind’.

Take also the example above of a cruising assymetric chute as the opposite – if you sail mainly along a coast like the east of England’s with prevailing westerlies in low pressure weather, offshore, and prevailing on land sea breezes in warm weather, then a bow-pinned chute could be ideal and add say an extra 2.5 knts to your usual cruising speed on a beam reach up or down the coast.

As one compromise which can take you deeper in sailing an Assymentric, some time into keel boats donning prodders and A-sails, sail makers redesigned the sails to have the capability to roll far over the centre line to windward in their upper third, while retaining very good aerofoil shape when sheeted harder. This is then used for broad reaching and in medium winds, many sails allow you to release a meter or more of tack line which helps the sail ‘rotate’ around the front of the boat and catch more wind from behind. This can be a bit limited in what wind it works in- for example in the j109 (and possibly j105 and j97 too) it only ‘pays’ in down wind VMG to slip out the tack line and “dig deep” in a narrow band of wind, of around 7 to 11 knots true. Below this wind speed, there is not enough pressure for it to rotate and fly properly, and above this windspeed it tends to get a lot less stable for some complex reasons I won’t go into. In anycase North Sails and Quantum have optimised their sails for good VMG performance in 12 knots and more windm and in lighter winds than 7 kntos, ordinary spinnakers struggle to fly too and must be sailed higher.  You can in any case tolerate a little instability or slight collapses to squeeze through a narrow sound, or work through the lee side of a competitor. So there you have a get-out-of-jail-free card for assymetrics.


(c) 2010 Author 

Prepare Yourself Mentally : Fly Kite and KEEP CALM

I remember sailing a cumbraes event in a light displacement craft, and the helm calling ‘ Lets get this spinnaker up, I want to go like Rocket Fuel!! ” with a very demanding tone, small horns protruding from forehead. We had a partly inexperienced crew and it was a lumpy force 4-5. But on a broader reach outside the Cumbraes we hoisted it, only to be met a few minutes later by a squall which was measured at 47 knts! We broached and lost both guy and sheet off their blocks (which is why btw you shouldn’t tie stop-knots in spinnaker sheets ) , almost loosing the one total novice on board to the drink!

That was an example of bad planning, disregard for the conditions and total over ambition. You need the opposite : planning and of course training on spinnaker work as a pre-requisute. How will you hoist? Who will do what? What wind stregnth do we say ‘no thanks’ to? Where will I steer to in the hoist and the drop, and when do we best do these? Before or after gybes? On the dead run?

Sailing Schools will teach you to do bear-away hoists and only raise the spinnaker when you are broad reaching, and that is very good advice I would stick to for new beginners, The same is also true, but oft’ forgotten of take downs. Once the leeward mark, or headland to sail up round is within countable boat lengths it is really time to just get it down, and than should entail falling off onto a nice broad reach or run. The only real differences then between a normal and an A-sail then is that you are going to let the pole forward more than usual on a normal kite, and you are going to sail the boat deeper than usual with an A-sail. This is for a standard leeward side gather.

Windward side drops are quite easy, but a lot can go wrong. However I much prefer them because in racing you have two big plusses I will blog about in the next post. If you have your forepeak set up for sail storage and spinnaker retrieval then a windward side drop on either type of spinnaker is a good idea, as long as you can gather most of the spinnaker foot and mid-riff round the forestay before the boat starts to harden up.

Spinnakering Summary

Well you have maybe had a taste of some of the details, the nitty gritty, of spinnaker work. It is a tabu on some cruising boats almost. Banished from the wardrobe, the poor wee sack with its colourful, jolly prisoner kept in a loft until the boat is sold.

It just need’nt be that way at all! There is so much to gain from sailing with a spinnaker in the extra interest it adds to sailing alone, plus of course you may be making a good many more knots than without, or avoiding using the engine to get doon the Kyles.

Image Courtesay of friend

Yours truly trimming kite on the Melges 24