How to Fly a Spinnaker

By Allen Edwards


I have had Papoose for 23 years and never used a spinnaker on her until about a year ago. Last two seasons we won the local beer can series using a free flying jib downwind sometimes along with our normal jib. But we always had to play catch up to the boats that used spinnakers. I decided to learn to fly a spinnaker so we could move to the next level. The results have been good. We have kept up with boats that owe a lot of time and took 1st in the first two series and tied for 1st in the last series (yeah, I know -- they did not break the tie and we would have lost the tie breaker but still...)


About two years ago, I decided the next level for my racing was using a spinnaker. We were winning without it, but I knew serious competition would require a spinnaker. I asked everyone I knew"How do you fly a spinnaker?". I got a universal response of basically: "I can't tell you. You need to get on a crew and learn by doing." I joined the crew of a Tartan Ten, a boat with a slightly (30%) smaller spinnaker but well sailed and a good skipper. It was a great experience. We practiced once a week year around and raced two winter series. I did every position except foredeck and assisted on foredeck a few times. The practices were always spinnaker focused so I must have been involved in several hundred sets, take downs, gybes, etc. I learned the system that this skipper had. I also got to see how he did in serious competition in two winter series and a large "Plastic Classic" series. We won the two winter series and got second in the Plastic Classic. I was able to see that he was by far the best of the fleet at spinnaker handling.

I had done what everyone said, learn by doing. The next step was to do this on my own boat. (Ready for the punch line). What was the response of everyone who told me to learn by doing? That won't work. You need to do it (this way). Here I am with crew that now wants to change what we do to their particularly favorite way of doing things. Every experienced crew has a different way they want to try.

So, if you want to use this method, be prepared for a rebellion. It works but seems to be unique to the guy who thought it to me, and Dennis Conner who suggests the same method in "Sail Like A Champion".

For those interested, I have rotating crew so do not always have the same person at each position every week. I will teach this method and refine it so that everyone is on the same page. This is a team sport and if everyone runs the same play, we will be successful. If every player thinks they know a better pattern and everyone is running in a different direction, it will not work -- even if there way is better.

How is it going?

So far we have had several good spinnaker runs. Every set went perfectly, except for the first one where we wrapped the halyard around the spreader, rounded up, and broke my old wood pole. The new aluminum pole is very nice. The gybes have gone per plan as well. There was a lot of disagreement on the sets, but once a few of them went off perfectly, no more complaints. The douses are still a sore spot with the more experienced crew but it is clear that they will be just fine once we get everyone a little more practice. Practice in light winds first but also practice in higher winds. You don't want to hear that "this worked fine in practice but the winds were light so we need to do it differently right now in this race". Practice, practice, practice.

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