3 Clutch Sails For Peak Performance

Spinnakers, staysails and gollywobblers can boost a boat’s speed, along with the crew’s spirits.
Sail being hoisted
If you don’t own a spinnaker, consider getting one. Using proper technique, this sail is easy to hoist right out of the bag. Herbie/stock.adobe.com

After watching the speedy around-the-world racing yachts use elaborately named sails such as roller furling spinnakers, code zero and the like, I decided I should get one of these contraptions for my 32-foot daysailer, Whirlwind.

The asymmetrical spinnaker was wrapped around my roller furler. The concept—hoist it up and deploy—sounded simple until I tried it. Somehow, the sail didn’t unfurl evenly. When I furled it back up to try again, the sail twisted in one direction at the top of the mast and in the opposite direction at the bottom. That was the end of the spinnaker for the day.  

It took me an hour to unravel the mess back on land, but I was determined to make this work, and I tried again the next day. Same result.  

I then called Jud Smith, a sailmaker who I have raced with many times over the years. Jud asked, “Do you have paper and a pen to take notes?”   

He had seen this problem a lot on small boats. “I am going to send you a bag for your spinnaker,” he said. “Put the sail in the bag, attach the three corners and—when you are ready—pull it up. When you want to take down the sail, just lower it into the bag.”   

I had to laugh. Jud had ­suggested the longtime method of setting a spinnaker. I did not need to take any notes. And I haven’t had any problems since that call.

Spinnakers are beautiful sails. I recommend colorful patterns. A sail should send a message. Boats look good when flying a spinnaker. Setting spinnakers, staysails, and even gollywobblers (a sail used on schooners) gives a boat a boost in speed and lifts a crew’s spirits. 

But setting an extra sail takes preparation. The first step with a spinnaker is to pack it carefully so that it opens cleanly when you hoist it. I usually fold the sail on land by stretching it out, and putting the luff, leech and foot into the sail. The three corners are secured together, ready to attach to the halyard and sheets. Try to keep the sail dry so that it will fly better. A wet sail adds weight, and the sail will sag.

On a cruising boat, there is no hurry to setting a spinnaker. The priority is to be careful. During the America’s Cup 12-Meter era, our crew worked hard to get the spinnaker filled before the stern passed the turning mark. If all went well, we could set the sail in four seconds. (Sadly, America’s Cup yachts don’t even use spinnakers anymore, but that is a story for another day.) 

Ask every member of the crew to participate in the procedure. An important task is to hold the spinnaker bag and feed out the sail. Another crewmember hoists the halyard, and a third crewmember has the sheets in hand, ready for trimming.  

Don’t trim the sail until the head is all the way up. The helmsman needs to steer on a broad reach during the set so that the sail is blanketed behind the mainsail when it’s being hoisted. Once the sail is up, the trimmer can pull in the sheet as the helmsman steers the desired course. Presto: The sail fills, and the boat gains speed.

If the spinnaker wraps during the set, there are two solutions. The first is for the helmsman to sail a higher course, trying to get the sail to unwrap. If this doesn’t help in a few seconds, then the next step is to lower the sail and start again. 

Avoid cleating the spinnaker sheet. One crewmember needs to pay attention to the sail trim. A dialog with the helmsman is helpful. When sailing on a run, the trimmer can say that she is feeling more pressure in the sail, and the helmsman can sail a lower course. If the wind goes light, then the helmsman can head up a few degrees to accelerate.   

When it’s time to take down the sail, talk through the procedure with the crew. The sheets and halyard need to be flaked in long coils so that they can be eased without bunching up at the turning blocks. The helmsman needs to bear off to a broad reaching course so that the spinnaker is blanketed by the mainsail during the drop. The crew should be ready to gather the sail when the tack is eased and the halyard is lowered to the deck.

Spinnakers are beautiful sails.Setting one takes preparation. The first step is to pack it carefully so that it opens cleanly when you hoist it.

Again, try to keep the sail out of the water. Once the spinnaker is back on deck, take the time to fold the sail before putting it in the bag so that it will be ready to set. Clean up the lines so that everything is back in place for the next time you are ready to set the spinnaker.

Staysails are another nifty addition to a sail inventory. They are set between the mainsail and spinnaker or the headsail. A staysail will give a boat extra speed and often help balance the helm.  

Unlike the untidy ­experience I had with the rolling spinnaker, staysails are often set up with a roller and work well. The crew hoists the sail on a designated halyard. When the crew is ready, unroll the sail. 

It is important to set the staysail sheet so that the sail luffs evenly. If the sail luffs at the top of the sail first, then move the sheet lead forward. If it luffs at the lower end of the sail, then move the lead aft.  

For me, though, it’s a spinnaker that is an essential part of a sail inventory. Anytime you are sailing downwind, take a few moments and hoist it. Everyone on the boat will appreciate it.