Persistent Shift

Tony Bull says you need to practice before the race if you are to avoid disaster.

How much time can be lost on the race course? A bad tack, missed wind shift or a sloppy mark rounding will slow you down and incur some incremental loss. But a good old fashioned spinnaker “stuff up” can really have major repercussions, in some cases actually ending your day as well as being expensive. How can we make sure we avoid them?

Setting the spinnaker

The key as always is in preparation, from the moment you get to the boat and start getting it ready. Make sure the sheets, braces, topping lifts, kicker and halyards are all free to run and not crossed or tangled. How many times have we all set a spinnaker, only to have to re-lead one of the lines! Make sure all the spinnakers are packed properly and in their right bags.

When hoisting the spinnaker in a significant breeze, get it all the way up before sheeting it on. It will be much harder and more time consuming to winch it up later.

The helm has a major role during the hoist; he will need to steer to the spinnaker to help get it set as soon as possible. He should position himself as wide as he can so he can see the spinnaker luff and help the trimmers. A slight change in helm angle can make a lot of difference in helping the sail set faster. Sail a bit low to help the hoist, then come up to pop the spinnaker set.

On symmetric spinnakers, the pole needs to be braced aft quickly to get it away from the blanketing effect of the headsail and main. The bowman may have to assist in this by hauling the brace to keep the sail clear of the foot of the jib as it will quite often catch.

On an asymmetric spinnaker this process is more exaggerated. An even higher course is required to help pop the spinnaker once it is fully hoisted, and the trimmer will need to trim on hard at the same time. As soon as it is set, bear away and ease a lot of sheet as the boat will load up quickly.

In heavy winds, always delay the hoist until the boat is flat and on course. Hoisting the spinnaker while the boat is heeled and still turning can lead to a nasty round-up.


Don’t over sheet the spinnaker! Let it fly out as far away from the boat as possible. It will make a huge difference.

Keep easing the sheet until the luff curls, testing how far you can ease it out. You can always wind it back in. A spinnaker sheet should be moving all the time and never cleated.

As a trimmer, you should be able to recognise the visual difference between a spinnaker collapsing from sailing too close to the wind where the luff will curl and then fall across the sail, and the spinnaker becoming shivery and collapsing in on itself from being over sheeted and blanketed by the mainsail. A lot of spinnakers are sheeted on harder as the trimmer misinterprets the collapse, when in fact several metres of sheet should be allowed to run out.

On symmetric spinnakers adjust your pole angle to the conditions. On most spinnakers the curl on the leech should begin on the shoulder about two-thirds of the way up the luff of the sail when square running. If it curls near the bottom of the sail the pole is too far aft and needs to be eased forward. Conversely if it curls up high then it is too far forward.

The height of the pole should be monitored. When the sail is full and drawing well, fly it high. If the head of the spinnaker becomes unstable then lower it.

In lighter airs where there is not as much pressure and the spinnaker has to fight gravity, drop the pole lower as a lower profile will set easier. In heavy airs a low pole and the sheet tweaked down will keep the spinnaker stable and safer to fly.

Keep the kite drawing in light airs, don’t just point at the mark and watch it struggle to set. Angle the boat to keep a bit more apparent wind flowing across it and help the spinnaker fly. You may have to put in multiple gybes but it is much better to keep the boat moving.

At most times there should be a bit of chat between the trimmer and helm, but particularly in variable conditions.

In heavier air don’t run too square, always keep a bit of wind across the boat for safety reasons. Running dead square when overpowered is a recipe for disaster and a guaranteed wipe out.


Big mistakes are often made. The main ones are gybing the boat with the spinnaker over-sheeted, which means as the boat is turned the sail will be blown between the forestay and the mast. This is very common on shy-to-shy gybes when the sheet is not eased as the boat bears away.

Both the helm and the trimmers should monitor this; so many steerers think their role in a gybe is simply to turn the boat. They need to work with the crew, both trimmers and foredeck. A bit of awareness and leniency on the helm by bearing away when trying to re-attach the pole after a gybe can make the whole process simpler.

When you do round up or broach, the most important thing is to approach the recovery in a methodical process. Distance yourself from the noise and cacophony.

It is foolhardy to stand there with the helm in full lock, tugging at it. Simply centre it and wait. Eventually the water will begin to flow over the rudder and give you some directional stability which will enable you to steer away back down on to course. By keeping it in full lock you are actually significantly reducing the recovery process by stalling the boat.

The crew should throw the sheet and let the spinnaker flap; wait until the boat has recovered and is back on its feet before sheeting it back on. Don’t cling there thinking, “Beam me up Scotty.” Just concentrate on the recovery.

Dropping the spinnaker

Give yourself time. Leaving it too late is an oft-seen predicament.

Make sure the headsail goes up as you approach the mark; allow time to sort out any snarls. Make sure everyone knows the style of drop you are doing. Organisation is the key; I have seen crews hauling in the spinnaker from both sides at once fighting each other while the kite goes over the bow.

Does the pole need to come down before the mark or can it wait? In heavy winds allow a bit more time. The helm should run off downwind in heavier conditions to help take the load out of the spinnaker recovery.

Pre-race drills

Prevention is the best cure and the easiest way to make sure you don’t have issues on the race track is to get them all sorted before the start. Given time, I like to get out on the race course well before the day’s racing.

I have a little routine that I like to go through. Do a conventional spinnaker set, throw in a couple of gybes and then do a conventional leeward drop. Sail back upwind for a while until the spinnaker is sorted to go again. It is a good time to practise a few tacks. Then do a gybe set, a few more gybes, even a couple of shy-to-shy if sailing a club course or triangle. Finally finish up with a float drop, removing the pole before the mark and dropping the kite to windward.

This will take approximately 20-30 minutes and should cover all the manoeuvres you will encounter that day. If something is wrong then there is time to stop and address it away from the continuity of the race course.

So start looking at a few practices to avoid those nasty spinnaker “stuff ups”. Not having them will make your sailing day a whole lot more enjoyable. Three things to remember-




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