In the penultimate instalment of her series on double handed sailing skills, Pip Hare explains the best process for gybing a symmetric spinnaker
Double handed sailing skills are increasingly important to master as the recent boom in double handed racing, both inshore and offshore, continues and boats designed for couples to cruise two-up become ever more popular. We now regularly see crews of two managing all sizes of boat, and sailing them with the same efficiency and expectations as full crews.
These techniques are designed for double handed crews sailing a yacht with an autopilot, and an asymmetric spinnaker. We’re sailing a J/99, which has a fixed bowsprit and hanked-on jib. Thanks to Key Yachting for their support.
Gybing a symmetrical spinnaker short-handed requires bold, firm moves and good wind awareness. Once you understand the technique it can be a relatively low-risk manoeuvre but it might feel a little pressured the first few times. The basic principle is to keep the spinnaker flying with enough positive pressure to stop the clews collapsing inwards and allowing the sail to twist. This is achieved by gybing relatively quickly, with a greater rate of turn than you may normally use and coming out of the gybe at a high angle to push the spinnaker down to leeward while switching the pole.
The autopilot will drive throughout the gybe, leaving one crew to manage the foredeck while the other controls the cockpit. If you do not have an autopilot control pad accessible it is worth investing in a remote control which can be worn on the arm. Set your instruments to show wind angle, heading and the set heading for the autopilot. This will stop you from oversteering if there’s a delay in course change.
It’s also a good idea to increase the pilot response levels during the gybe, particularly if you have been on economy setting. You need the boat to move dynamically to ensure the spinnaker doesn’t have any opportunity to wrap. I recommend using the autopilot on compass heading mode while gybing.
How you manage the mainsail during the gybe will depend on conditions, and your confidence levels. For a safer approach, bring the traveller to windward then sheet the mainsail in so the end of the boom is inside the footprint of the deck. This will reduce the travel of the mainsail during the gybe and soften its landing.
I’d not recommend sheeting the main in tighter unless the sea is flat, as the resultant loss of boat speed will make it difficult for the pilot to maintain a downwind course in waves. For experienced crews, confident with the procedure, leave the mainsheet at full length and flick it over during the gybe.
To start the gybe, centre the main (as already mentioned), then steer the boat downwind to the lowest angle possible with sails still flying. As you steer downwind, bring the spinnaker pole back as far as it will go – both crew can be in the cockpit at this stage. Do not consider steering through the gybe until the pole is fully back. The pole will remain in position on the windward, then leeward (after the gybe) side of the boat until everything else has been gybed, keeping the clew locked into one position. Make sure you take up the slack on the lazy sheet as the pole comes back.
Ease the working sheet to allow the spinnaker to rotate to windward so the leeward clew is just past the forestay but no further. Over-rotating the spinnaker will make the sail less stable and allow the unsupported clew to fly up after the gybe. To help keep this clew under control, pull the tweaker on to the height of the top guardrail.
Once the spinnaker is flying aggressively to windward you can steer through the gybe. Use the pilot to alter course in 10° increments. The main can either be left to flop over then released, or can be flicked over by the foredeck crew before heading up to change the pole. Pass relatively quickly through the dead downwind position and aim to come out of the gybe at a higher angle than you went in. The objective is to ensure the wind angle is sufficiently broad to push the spinnaker to leeward and avoid it flying forward, which is when the sail is most at risk of wrapping. You may start the gybe at a wind angle of 175° true, but come out of it at 160° true. The spinnaker should sit in the same position with very little movement. Effectively you are moving the boat underneath the spinnaker.
Once the boat has gybed and the mainsail is eased, it’s time to gybe the pole. Remember that the new leeward side is still controlled by the guy through the pole – you will need to load up the new working sheet before unloading the guy to ensure the pole does not fly forward. On the new windward side, the sheet will be holding all the load, via a tweaker, leaving the guy loose to take the pole.
Gybing the pole
End-to-end – Release the pole downhaul a little to allow full movement. Pick up the new guy and place it over one shoulder so it is to hand when you need it. Ensure the new guy is not loaded onto the cockpit winch until safely in the jaws of the pole. Pull the pole trip line and disconnect from the mast then guide it across the foredeck beam to beam. There should be no pressure on the pole and its weight will be supported by the uphaul. The old guy may not immediately trip out of the pole end: if this is the case, slide the pole across the boat and take it out by hand.
Place the new guy in the pole end and then push out to windward and clip onto the mast. Be aware during this stage of how the pole will sit in relation to the old sheet. It may not be possible to get the pole under the sheet during the gybe – this is OK so long as you note it and then flick or re-run the sheet after the gybe. Once the pole is in position, pull on the guy until it’s taking the load of the spinnaker and then release the sheet. Pull the downhaul back on and trim as normal.
Dip Pole – Ensure the new sheet is taking the load before releasing the old guy on the leeward corner. With a dip pole gybe it’s vital the new sheet is led over the top of the pole because if it takes the load from underneath it will prevent the pole from dropping away.
Once the sheet is on, the foredeck crew can slide the inboard end of the pole to the top of the track, then pull the pole trip line to open the jaws. Grab the new guy making sure it’s not made off in the cockpit and head to the bow facing the stern.
In a co-ordinated move, the cockpit crew will ease the downhaul to a preconfigured mark, while the foredeck crew guides the pole forward over the guard wires by pulling on the downhaul falls, both working together to scribe a smooth arc with the pole end. If the guy has not tripped out of the beak it will come in with the pole so check it’s free to run.
Once the pole is centred, the foredeck crew can swap guys, close the jaws and then gently lift the pole end out and over the guardrails while the cockpit crew pulls the uphaul. It will not be possible to set the new guy at the same time as managing the pole uphaul so don’t be in a hurry. The spinnaker will remain stable, over-sheeted to leeward and you can spend the time setting the pole, ensuring it sits under the old sheet. Once the pole is in position, sheet on the guy – making sure it takes the load fully, before releasing the old sheet and moving to normal trim.
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