How to Rig a Cruising Spinnaker in 4 Stingy Stages

If you don’t have a spinnaker for your sailboat yet, aren’t you a little envious of those big, colorful, billowing sails you sometimes see at your favorite cruising spots? Nothing says, “Yeah, we got this!” quite like a racing or cruising spinnaker. It’s as though the sailboat is puffing its chest out with confidence and strength. No wonder it’s called the “fun sail.”

In this post, I describe the strategy I used to get started with an asymmetrical (cruising) spinnaker. You can use the same strategy with a symmetrical (racing) spinnaker but the cost is higher due to the required whisker pole and its control lines.

If spinnaker envy has really gotten to you, then you’ve also seen the cost of setting up a spinnaker. You can easily spend as much for the hardware and control lines as for the sail itself. When you consider that you can only use a spinnaker for a few points of sail, it can easily seem like a luxury that is out of reach of the average trailer sailor, not to mention a stingy sailor.

That’s not the whole truth. A spinnaker (also called a gennaker – a cross between a genoa and a symmetrical spinnaker) is definitely an unnecessary upgrade. You can sail without one everywhere that a spinnaker can go, just not as fast or with as much style (and fun!) But it’s not as expensive to get started as you might think and you can upgrade your spinnaker rigging in stages as you get more experience with the sail and want to get the most enjoyment out of it.

The strategy I’m going to describe isn’t my invention. I picked up the basic idea from Dale Mack that appeared in the Technical Tips section of the March 2002 edition of the Catalina 22 Fleet 20 newsletter. But I’ve added a few stingy twists on it that integrate a spinnaker with my existing rigging on Summer Dance.

The four stages of stingy spinnaker rigging are:

  1. Start with a used sail and reuse your existing running rigging. You don’t absolutely need more lines or hardware. It’s not as convenient as full rigging, but it works to get started.
  2. Add a dedicated spinnaker sheet (or two) to swap headsails quicker and make gybing the spinnaker in front of the forestay possible. Also add turning blocks to lead the sheets.
  3. Add a dedicated spinnaker halyard and block to swap headsails even quicker and to prevent chafing the jib halyard. Modify your headsail downhaul line if you have one, to work double duty as a spinnaker tack line.
  4. Add a spinnaker sock (also called a snuffer) and launch bag (also called a turtle) for quicker, easier, dousing and storage.

Stingy stage 1 – Sail only

You can start learning to fly a cruising spinnaker with just the sail. That is what I did the first year I had my spinnaker. In a nutshell, you use the spinnaker as though it were just another headsail – a very large genoa.

New spinnakers are expensive but there a lots of used ones for sale online. Most spinnakers don’t get used a lot and they don’t blow out like regular sails, so even older spinnakers are often in excellent condition and still very usable. Look for a sail from a reputable loft that is the right size for your sailboat, has no or professionally repaired small rips, no dye transfer stains from being stored improperly, and strong stitching. As an example, I purchased a like-new Gleason Sails asymmetrical spinnaker with a launch bag and snuffer for $400 on eBay.

The dimensions of a C-22 (standard rig) asymmetrical spinnaker are 25.69′ (luff), 13.2′ (foot), 23.63′ (leech). That gives you about 250 sq. ft. of sail area, as much as your mainsail and a 150 genoa combined, but it’s all at the bow and high off the water. If you don’t know the right dimensions for your sailboat, you can look it up online in the Sailrite Sail Plan Database.

Flying a spinnaker like a normal headsail means you attach the tack to the stem fitting or headsail pendant just like your genoa. Having a pendant is definitely a plus with a spinnaker. Depending on its cut, most spinnakers are designed to fly higher off the deck and don’t work well held low or bent over a pulpit rail. What you give up by not having a spinnaker tack line is the ability to adjust the height and fullness of the spinnaker for different conditions. But at this stage, you’re just working on getting the sail launched, set, gybed, and doused without destroying it.

Running downwind with a full spinnaker is one of sailing's biggest joys
Running downwind with a full spinnaker is one of sailing’s biggest joys

Attach the head of the spinnaker to your jib halyard and hoist it normally. You won’t use your other headsails at the same time with the spinnaker and the jib halyard is almost identical to a spinnaker halyard, so you might as well use it. The disadvantage is the jib halyard will chafe against the forestay when the spinnaker is flying out in front of the forestay, particularly when the spinnaker is to starboard and the halyard has to cross under the forestay. But if you only fly the spinnaker occasionally and in light air conditions like spinnakers are intended for, the chafing will be negligible. And if you follow this strategy to the third stage, you’ll add a dedicated spinnaker halyard that eliminates that chafing.

Attach the clew of the spinnaker to your longest jib sheet(s). What you give up by starting with jib sheets is the length you need to gybe the spinnaker in front of the forestay. Instead, you’ll have to learn the more difficult art of gybing the spinnaker between the forestay and the mast just like a jib or genoa. You probably already know how to do this well with a jib or genoa, but a spinnaker is typically double the square footage of a jib and much taller. Squeezing all that cloth behind the forestay while running downwind without wrapping it around the forestay is a trick that doesn’t come easy.

Practice, practice, practice. A spinnaker is also more delicate than other headsails. It’s made of lightweight nylon instead of heavier, more durable Dacron. It doesn’t take much to snag and rip a spinnaker, so be extra careful.

Spinnaker sheets need to lead as far aft on the boat as practicable so the spinnaker can open as wide and as high as possible. The typical spinnaker setup has turning blocks on the aft corners of the boat that lead the sheets forward to the primary winches. As a temporary solution, you can use the holes or aft ears of your mooring cleats.

DSCN2788

The cleats add friction to trimming the spinnaker, but because they’re only used in light air, the friction is manageable.

In this stage, you have a functional cruising spinnaker that reuses your existing rigging with acceptable compromises – good enough to start having fun flying a spinnaker in light air on downwind runs.

Stingy stage 2 – Add sheets and turning blocks

The goal of stage 2 is to allow you to gybe the spinnaker in front of the forestay. For that, you need much longer sheets than for a jib, typically 2x the boat length for each sheet if you rig separate sheets for port and starboard. Figure 4x boat length for a single sheet attached by a knot in the middle to the spinnaker clew. For a C-22, that’s 85′-90′ total.

Choose a lightweight rope to reduce the weight pulling down on the sail. Also choose a rope with low stretch for its size. When you have 30′-40′ of sheet under a load, every percent of stretch absorbs some of the force that would otherwise propel your sailboat forward. For Summer Dance, I chose 90′ of 1/4″ New England Ropes Sta Set.

DSCN2783
Single-piece spinnaker sheet hanked twice for easier deployment. A butterfly knot in the middle attaches to the clew. Turning blocks on continuous loops are economical and versatile

Lead your dedicated spinnaker sheet(s) outside of the forestay, lifeline stanchions, and all other obstructions aft to the mooring cleats or turning blocks if you have them. Use the toerail to hold them on the deck when they’re not in use. When you gybe the spinnaker, the sheets need to run suspended in mid-air only by the clew while the spinnaker flies out front of the boat (remember, you’re running downwind). I recommend you attach the sheet(s) to the clew with a DIY soft shackle.

Now is a good time to add spinnaker sheet turning blocks so that you can stop using the mooring cleats. Turning blocks virtually eliminate all friction on the sheets and make gybing the spinnaker faster and smoother. These turning blocks are typically stand-up blocks on pads attached to the top of the coamings as far aft as practicable. You can also use cheek blocks or other types depending on where and how you want to mount them. Whatever type you choose, they need to allow the sheets to run freely between the clew and the winches regardless of which side of the sailboat the spinnaker is on.

The $tingy Sailor mantra is to keep costs minimal, of course. That includes avoiding drilling extraneous holes and installing hardware that doesn’t get used most of the time. So instead of permanently mounting stand-up blocks on the aft coamings that will get in the way when they’re not being used, I chose to attach web blocks to the aft mooring cleats with continuous loops of 5/32″ Dyneema that I spliced myself. That places the blocks at least as far aft as stand-up blocks and even farther outboard.

DSCN2787
Web block attached with girth hitches in a continuous loop of Dyneema

I girth hitch the loops to both the blocks and the cleats. This lets me remove the blocks easily when they’re not needed. It also makes them reusable almost anywhere I need a temporary block. Since the loads are relatively low, I chose plastic blocks which, combined with the Dyneema loops, are half the price of stainless steel stand-up blocks and work just as well.

In this stage, you have a functional cruising spinnaker that still reuses your jib halyard. But since you have dedicated sheets, you can gybe the sail out front of the forestay, which is easier and safer.

Stingy stage 3 – Add a spinnaker halyard and masthead block

This stage solves the problem of chafing caused by reusing the jib halyard. As you can see in the following drawing, when the jib halyard runs under the forestay pin and then in front of the forestay, it can make a quarter turn around the forestay. It can also chafe on the masthead itself because of the distance between the sheave and where the halyard exits to the spinnaker. You can reduce the chafing a bit until you add a masthead block by attaching your forestay to the top front pin in the masthead instead of the usual, lower pin but the best solution is a dedicated spinnaker halyard and masthead block.

Attach the spinnaker halyard block in the highest forward location possible
Attach the spinnaker halyard block in the highest forward location possible

A dedicated halyard lets you run it completely outside of the masthead and places it above and in front of the forestay. In that position, the halyard has a fair lead between the block and the sail regardless of which side the sail is on. The spinnaker halyard can chafe a bit below the block where it crosses the forestay when the sail is on the opposite side, but the wear is negligible. As a bonus, you can leave the jib halyard attached to the jib or genoa tied down to the deck while you’re flying the spinnaker. Then when you douse the spinnaker, you can immediately hoist the lazy headsail without having to change the halyard over first.

To rig a spinnaker halyard, you have to install a block at the masthead. I chose a standard 40mm plastic block but extended it with a second, long D shackle to attach it to the top front masthead pin. You can also use a rigging toggle. The important thing is that the block must be able to swing both up and down and also to port and starboard. For the most freedom of movement, install a spinnaker crane on the masthead to move the halyard block even farther away from the forestay.

Spinnaker halyard block attached to the masthead
Spinnaker halyard block attached to the masthead

The spinnaker halyard should be low-stretch and at least 2x the mast height, longer if your control lines run aft to the cockpit. For Summer Dance, I chose 60′ of 1/4″ New England Ropes Sta Set. It was when I added the spinnaker halyard that I was glad that I had the foresight to install triple deck organizers in my Lines led aft project. I had an unused sheave just waiting to be put to work and all I had to add was a cleat.

Once you have a spinnaker halyard rigged to hoist the spinnaker, other than with the sheets, you don’t have a lot of control over the shape and height of the sail. Unlike other headsails that work like an airplane wing and you want to trim flat and tight most of the time, a spinnaker works more like a parachute (they’re sometimes called chutes) and you want it to open full and round — more so when running dead downwind, less so when slightly reaching. You can’t do that well in all conditions when the tack or the head are in fixed positions. For the best control and performance, you want to be able to let the tack rise well up off the deck.

Usually, a sailboat is rigged with a dedicated spinnaker tack line for this. But if you rig a proper headsail downhaul line, you can get double duty out of it. After you douse the jib in preparation for hoisting the spinnaker, detach the downhaul line from the jib and attach it to the tack of the spinnaker. (I typically don’t reave the downhaul line through the headsail hanks. If you do, you’ll want to unreave it to use it with the spinnaker). If you don’t have a headsail downhaul line, a headsail pendant helps but isn’t adjustable.

A headsail downhaul line makes a fine spinnaker tack line
A headsail downhaul line makes a fine spinnaker tack line. Note the jib is still hanked onto the forestay. The halyard sheet (black) runs outside of the forestay and shrouds. The jib halyard is in the foreground.

For the best speed, adjust the spinnaker tack line (downhaul line) and the spinnaker sheet until you get the spinnaker as full and high as possible.

In this stage, you’ve got a fully adjustable cruising spinnaker with dedicated rigging that makes changing between the spinnaker and your regular headsails relatively easy. But there’s one more stage that can make it even faster and easier.

Stingy stage 4 – Add a turtle and snuffer

A spinnaker is the largest sail you’ll ever use on your sailboat. It can be unwieldy until you learn its peculiar behavior and how to fly it well. Even dousing it can be unwieldy, especially if you sail single-handed. There are two accessories that you can add to help you get a handle on all that Nylon — a launch bag (turtle) and a sock (snuffer).

You’re going to need a sail bag to store your spinnaker in anyway, but the right bag can actually help you to launch and retrieve the sail too. A launch bag (also called a turtle) is a sail bag that has straps or clips sewn into the bottom or side of the bag (the legs of the turtle). These let you attach the bag to the foredeck while you rig and launch the sail. You can concentrate on rigging the sail while the bag keeps it secure and contained. Some launch bags (like the one shown below) also have a hoop sewn into the top of the bag that helps to hold the bag open while you stuff the sail back in.

Spinnaker turtle clipped to the pulpit with carabiners
Spinnaker turtle clipped to the pulpit with carabiners on each side

Spinnaker sail cloth is so light that almost any breeze will catch in it. But you don’t want the sail to fill while you’re attaching the rigging or before you get the sail hoisted into place. A snuffer (also called a sock) can help.

A snuffer is a long tube of Nylon cloth that slides over the spinnaker and squeezes it closed to “snuff” it. It attaches between the halyard and the sail head with a turning block and becket and it has a hard ring or collar on the bottom that holds it open and acts as a funnel to squeeze the sail inside. It’s rigged with a loop of line that begins and ends at the collar and runs through the turning block. When you pull down on one side of the loop, it pulls the collar of the snuffer down over the spinnaker to collapse it before you lower the sail. After you hoist the sail, you pull the opposite side of the same line (around the turning block) to compress the tube above the spinnaker and open it.

Anatomy of the common spinnaker snuffer
Anatomy of the common spinnaker snuffer

My spinnaker came with a Chutescoop snuffer when I bought it. It’s really helpful for getting the sail in and out of the launch bag quickly without fouling the sail or the rigging.

A spinnaker snuffer controls deploying and retrieving the sail
A spinnaker snuffer controls deploying and retrieving the sail

Handling the spinnaker single-handed would usually be a train wreck without it.

Snuffer
Snuffer collapsed. A pendant between the halyard shackle and the sail head keeps the snuffer out of the way of the sail

If you make it to stage 4, you’ve got a fully rigged cruising spinnaker that’s easy to launch, control, and retrieve. If you break your rigging expenses into the stingy stages like I’ve described in this post, you can spread your purchases out over time with the highest priority ones first and the convenience items last.

I followed this strategy with Summer Dance and spread my rigging out over two years. Now I look for every opportunity I can to fly the spinnaker, even single-handed. It’s amazing how fast Summer Dance can cruise downwind in light air with just the spinnaker. With the other sails doused, the sky is open above and the view is clear all around. The sail’s colors turn an ordinary day on the water into a celebration. That’s when I like to say, “Yeah, we got this!”

The Bottom Line

Suggested price: $1,385
$tingy Sailor cost: $515
Savings: $870

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23 Comments Add yours

  1. Ben Rouse says:

    I have a symmetrical spinnaker that came with my boat. It looks like it has never been used. I have the blocks and lines for it, but no spinnaker pole, so I have never used it. They also intimidate me.

    1. Hi, Ben

      I was hesitant about trying a spinnaker in the beginning too, basically because of the complexity of the symmetrical spinnaker rigging, which pretty much needs two people to handle. When I learned how asymmetrical spinnakers work and that they can be flown single-handed, I decided to give it a try. It’s more work than a regular headsail but worth it, in my opinion.

      Maybe you could find someone in your local club with a pole that would be willing to show you how to use yours. Then you could decide whether you want to get deeper into it, store it away for the next owner, or maybe sell it to pay for something you would use more.

      1. Ben Rouse says:

        Yeah, I am planning to meet up with the local trailer sailer club, so I’ll see what happens. There are always more things to buy! I would like a whisker pole so I can run wing and wing. I was speaking to a local yachty and he reckons for my 16ft, I could use a boat hook as a whisker pole. He says he has done so in light air on his 35ft keelboat. I haven’t bothered yet because my local waterway (Gold Coast Broadwater in Queensland, Australia), despite the name, isn’t that broad and seldom do we get a long enough stretch to warrant it.

      2. Seems like it will never end, huh?

        The boat hook is a great idea if it’s long enough for you. I love getting multiple uses out of gear. Have you tried running wing and wing without a pole? I do it sometimes when I don’t feel like putting up the spinnaker. It can be tricky to keep one wing from collapsing if you have shifty winds, but when it works, it works well and it takes no time at all to bear off to a reach when you run out of water.

      3. Ben Rouse says:

        For some reason I can’t reply to your later comment. It must be some sort of nesting issue. Anyway, I’m replying here! Where I usually sail, suffers a lot from shifting winds. The prevailing winds are usually SE, but we can get more S or more E randomly from moment to moment, so I find it hard to keep the headsail from collapsing.

      4. Ah, that’d do it, then.

        Looks like you have a very cool place to sail down there so long as you don’t run aground, especially exploring up north? I imagine there are a lot of sand bars to watch out for but great beaches for camping and the barbie, eh?

      5. Ben Rouse says:

        Yes, it’s a lovely spot. There are council run campgrounds on North and South Stradbroke Islands which are reasonable priced, but as you can imagine, they are very popular. If you stick to the channel, you’re pretty safe, but we have hit the swing keel on the occasional sand shoal by pushing it a little far. 😉 And on a very low tide, certain boat ramps can be difficult to manouvre back to even with the keel wound up, but for a nominal fee, we have started using a local marina’s ramp, which is much easier, and even features pontoons for a nice dry launch and retrieve.

      6. If the $tingy Sailor world tour ever makes it down there, that will be high on my list of places to visit!

  2. Luke says:

    Another great article, Thanks! I am considering mounting my 50 W Solar Panel on the Bow Pulpit because I will relocate my battery forward, this way I have a way shorter wire run to charge the battery vice having the panel on the stern. I typically won’t have the Panel mounted while sailing, but if it were I am wondering if it could interfere with headsail function in any way or launching/dousing the Spinnaker. What do you think?

    1. Hi, Luke

      It would definitely be in the way up front. Have you considered on the cabin top in front of the mast? That’s about the only semi-safe spot forward of the stern unless you don’t have a pop top. Then on top of the hatch would be better, in my opinion. Depends on the panel size and how you want to attach it. If I was going to have a portable panel, I’d probably go with suction cups and stick it on top of the cabin somewhere. Running the leads to your charge controller without them getting in the way will be a trick too. All reasons why I’m glad I don’t have one and that my outboard alternator provides all the charging I need.

      1. Ben Rouse says:

        I have recently started using an 18W solar panel which I attach to my sliding hatch with outdoor velcro. I sized the panel specifically to fit lengthways on one half of the hatch, so that I can add another beside it in parallel. That way when one is shaded by a sail, the other will hopefully be putting out full power, which would result in more power output than a single partly shaded larger panel. I am currently testing the setup in my front yard with the newly installed VHF in standby mode. I have tested it with only a smartphone GPS running while sailing last week, but my radio licence arrived while I was away, so the frontyard test it is.

  3. CAF says:

    Our “new” boat (Seaward Fox) came with all the hardware but no spinnaker. You broke this down so well. Great pictures and instructions.

  4. Captain John says:

    First time discovering your site. Nice job on the Spinnaker project.

    I completed a similar project on my Montgomery 15. Only difference I wanted to ease the single handed process of jibing the sail so built a bowsprit out of a piece of 1.5 inch aluminum pipe I acquired from our local metal yard. At first I lashed the pipe to the bow and fore-deck cleat to test the design. It worked. So I had a metal shop modify my bow plate, adding a stainless tube to the plate. Now the bowsprit slips through the bow plate tube and is lashed to the fore-deck cleat. The sail tack extends from the end of the bowsprit and is about 2.5 feet in front of the boat. This gives plenty of room to tack the sail in front of the fore stay.

  5. Rich Weston says:

    I know this is late but another great article that speaks to my particular style of sailing. One of the things I’m trying to figure out is how to attach the tack of my A sail when I have a furler drum. If the tack line is adjustable how do you lead it to the cockpit? I’m also little fuzzy on how the turtle and snuffer are rigged. Do you need to attach even more hardware to the top of the mast for them? Where do the control lines go? I was planning on installing a sheave block above the jib halyard so I could have the A sail halyard led to the cockpit.

    1. Hi, Rich

      Thanks for your questions. I’ll try to clarify those points a bit more here.

      The tack line on my boat is also my headsail downhaul line. It serves both purposes with one line; as a downhaul when I’m flying my jib or genoa or as the spinnaker tack line when I’m flying it. I never need it for both purposes at the same time. The jib or genoa block the spinnaker too much to fly them at the same time. If you look at my Headsail downhaul solution post, you can see how I have it rigged and how it can work around your furler. However, I have it rigged slightly differently these days now that I have a spinnaker. The stanchion cleat isn’t strong enough for a tack line so, instead of it running to the cockpit through a fairlead at a stanchion base at the edge of the deck, I now run it straight back from the pulpit turning block, through a fairlead mounted in front of my port side deck organizer, and dead end it in a fairlead clam cleat just in front of my cam cleats on the cabin top. I also moved the pulpit turning block from the aft base to the forward base. You can see that in the first picture in Quit spending setup time on turnbuckles.

      The turtle bag is just clipped to the pulpit bases on both sides with utility carabiners. They hold it on the deck so that it doesn’t roll overboard and so that it can stay on the foredeck while I’m sailing. When I’m ready to douse the spinnaker back into it, it’s already in place and I don’t have to carry it back to the foredeck.

      The snuffer attaches in between the spinnaker halyard shackle and the spinnaker head grommet. Without a snuffer, you would attach the shackle directly to the grommet. The snuffer just sits in between them. That’s what you’re seeing in the last picture of the post. There’s no new hardware needed at the masthead for it.

      You do need a block above the jib halyard to run your spinnaker halyard through if you aren’t going to use your jib halyard for the spinnaker like I describe in stage 1. The spinnaker halyard should run to the cockpit parallel to your jib halyard and dead end in its own cleat. You essentially have two headsail halyards that are identical except at the masthead where one is above the other so that it can fly its sail in front of the other, not to one side.

      I hope that answers your questions. If not, let me know either here in an email sent from the Contact page.

  6. Mac22 says:

    I just acquired a 1982 Macgregor 22 with a mainsail, jib and spinnaker (with spinnaker pole) and look forward to trying this addition to my arsenal. I have a question on the photograph of your masthead. My boat does not have a masthead assembly but is open revealing a hollow mast. All standing rigging is secured via steel straps secured to the top of the boom. Is your masthead OEM to the boat is an aftermarket item. If aftermarket, where can it be purchased? I’ve tried unsuccessfully hence the question.

    1. My masthead is original for a C-22. If the top of your mast looks like the first picture below, then you’ll need something like in the second picture to hang your spinnaker halyard block from.

      Mac 22 standard masthead

      Mac 22 chicken head

      Also ask around in the Macgregor forums online. I’m sure those guys know the best way to rig your spinnaker. I’m not as familiar with your boat as I am with C-22s.

      Thanks for your question!

  7. bigsnit says:

    Hi, thanks for the great article. I’m using a NorthSail G2 cruising spin on my C22 and love it – super flexible and gives me some speed in light air. Once quick question. In the photo of your tack pendant it looks like you have it rigged inside the pulpit. Is there a reason for that?

    robert ouimet
    madsu
    http://www.madsu.ca

    1. Hi, Robert

      The picture in this article shows the headsail downhaul used as the spinnaker tack line like I describe in Install a Double Duty Headsail Downhaul so it’s usually inside the pulpit. It could also run in front of the pulpit. With my spinnaker, it just depends on how high and forward it’s flying for the current conditions. If the air is really light, it works best inside the pulpit. In moderate air when it flies fuller in the top half but almost dead downwind, it would work better outside the pulpit. Either way works.

      When I have the jib or genoa on, the same line reverts back to use as the downhaul and I attach those sails to a 24″ pendant that I describe in How to Raise Your Foresail with a Pendant.

  8. AaronD says:

    What size turning blocks did you use for your 1/4″ sheets? I couldn’t tell for sure from the photos. Are 30mm blocks large enough for smooth operation with the nearly 180-degree turn? Or would it be better to size up to 40mm? (as best I can tell, the sheet loads should be low enough that either size will be fine for strength)

    1. I use 40mm blocks for halyards and sheets. They’re easier to handle with gloves on.

      1. AaronD says:

        Thanks. I think I’ll do the same.

  9. Another excellent, very informative and helpful article. Thank you for investing the time to put this together.

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