Earlier this summer, I described How to rig a cruising spinnaker in 4 stingy stages. If you don’t have a spinnaker yet, or even if you do have one but you don’t want to raise it for a short run, your best option when sailing downwind is to set your sails “wing and wing.” That is, with your mainsail eased all the way out on one side of the boat and your headsail eased all the way out on the other side of the boat. With both sails catching as much wind as possible, you’ll achieve top speed.
That works okay but it can be tricky to control. You typically only have a few degrees of heading within which to hold both sails open. If you veer off just a little or the wind shifts slightly, the headsail can backwind or you can make an accidental gybe with the mainsail and you’ll lose momentum.
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Pole it out
To make the headsail more forgiving and to open it further for even more speed, you can borrow a tactic used by many racers and hold the headsail clew out with a whisker pole. A whisker pole is simply a lightweight spar with clips at both ends. One end clips to the headsail clew and the other end clips to a ring attached to the front of the mast, sometimes on a track to adjust the height of the whisker pole for different sails or sailing conditions.
If you don’t have a whisker pole yet and you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on one, you can easily achieve the same effect with only a telescoping boat hook if you have one. Besides being handy for those controlled crashes you call docking or retrieving your hat when it flies off in a blow, it can be helpful under sail too.
To work best as a whisker pole, it should be extendable to between 75% and 100% of the length of the foot of the headsail. The one shown in these pictures is a West Marine Floating & Telescoping Shorty Boat Hook I picked up when they were on sale. It will extend to 7′ and works well for my C-22, even the 150% genoa.
To use your boat hook as a whisker pole:
1. After you have your sails set wing and wing, extend your boat hook and insert the tip into the headsail clew D ring or the sheet knot. The shoulder of the hook should catch like in the picture below and prevent the pole from passing through.
2. Hold the handle of the boat hook near the boom gooseneck and adjust the length for the best headsail shape.
3. Set the boat hook handle on the gooseneck fitting so that it is held in place even if the boat hook moves around a little. For example, in the picture below, the handle is resting on the pin that attaches the gooseneck fitting to the mast slide. It’s also held in place somewhat on its sides by the gooseneck fitting and the mast. Tension on the working sheet keeps the boat hook pressed against the gooseneck. A little tension on the lazy sheet can also help stabilize the pole. A lanyard tied to the boat hook is clipped into the boom downhaul shackle to prevent losing the boat hook overboard in case the handle falls out of place.
With your headsail poled out, you don’t have to concentrate so much on keeping the sails open. The headsail will also fill more and better balance the mainsail. Try it the next time you’re running downwind and enjoy the ride. You’ll be surprised how much speed you gain.
Going beyond an ordinary boat hook
Keep in mind that this setup is only safe for casual sailing in light winds. In medium to heavy winds, the pole joints could slip, the pole could bend under pressure, or the handle can slip out of place and skewer your mainsail. For serious racing, get a bona fide whisker pole setup.
If your boat hook handle and gooseneck don’t play well together or if you want to make a more positive connection to the mast, you can attach a whisker pole fitting or similar hardware in the handle end of the pole and mount a pad eye on the front of the mast to which to connect it.
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