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’ve 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 spinnaker. You can use the same strategy with a symmetrical 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 rigging 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. An asymmetrical spinnaker (also called a gennaker – a cross between a genoa and a symmetrical spinnaker) is definitely an optional 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 reduce the cost by integrating a spinnaker with my existing rigging on Summer Dance.
The four stages of stingy spinnaker rigging are:
- 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.
- Add a dedicated spinnaker sheet (or two) to swap headsails quicker and to make gybing the spinnaker in front of the forestay possible. Also add turning blocks to lead the sheets.
- 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.
- 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 an asymmetrical 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 then a regular headsail and they don’t work as well if flown 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.
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 on the opposite side of the forestay from the halyard. 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 but it can be done.
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.
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 regular headsail, typically 2x the boat length for each sheet if you rig separate sheets for port and starboard. Figure 4x the 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.
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.
TIP: When you’re gybing, don’t let the lazy sheet run so slack that it falls in the water and gets swept under the boat. It can foul around the keel or the outboard prop. Contrary to the rule of always tying stopper knots in the ends of your sheets and control lines to keep them from accidentally slipping out of their cleats or clutches, do NOT tie them in the spinnaker sheets. If you lose control of the spinnaker in moderate winds, it could cause a knockdown. It’s better to let the sheets run out of the turning blocks and keep the sailboat upright while you get the spinnaker back under control.
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.
TIP: If you have any ambitions about racing with a spinnaker or you’re just performance minded, consider using ratcheting turning blocks. They will let you manually play the air pressure on the sail but also temporarily lock in place so you don’t have to hold all of the pull on the sheets.
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.
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.
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.
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 at the cockpit bulkhead.
Once you have a spinnaker halyard rigged to hoist the spinnaker, you don’t have a lot of control over the shape and height of the sail besides with the sheets. 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 jib hanks as is sometimes recommended. 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.
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 sketchy, 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 (the legs of the turtle) sewn into the bottom or side of the bag. These let you attach the bag to the foredeck to hold it in place 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 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 the snuffer 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. The loop works like a window shade cord. 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.
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.
Handling the spinnaker single-handed would usually be a train wreck without it.
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 divide 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, I’ve got this!”
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