Question: How do you sail when the wind seemingly dies?
Answer: You don’t, unless you run downwind with a spinnaker.
Background: Three hours of sailing on the York River usually involves tacking back and forth into the wind as we make way eastward in a zig-zag down the river. We are sailing off the wind by about 30 degrees on an east wind. Upon turning around to come back, the effect of the wind diminishes on the sails because of the new angle of the wind. We are essentially going with the wind behind us, seemingly zero mph.
We need the spinnaker.
This is a giant sail, bigger than the genoa and mainsail combined. We raise it in a chute at the bow and the open the chute to let the wind fill the sail from behind.
I estimate that only one in three sailboats has a spinnaker, and only half of them use it. The effort requires teamwork and timing because the spinnaker can never touch the shrouds or spreaders of the boat for fear of tearing. Unlike the other sails, this one is paper thin and tears easily. It is essentially a parachute and indeed is made of parachute nylon.
Once deployed, the spinn has only three points of attachment. The spinn halyard attaches to the top of the sail. The tack attaches to the foot, and the clew attaches to the sheet. Unlike the genoa, the sheet is extended farther back to the aft of the boat to reach full tilt.
Mainsail pulled in
The photo in the main illustration shows the view from below the boom, looking upward. You can see through the mainsail because it has been pulled in to avoid blanketing the spinnaker.
Sailing downwind on the spinnaker is amazing. It’s much quieter because the wind moves with us and there are few waves from the wake. One has to keep close tabs on the spinn so it doesn’t collapse from a wind shift. Hands on the sheets at all times. People who’ve never seen a sailboat under spinnaker become dazzled by the adventure of it all.
To be sure, it’s not for everyone and not every day. They say you can never be too rich or too thin, but you can have too much wind. If you can see whitecaps, that’s too much wind to fly the spinnaker. But it doesn’t matter because if you can see whitecaps you’ll have plenty of wind to get back anyway.
Let’s Go Sail, under Spinnaker
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Author: Bill O'Donovan
Retired newspaper publisher is now in his fourth season as a sailing charter captain. Visitors and locals enjoy the scenery and the sailing on the historic York River.
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