Flying the Spinnaker on a Flying Scot

Written by Peter C. Preusch, NIHSA Commodore, 1999-2000
April 25, 2000

Terms to Know

Spinnaker – it has three corners — one “head” and two “clews”.
Spinnaker sheets – these function interchangeably as the “sheet ” and the “guy”.
Spinnaker pole – holds out one of the clews to help control the leading edge of the sail.
Guy – controls the angle of the pole relative to the boat center-line and the wind.
Sheet – controls the other (free) clew of the sail.
Spinnaker pole topping lift – adjusts the angle of the pole with the water.
Spinnaker pole down-haul (bungee) – keeps the pole from flying up in the air.
Mast ring – ring on front of mast – to which the pole is attached – may be adjustable.
Spinnaker halyard – used to raise the spinnaker – attached to ring on chain plate.
Chain plates – attach shrouds to hull – hook on the chain plate to hold down the guy.
Forestay – wire holding up mast to which jib is attached and thing around which a poorly set spinnaker becomes hopelessly twisted, and into which the sheets become jammed if you have not taped the forestay adjuster.
Spinnaker basket – Rubbermaid special launching equipment.

Preparing to Use the Spinnaker

Most of these instructions are for the forward (mast/pole/bow) position crew member. The middle crew member may help by adjusting the sheets as necessary. Mast should call ease (or slack) or trim (pull in) on the appropriate sheet by color (red/green), side (port/starboard), or function (sheet/guy). Middle should oblige. The helmsperson controls the boat direction and this has a huge effect on how easy it is for the crew to do their jobs.

1) Take high blood pressure medicine early; do yoga, Tai Chi, or whatever…become resigned to a certain frequency of failure. There are many, many ways to do this wrong – sample them freely and learn how not to repeat your mistakes. Remember – this is fun!

2) Locate all the above parts – put the pole in the bottom of boat on the starboard side.

3) Remove the spinnaker from the sail bag and place it in the spinnaker basket. Run the edges of the sail to be sure it is not twisted. Locate the head and the two clews. Stuff the middle of the sail into the basket, leaving the corners on the top of the heap – oriented in the directions they will be fed. Place sail in basket on the floor near the port corner of the cockpit. Some folks like to put the basket up on the seat just before the launch.

4) Lead the spinnaker sheets. Start in the port corner of the cockpit – leaving the “brummel hooks” (the metal things on one end of the sheets) in the corner. Lead the lines outside around the all other rigging – outside the shrouds, outside the headstay (red to port, green or blue to starboard), through the turning eye at the very back of the boat (outside to in), and the “turning block” (generally a cheek block – again, outside to in), and to the spinnaker cleat. All the boats are just a bit different.

Attach the port halyard to the “head” of the spinnaker. Be sure the halyard is clear of the shroud and runs free, be sure it will hoist the spinnaker out under the port jib sheet, not over it. Attach both to the ring at the chain plate. This will get the sail ready, but not allow it to blow out of the boat. Note that the halyard is a single line up to a block at the “hounds” and back down the other side to another ring on the other chain plate. Be careful not to pull up the halyard without attaching it to something (like the sail) that will let you pull it down again.

6) As you get ready to launch the spinnaker, attach the sheets to the clews of the sail by joining the brummel hooks on the sheets with those on the sail. Be sure the sail and sheets lead out from the boat under (not over) the port jib sheet. Look for the triangle formed by the two jib sheets. The spinnaker goes out through the center of that triangle.

Conventional Set on a Starboard Tack

This is the standard launch when you round the windward mark in a triangle course port rounding (counter-clockwise) sailboat race such as the club customarily runs. It is also easy to just put yourself on a broad reach on the starboard tack any time you wish to use the spinnaker to go downwind. The sail is launched on the leeward (port) side of the boat and will tend to inflate as it is raised.

1) The skipper should come to the proper course and call for the spinnaker set.

2) The mast crew does the following:

Lift the pole from the bottom of the boat pushing the forward end further forward. Be sure it is right side up – the jaws open downward the topping lift attachment pad eye is on top.
Attach forward end to the starboard sheet (which, by that action, becomes the “guy” — controlling the end of the pole).
Attach the pole by the pad eye to the hook on the end of the topping lift.
Attach the other end of the pole to the mast ring.
The above steps should be one smooth motion. Remember – the order – guy, hook, ring – keep pushing the pole forward. You should not have to get up on the deck to attach the pole to the ring even if you are short. It’s right there about eye level. You may need to ask the middle crew for slack on the guy to get the pole on the mast ring. Also if he downhaul or topping lift are overly tight, you may need to adjust these. Practice and adjust these with the pole, alone, before trying it with the sail.

3) Pre-feed the guy – sometimes it helps to get the forward corner of the sail around the forestay before hoisting the spinnaker. This helps keep the sheet or sail from getting caught in the forestay adjuster. The mast crew will need to keep pushing the pole forward, while the middle crew pull in on the guy (starboard sheet at this point).

4) Release the snap shackle from the ring, leaving it attached to the head of the sail. You are now ready to hoist the sail.

5) Be sure the starboard end of the halyard is free and clear of the shroud. Good practice is to grab the halyard right down at the ring. The twists will usually sort themselves out okay from there. Hoist the sail quickly by pulling down on the starboard side of the halyard. Note, you do not have to remove the starboard end of the halyard from its ring. Just pull down and cleat the halyard in the clam (or cam) cleats on the front of the cockpit. Hoist it smartly, before it knows what you’re doing and tries to get wrapped around something. Once the sail reaches the top, you call out “made” to let the others know it is up — and also to sound very nautical and knowledgeable indeed.

6) Meanwhile, the middle crew person should be pulling on the guy like crazy to help get the sail out around the forestay as it goes up the mast. The mast crew may need to push the pole forward again as the guy is pulled back. Good coordination between the mast and middle crew are essential. The sail should go up and around simultaneously.

7) Adjust the guy and sheet to trim the sail Here is where good middle crew shines.

Adjust the guy so that the pole is perpendicular to the wind direction. This is probably also in a line that extends the opposite direction from the boom. If not, both the pole and the main sheet may need adjustment.

Hook the guy under the hook on the chain plate to help keep the pole from “skying”. A properly equipped club Scot will have a popsicle stick taped in place to help hold the guy in the hook. These work so, so, but better than nothing. Sticks are in shed.

Adjust the tension on the sheet (attached to the free clew of the sail). Ease (let out) the sheet to let the sail roll forward. Trim (pull-in) on the sheet to pull the sail back around. Very small adjustments (a few inches) make a big difference. The sail is flying properly when it looks right — “like a big puffy balloon”. Play with the sheet and guy to see how it behaves. It is ideally trimmed when the leading edge is just on the verge of breaking (folding in). Play the sheet continuously – ease it until the sail just starts to break, then trim it until the sail fills.

If you can’t get it to fill by adjusting the sheet, check the direction the skipper is steering – odds are good, he/she has been so busy telling you what to do, he/she has totally forgotten where they are going and you are trying to set the spinnaker while sailing to close to the wind or by the lee. Whap him/her with your hat and be sure he/she is holding a steady course on a broad reach. Once the course is correct, treat the sheet/spinnaker foot/guy as one big circle. If you ease the sheet, trim the guy and vice versa. You are simply moving the sail around this circle. The more aft the wind, the more you can pull the sail around to the windward, in this case starboard (pole back). The beamier the wind, the more you have to move the sail around to the leeward, in this case port (pole forward).

If the helmsperson steers a less broad course, ease the pole forward and trim the sheet. If the helmsperson heads down (bears off a bit), pull the pole back and ease the sheet. You get the most benefit by having as much of the spinnaker pulled around the forestay as possible so that the spinnaker is not blanketed by the jib and main sails. Similarly, you need to adjust the sail for wind shifts. If the wind goes forward, so does the pole. If the wind goes aft, so does the pole. If you have trouble with the chute collapsing – pull it around to the leeward then back to the windward until it reinflates.

Adjust the pole tip height with the topping lift so that the two clews are about even. This means lowering the pole tip in light wind and raising it in higher wind. You can also experiment with how the pole tip position affects the ability to reach with the spinnaker. Generally, the tip can go down as the wind goes forward.


ETYMOLOGICAL BREAK – according to good authority, the word spinnaker derives from the very inventor of the sail who was quoted as having said, “that ought to make ‘er spin”. Also known as “chute” after the resemblance and early manufacture from parachute material. Also known as “kite” – indeed the antecedent of the spinnaker IS the kite. In fact, the April, 2000, issue of Sail magazine has a feature on surfboard sailing with two line kites.

BACK TO BUSINESS: But what if I don’t want to sail on starboard tack?

Jibing With the Spinnaker

This is necessary, when racing, when one rounds the “reach” or “jibe” mark on a triangle course. It is also necessary when one is running out of room on the present tack, or simply wants to change direction.

1) The helmsperson can make life much easier by steering dead downwind briefly during the jibe. Come into it slowly, be sure every one is ready — “prepare to jibe”.

2) The mast crew. working on the starboard side of the boat, will release the guy from the pole (simply pull on the lanyard – the small line on the bottom of the pole that controls the jaws).

3) The mast crew removes the other end of the pole from the mast ring. DO NOT REMOVE THE POLE FROM THE TOPPING LIFT! Allow the pole to hang from the topping lift and slide IN FRONT OF THE MAST over to the other side. The end that was previously attached to the mast will now be on the port side of the boat. The pole will by hanging evenly -”like a Tee” from the topping lift.

4) At this point, the jibe can occur. The helmsperson completes the turn, but do not over-turn. It is useful for the forward crew to help the sail over by pulling on the boom vang (this also helps coordinate the movement of the crew member to the other side at the right time).

5) Once on the port side of the boat, with the main jibed, the mast crew will attach the former mast end of the pole to the port sheet (thus it becomes the new “guy”) and will then attach the other end of the pole to the mast. The last action is to hook the new guy under the hook on the port chain plate and be sure the starboard “sheet” is no longer hooked under the starboard chain plate, but rather, is free to fly the clew with the wind.

6) At this point, the middle crew takes over to trim the sheet and guy as above. The mast crew is free to lean back on the boom to help keep the sheets out of the water, have a smoke, and reflect on a job well done. Meanwhile, during the entire process, the middle crew should be trying to keep the spinnaker under control, while the skipper should be sailing dead down wind to help keep the chute inflated and in front of the boat.

7) Yeah, but what about the jib sail. Good grief! Option 1. Get it out of the way by rolling it up and tying a sail tie around it after you set the spinnaker on the first reach. Option 2. Middle crew should be responsible for jibing the jib, when all the other dust has settled. Presumably, someone eased the jib when you came onto a broad reach in the first place. The only problem with Option 1 is that it requires someone to go out on the foredeck (not as safe as staying in the cockpit). Also, if you do a bad job setting the spinnaker, the jib may be doing more good to keep you moving than the chute. In just the right wind and point of sail, you can get both the spinnaker and jib sail to pull for you. Otherwise, the jib is often blanketing the spinnaker or just squirreling around uselessly.

Take-down on Port Tack

Before you can begin sailing up-wind again, you must take down the spinnaker. In a conventional triangle course race with port roundings, this will occur as one rounds the leeward mark, while one is on the port tack. The spinnaker is retrieved from the same side from which it was launched (port), but this side is now the windward side of the boat. If you have jibed back and forth several times, jibe once more to get back on port tack. The helms person just maintains course on a broad reach, while the crew works the spinnaker, but can begin bringing in the main sheet at the same time.

1) Mast crew removes the pole from: a) the mast ring and begins to direct the pole back into the bottom on the starboard side, from whence it came; b) from the hook on the topping lift; and c) from the guy by pulling on the lanyard; then d) stows the pole completely in the bottom of the boat before proceeding. Middle crew meanwhile tries to keep the sail pulling under control, but may need to give the mast crew slack on the guy to get the pole off the mast.

2) Mast crew gather-in the foot of the sail, pulling it back around the forestay. Middle crew will need to ease the sheet on the starboard side. As the spinnaker is gathered around onto the windward side of the forestay, it will collapse and depower.

3) Once the foot is gathered, the sail may be dropped by releasing the spinnaker halyard on the starboard side from its cleat. The halyard may be let up slowly by having the middle crew control it, or by doing it yourself. However, it is also possible just to let it go completely, if you pull in the sail quickly. Once the halyard is released, mast crew will pull the sail down and into the boat as quickly as possible, so it doesn’t go in the water and become a drag (sea anchor). Note that the sail, sheets, and halyard have to come back into the boat the same way the went out (i.e., UNDER the jib sheet, not on top of it), or you wind up with a snarled mess to untangle. A trick to make this happen correctly is to place the spinnaker basket on the seat and pull the jib sheet into the cockpit, hooking under the inside-aft corner of the basket. An alternate trick is to duck under the jib sheet yourself, so the sheet is behind your back. When you pull down the spinnaker in this position, there is no way to tangle it up with the jib sheet.

4) Once the spinnaker is down, remove the halyard from the head of the sail and immediately put it back on the ring for safe keeping. Place the spinnaker basket on the floor so the sail doesn’t get blown out of the boat in a puff.

[Note that some folks do not use a spinnaker basket at all. In this case, simply drop the sail into the bottom of the boat and when down, push it forward under the foredeck to get it out of the way. Some folks also leave the halyard attached to the head of the sail so it is ready to go up again, but it is good practice to clip the halyard (with head attached) to the ring to keep the sail from blowing out. Experiment and see what works for you.]

5) Meanwhile, middle crew (or the skipper) should have lowered the centerboard if you are now going upwind. Middle crew or mast crew should trim the jib sheet on the starboard side as you come to weather…still on port tack.

6) Debriefing, detangling, and preparing for the next set. If the above has not worked as planned, you probably have a mess to sort out. Start by getting all the lines straightened out and detached from the sail. Run the edges of the sail again and repack it. Discuss what when wrong and how to help each other do it better. Take some deep breaths and repeat the instruction about yoga.

Take-down Without Jibing

What happens if you launch the spinnaker on starboard tack (leeward side), but do not jibe, or jibe then jibe back, and you want to take down the spinnaker (still on the leeward side). This occurs when racing a triangle course if the first reaching leg is favorable for using the spinnaker (broad reach), but the second leg is not (close reach). The problem is that when you take down the spinnaker on the leeward side, it does not collapse and depower as you gather the foot. Rather, it stays inflated and under increasing pressure. Since you have pulled the spinnaker around to the side of the boat it is mainly pulling the boat sideways and making it heel excessively. In high or gusty winds, this can be dangerous. There are two options:

Option 1: Instead of bringing the spinnaker down on the port side of the boat, bring it down on the starboard (windward side). In this case, the procedure is exactly as described above but reversed (port and starboard). The sail will again be brought down on the windward side of the boat and will depower as you gather in the foot of the sail. The disadvantage of this method is that the spinnaker halyard, which started out on the port side of the boat will now be on the starboard side. If you want to launch the chute on starboard tack again, you need to move the halyard and brummel hooks back around to the port side. This can be done by joining the brummel hooks on the sheets together, snapping the halyard to the sheet and pulling them back around the forestay. It is also possible to walk the halyard around by going out on the foredeck. However, it is generally safest to stay in the cockpit as much as possible.

Option 2: Another option is to lower the spinnaker by slowly releasing the halyard as you pull in the foot of the spinnaker from the port side clew (without gathering the foot at all). The sail will be rolling forward way from the headstay, then back under the jib sheet. Be sure to pull in the sail from under the jib sheet. This option has the virtue of bringing the halyard back down on the same side from which it started. The disadvantage is that it is a bit trickier to keep the sail out of the water.

Port Tack Set and Jib Set

What if you are on port tack when you want to launch the chute. For example, in one of the club regattas, if the course is not dead square to the wind, the first reaching leg may not be favorable for flying the spinnaker (wind is too far forward). When you reach the jibe mark (a.k.a., reach mark), you will want to jibe and then raise the spinnaker. When sailing for fun, you may be too close to the shore to sail on starboard tack while you get the spinnaker set. Obviously, if you have the time and searoom to do it, you can get on starboard tack, set the spinnaker, and then quickly jibe onto port. But if you can’t do that, you have two options:

Option 1: Move the spinnaker basket over to the starboard side of the boat. Connect the brummel hooks on the sheets together with each other and then pull them around until the hooks are near the starboard front corner of the cockpit. At this point, you can raise the spinnaker exactly the same way as for the conventional starboard tack set, EXCEPT: a) the pole will be raised on the port side of the boat; b) the spinnaker will be launched under the starboard side jib sheets; c) you will pull down on the port side halyard to raise the sail. You will still be launching the sail on the leeward side of the boat. Jibing the spinnaker will be the same as above if you need to do it.

Option 2:Leave the gear in the usual location for a starboard tack launch. However, instead of putting up the pole first and then raising the sail, you raise the sail first and then put up the pole. The sequence is timed so that the sail goes up just as you jibe from starboard tack onto port tack and the sail goes up while you are running dead downwind. When the jibe is completed, you put the pole up (guy, hook, mast ring) to control the sail.

The take-down after a port tack set is the same as described above for the normal take-down after a starboard set and jibe. The sail will be taken down on the port (windward) side of the boat and will depower. f you used Option 2 (jibe set) above, the lines and sail will be returned to their original places. If you used Option 1 (moving the gear around to the starboard side before launching to port, then when you take down the sail on port you will wind up with the halyard on the wrong side of the boat. This can be fixed as described above under Take Down without Jibing.

Putting It All Away

When you are done with your sail, you should remove and hank the spinnaker lines. If they are wet, hang them on the side of the basket where they can dry. If dry, they can be put in either the bottom of the basket or in the bottom of the sail bag. If the chute is dry, stuff it in the sail bag, place the bag in the basket. Finally, place the where its contents will tend to stay dry under the foredeck and up out of any water in the bottom of the boat.

If the spinnaker is wet, do not put it back in the sail bag. Option 1. Dry the sail by hoisting it at the dock (using the halyard and a line to one clew only. This will let it flap like a flag and shake most of the water off. Option 2. Just put it in the basket without stuffing it into the sail bag. It will dry out more or less eventually.

Finally, it is nice to tidy up the topping lift so it isn’t hanging in the way.

OKAY – if you got this far, you’ve been very patient, and I’ve told you just about everything you need to know to fly the spinnaker successfully. This will all make much more sense after you see it in action.