A spinnaker set is something you can never take for granted. I guess I should know. In many years of competitive sailing, I've been a part of almost every spinnaker screw-up imaginable.
I remember at least two times when we set the chute early and draped it all over the windward mark. I once hoisted the spinnaker sideways, with the halyard attached to a clew. Then there was the major match race when we hoisted the halyard only to discover it had come undone from the head of the chute. Oops! To top all those, I once raised a spinnaker that got caught on the guy hook and ripped almost in half.
Many of these situations seem comical now, but they weren't too funny at the time. They were downright embarrassing, not to mention detrimental to our finishing position. They underscored the fact that, when you're racing around the buoys, good boathandling is essential for success.
Spinnaker sets may be the most critical boathandling maneuver of all. Fortunately, you usually have to set the chute only once or twice each race, and you have the whole first beat to get ready. In practice, however, your planning for the set should begin long before that. Try to do as much as possible before the race –- even before you leave the dock. That way you'll be able to concentrate more on tactics, rules, and boatspeed as you approach the first mark.
Before the start
Good boathandling doesn't just happen spontaneously – it requires practice and preparation. Here are some things you can and should do before any race to make your spinnaker sets go as smoothly as possible.
Practice with your crew. Before the day of the race, get out in your boat and practice. Setting the chute requires teamwork among everyone on your boat, and the only way to improve is to "just do it." Fortunately, you don't need other boats to practice spinnaker sets. Just find a short windward-leeward course and keep sailing around it.
Pack or roll the spinnaker. You can improve many sets by rolling the chute into a compact unit. On a dock or grassy area, put the two clews together and straighten the leeches between head and clew. Then bring the head down so it lies on top of the clews. Beginning at the fold in the middle of the leech, roll the cloth tightly toward the head and clews, folding the fabric on the sides into the middle so the roll gets no more than about 18 inches wide. The advantage of using a roll is that it hoists easily and quickly.
Keep your chute dry. If you're sailing in light air, try to keep your chute as dry as possible until you set it in the race. I often put my spinnaker in a plastic garbage bag to keep the water off; this is particularly effective when it's raining.
Attach the sheets and halyard. Hook up all three corners of the spinnaker well before the start. Use bowlines (not brummel hooks or other devices) to attach the sheets and halyard. Knots are light and won't accidentally come undone. Be sure you secure the halyard (near the head of the chute) so it won't pull the spinnaker out of the boat.
Try a practice set. When you get to the starting area, sail upwind and then set your chute. This is a great way for your crew to loosen up; it also helps you get used to trimming the spinnaker and sailing downwind in the existing wind and wave conditions. If you carry two chutes, use the second one for this practice set. Otherwise consider bringing out an old chute for practice and then drop it on a motorboat before the race.
Sail the angle of the first reach. Figure out the compass course of the first downwind leg, and then spend some time sailing this course. Is it too tight to hold the chute? Can you plane or surf? How far aft will the pole be? This will give you a good idea of what your heading and spinnaker trim should look like after you round the windward mark.
Pre-set the topping lift. Use your observation of the wind velocity and angle of the first downwind leg to set your topping lift at about the right height. This way you won't have to make gross adjustments of the topping lift when you set the chute.
Set ratchets on or off. If you have ratchet blocks for the sheet and guy, figure out whether you'll need them or not on the first reach. In light or medium air, for example, I like to have them turned off, especially for the set.
Pre-set twings or guy hooks. If you use twings on the guy and sheet, set these before the start. The guy twing (usually the starboard side) should be pulled tight and cleated. The sheet twing should have some slack in it and be left uncleated. The same is true if you use guy hooks: Put the guy in the hook and leave the sheet out of the hook.
Coil jib halyard neatly. Before you start the race, make sure the jib halyard is clear and free to run.
At the windward mark
If you've done all your homework, the actual set should be a piece of cake. To make sure, however, remember to do a few things as you approach the first mark and hoist the chute:
Approach on starboard tack. From a crew's point of view, the worst approach to the windward mark is on the port-tack layline, because tacking around the mark leaves almost no time to prepare for the set. It's better to approach on starboard tack with enough time to set the pole and get ready for the hoist. So whenever possible, hit the starboard layline at least three or four boatlengths from the mark.
Call distance to the mark. As you approach the mark, someone (usually the skipper) should call out the distance (or time) to the mark. For example: "Four boatlengths to the mark!" "Two boatlengths." "Bow is at the mark." This countdown gives the crew a good idea of how quickly they must perform their jobs to be ready for the set.
Compensate for crew movement. When one of your crewmembers moves to set the pole or free the halyard, everyone else should move their weight to compensate. If you're all hiked out in a breeze and your forward crew moves in off the rail, for example, the skipper and middle crew should hike out extra hard.
Pull guy toward pole before hoisting. As soon as the pole is in place on the mast, you can pull the guy to "cheat" the ••tack toward the pole. Getting the ••tack to the end of the pole is one of the keys to a successful set. Be careful, however, that a wave or gust of wind doesn't catch the exposed part of the chute.
Yell "Hoist." The same person who calls out the distance to the mark should also call for the spinnaker hoist. Be sure everyone on board waits for the call from the designated person. There's nothing worse than hoisting too early and plastering the spinnaker all over the mark or a competitor to leeward.
Hold spinnaker pole forward. One of the biggest problems during a set in light or moderate air is having the pole come aft as you pull the guy around. You can minimize this by "cheating" the ••tack to the pole (as described above), and by having the forward crew put his or her hand on the pole to hold it forward. The secret is keeping the pole up against the headstay until the ••tack reaches the outboard end.
Pull jib inside (over) spinnaker. Another potential snafu is having the spinnaker get caught under the foot of the jib. The best way to prevent this is to grab the jib sheet right near the jib clew as the chute is hoisted. If it looks like the chute will catch under the jib, a quick tug -– inboard and upward -– on the jib sheet should be enough to solve the problem.
Take care of the jib. As soon as the spinnaker clears the foot of the jib, ease the jib sheet completely. The last thing you want is stalled airflow behind the jib, which often keeps the chute from filling. In light air, drop the jib as the spinnaker goes up (just be sure it doesn't come down on top of the spinnaker sheet). In heavy air, don't worry about dropping the jib until the boat is going fast and you have everything else squared away.
Like other tough boathandling maneuvers, spinnaker sets often produce frantic crew activity. But remember one thing: In most cases, especially in light or moderate air, it's much better to be smooth than fast. So prepare ahead and stay relaxed.