Some of the major sailing
routes of the world are mainly downwind courses keeping the wind behind the beam (side of the yacht) that were used by square
riggers that could not sail efficiently upwind. The world’s winds are broadly divided into easterlies running either
side of the equator and westerly’s running at 45° north and 45° south. Modern sailing yachts take advantage
of these general wind directions to sail across oceans. If you are going to sail across an ocean you are best advised to have
an efficient method of sailing downwind in all weathers. Race boats will sail downwind using spinnakers unless the conditions
become extreme and the speed of the modern race boats pushes the apparent wind forward often allowing them to beam reach using
furling asymmetric sails. Using a large spinnaker to run downwind on a light cruising yacht often requires a full crew on
board. On my 40.7 foot Beneteau in racing format we would use seven people to handle the symmetric spinnakers and required
crew for the helm, main sheet, spinnaker sheet tailer, spinnaker sheet grinder, spinnaker guy tailer, bowman, mast man and
tactician. The spinnaker had to be gybed (tacked downwind) by what is called a dip pole gybe which consists of disconnecting
the end of the spinnaker pole from the spinnaker then raising the mast end of the pole on the mast track until the pole could
be swung inside the forestay on the bow of the boat. The pole was then reattached to the opposite clew of the spinnaker and
the spinnaker was trimmed. While all this is going on the main sail has to be gybed and spinnaker has to be kept full of wind
while flying free from its pole. When done well this looks from the exterior as though someone has pushed a button and the
spinnaker and main sail change sides in a gentle coordinated ballet. Racing sailors spend years practicing the coordination
required to perfect these maneuvers and when I was tactician on Columbia in a Monaco classic boat race series in 2001 it was
a ballet and a real pleasure to watch. The yacht was the 1958 America’s cup winner and a 22 meter International 12 with
a crew of 17 (five of which were foredeck crew).
Our current boat, Trifon, a 53ft aluminum ultra-light was initially equipped with
two twenty two foot spinnaker poles and the boat could only be gybed under symmetrical spinnaker by raising one pole and dropping
the other due to the inner forestay and baby stay blocking the passage between the forestay and the mast for dip pole gybing.
While this is possible with the 12-13 crew that the boat was designed for it was not only impractical but unsafe to rely on
this method to sail downwind and gybe with a family crew of 3 or 4 people, of which only one or two people would be on watch
at any given time. We used an asymmetric with a spinnaker sock in calm conditions (5-15 knots) in the Atlantic and the Pacific
but its range of use was quite limited. In inshore or coastal sailing light winds often are associated with calm seas and
an asymmetric is a good option but hundreds or thousands of miles of offshore the sea is rarely calm and a normal Pacific
swell of 2-3 meters will roll the wind out of the spinnaker and require constant trimming and helming to keep the kite pulling.
Whilst it is fun to play with the spinnaker for a few hours it can become burdensome on the 24 hour per day, week after week
routine that you need to cross thousands of miles of open waters.
In medium wind (15-25 knots) and wave conditions while sailing downwind
we found we could pole out the jib or genoa on the windward side and use the mainsail on the leeward side of the boat. The
pole that we used is called a whisker pole and is not the same as a spinnaker pole. It attaches to the mast in the same way
as a spinnaker pole but the outboard end is then attached to the clew of the jib or genoa. A spinnaker pole is much stronger
than a whisker pole as it has to counteract large lateral or side forces from the free flying spinnaker whereas the whisker
pole just has to keep the sail open to windward and the main force of the sail is carried by the forestay and furling gear.
The whisker poles can therefore be built lighter and are hence easier to handle on the foredeck of a rolling boat. I rigged
the whisker pole so that it could stay in place even when the jib or genoa was fully rolled away and it was adjustable so
that the sails could be partially furled. This was done by having a fore-guy and after-guy attached to the whisker pole and
running the sheet of jib through the jaws of the whisker pole. The advantage of this system was that once the whisker pole
was installed on the mast and the jib sheet, fore and after guys were attached I could return to the cockpit and furl and
unfurl the sails from the safety of the cockpit and if a squall or strong winds approached simply roll or partially roll the
jib. The pole would be left in place and would be lowered and removed once conditions allowed. This was especially useful
at night where the fore deck of a yacht offshore in boisterous conditions is a place to spend as little time as necessary.
This allowed all crew members to furl the fore sail without difficulty day or night. I also installed a bridle on the whisker
pole for both the fore guy and topping lift to spread the load. The whisker pole was a 3 meter double tube that extended to
6 meters in length and hence was adjustable for both the jib and partially furled genoa and was easy to store on deck when
not in use. The inboard end was on the adjustable spinnaker track on the front of the mast and therefore could be adjusted
for the different clew heights of the fore sails. We used the whisker pole mainly in the Atlantic due to the fact that our
weather routing was predominantly downwind in the easterly trade winds whilst in the Pacific I shaped a course heading west
but staying north of the direct route to the Marquises and holding the SE trade winds on the port quarter and beam of the
boat. This meant both the fore sail and main sail were kept on port tack (starboard side) and we did not use the whisker pole.
Further west on the course across the Pacific Ocean the trade winds have a more easterly element and I could drop further
south and still keep the winds on the beam without having to run downwind.
We also used the whisker pole with our jib to windward and the partially
furled genoa to leeward with the mainsail hoisted and sometimes without the mainsail. The genoa was partially furled to balance
the smaller jib and hence balance the helm. The reason that we would drop the mainsail in the higher range of medium winds
when running downwind was because the boat rolls heavily in waves and the long boom of Trifon was in danger of hitting the
waves to leeward. The mast of our boat has triple spreaders or crosstrees that are aluminum extensions that are perpendicular
to the mast and it has double running backstays to add additional support to the windward side of the mast. The running backstays
have to be released on one side and tensioned the other side via winches each time the boat is tacked or gybed. This is not
an uncommon arrangement in racing circles and allows the mainsail to be carried perpendicular to the axis of the boat when
sailing downwind. Most modern cruisers have spreaders that are angled backwards from the mast and so the deck attachments
of the mast shrouds (metal cables running from the mast to the deck) are behind the mast and not parallel. The advantage of
this arrangement is that the running backstays are not required and hence the boat is simpler to sail. The disadvantage is
that you cannot let the boom go as far forward as the backward pointing spreaders will put holes in your mainsail. This is
not a major issue for the Sunday round-the-buoys and bays sailors as a couple of anti-chafe patches on the mainsail and some
leather protection stitched on the end of the spreaders will be sufficient for a few hours sailing a week.
Trifon’s boom when let out running downwind and approaching perpendicular to the
mast allows the main sail to contact the whole length of the three sets of spreaders and the shrouds. While I had installed
neoprene foam protection on the back of each spreader there was a significant danger that over the thousands of hours of sailing
on our voyage the sail would chafe through. So anytime there was a danger of hitting the waves with boom or a chafe issue
with the mainsail we would switch to running downwind with both fore sails, one being held to windward with the whisker pole.
We had to sail for 10 days in the Atlantic without a mainsail as it was detached from the mast track and the gooseneck was
damaged beyond repair; I had plenty of time to experiment with many fore sail combinations and still maintained an average
speed of over 7 knots. This is the advantage of both having a light boat and also having chosen a cutter rig configuration
where both a genoa and a jib are on permanently rigged furlers forward of the mast that can be used simultaneously.
When the wind strengthened further
we would run downwind under a pooled out jib alone and there were three occasions in the Atlantic and one in the Mediterranean
with sustained winds above 40 knots where I ran the boat off under bare poles. The boat behaved extremely well and we were
fortunate to have a lot of sea room, the auto gyro on the autopilot could cope for short periods so that I could go below
to check the radar and weather reports. We carried a storm bag which is a storm jib for severe weather. The sail is packed
in a bag that deploys the double sail either side of the furled jib and is designed to sit over the top a furled sail. The
advantage of this setup is that you do not have to unroll the furled jib and drop it onto the deck, bag it and put it below
before using the storm bag. (Note: furled sails have to be unfurled to drop them and in heavy winds and seas this is never
an easy task). My deck sweeping genoa is 100 m2 and trying to drop and then wrestle this 50 kilo sail into submission on a
wildly rolling and often wave swept foredeck is very low on my “must do” list.
The final weapon we had in the
downwind arsenal was a Jordan series drogue. This is the ultimate yacht handbrake and is not widely known or discussed in
inshore or coastal sailor’s circles. Details of what it is and how to use it are discussed in the section of sailing
in heavy weather conditions.