Old Men Use Spinnaker Squeezers

Years and years ago, I wrote a piece for Yachting World called Real Men don’t use spinnaker squeezers. It centred around the Mother of All Broaches in Largo off the Grand Banks towards the end of the 1988 OSTAR – which, that year, was sponsored by Carlsberg (although the beer was all gone before we left Plymouth).
There were two particular features of this broach which remain stuck fast in the memory: One was that it all happened in the middle of the most inky-black night but the spinnaker sheet popped the lifebuoy out of its bracket, dragging the strobe light with it…which, of course, started flashing, lighting up the entire scene in a series of frozen images – the myriad droplets of Atlantic fixed in time and space.
And while all this was going on, the cockpit speakers continued to play – relentlessly – Maurice Chevalier singing Thank Heaven for Little Girls.
All of this comes to mind because I dared to suggest on a Facebook sailing group that traditional symmetrical spinnakers were a lot more versatile than cruising chutes and asymmetric spinnakers.
Back in 1988, the asymmetric version had only just been invented and was strictly the preserve of the racing sailor. The rest of us had the old-fashioned kind and poled it out. Occasionally it ended up in the water. That was the way it was – we thought nothing of it.
Yet now, people seem to be horrified at the idea of flying a traditional spinnaker. Samsara came with a cruising chute. I swapped it for what I would call a “proper” one – with a man who had never taken it out of his attic and had been warned by the previous owner that it was “a monster”.
No, it isn’t. It’s a pussycat – a pussycat with a lot of oomph, admittedly. The other day, it had me doing seven knots hour after hour on the way from Valentia to Galway across the centre of a tropical low while everyone else from Bloody Foreland to Roches Point was sheltering from gales.
But then, proper symmetrical spinnakers are absolutely great sails.
The enduring image of Jean Luc Van den Heede winning the Golden Globe race is of Matmut running into Les Sables d’Olonne behind her big blue kite – with the sponsor’s name to the fore (how did Matmut’s PR department organise that?)
VDH is even older than me. Maybe flying a proper spinnaker is an age thing. In which case it is something which OldManSailing should seek to preserve for posterity, like baggywrinkle and futtock shrouds.
So here’s where I maintain that a symmetrical spinnaker scores over the asymmetric upstart: It’s more versatile. You can fly it with the wind anywhere from dead astern (or a bit more) to ten degrees forward of the beam. That’s 100 degrees of apparent wind angle. Try doing that with a cruising chute and the main will blanket it once the wind gets past the quarter. Asymmetrics on bowsprits don’t fare much better. In fact, they really only come into their own when the boat is fast enough to shift the apparent wind so far forward that they never really “run” at all.
So much for the technical side. How about the fear factor? For that’s the real issue. When it comes to sailing nightmares, The Spinnaker Wrap is right up there along with hitting the container, the out-of-season hurricane, lightning strikes and piracy.
And it’s a legitimate fear: Once your pretty sail is wrapped a couple of times round the forestay when you just happen to be passing a wind farm, the south coast of Jersey, or one of those trawlers that keep relentlessly (and rightfully) to their course, you are, without any doubt, in the deep stuff.
I just looked and there is no advice whatsoever on the internet about how to deal with a spinnaker wrap. Plenty about how to avoid it before it happens – but absolutely nothing about what to do when it does. I suppose this is because there really is nothing you can do – short of sending someone aloft with a sharp knife. It’s either that or wait ’til the wind drops.
To prove this point, I remember one of the AZAB competitors sailing back into Falmouth with three metres of spinnaker still flying from his masthead: He had managed the outward trip singlehanded and without incident. For the return leg, his wife shipped aboard – but flatly refused to let him go up the mast to retrieve the sail. I don’t believe they have sailed together since. In fact, I’m not even sure they’re still married…
Anyway, to business: Here is the Old Man’s recipe for flying a traditional spinnaker singlehanded and safely.
First, before you do anything else, hoist your spinnaker net. You can make this yourself. It’s just two 3mm lines hoisted on a spare halyard. One line clips to the stemhead fitting just aft of the furling gear, the other to the foot of the mast. Between these two run three shorter lengths of line at intervals to form a “net”. Once this is up, it is impossible for anything to wrap itself round the forestay. My net has clips on one end of the horizontal lines and I attach them as I hoist it – makes it less prone to tangles.
Rig your sheets and guys if they aren’t a permanent fixture. The sheets go to blocks on the quarters, the guys to blocks at the boat’s widest point (If your boat is shaped like a dart and the widest point is the stern, then you will have a bowsprit and an asymmetric and none of this applies). On each side, the guy and sheet terminate in a single snapshackle.
Once you’ve got all that sorted, you can furl your headsail.
Take the spinnaker halyard round the forestay to the lee side and clip to the guardrail.
Rig the pole on the windward side with the spinnaker guy through the down-facing jaw and pulled in front of the forestay and clipped to the leeward side of the pulpit. You will need two uphauls for the pole, one on each side otherwise you won’t be able to gybe it with the net up. The downhaul can be taken through a block in the centre of the foredeck and led back to the cockpit.
Bring up the spinnaker and attach the guy and sheet. Ensure the line for the squeezer is not tangled and kept inside everything else. This line should run through some sort of ring which can be attached to a point in the middle of the foredeck (you don’t want to worry about losing it).
Go back to the cockpit and pull in the guy so that the clew of the sail is dragged round to the weather side. Leave enough slack in the sheet so that the sail will not fill immediately (you don’t want to be pitched off the foredeck when it suddenly inflates with a bang). Make up the pole downhaul in the cockpit.
Once all is ready, attach the halyard and hoist the sail in its squeezer.
Hoist the squeezer and make fast the line round a foredeck cleat to stop the funnel slipping down if the wind drops.
Go back to the cockpit and haul in the sheet. Adjust the guy and pole downhaul.
And off you go!
Writing it all down like this makes everything sound rather complicated – which, I suppose it is, when compared to hoisting a cruising chute but really it’s just a matter of remembering everything and doing it in the right order – and, of course, practising until you can run through the whole process in ten minutes.
One other thing to mention – particularly for singlehanders – is that I have never managed to make a mechanical windvane steer a spinnaker: As soon as there is a puff of wind, the boat accelerates and the apparent wind angle moves forward throwing everything out of kilter. An electronic autopilot works fine – but I would love to know how the Golden Globe Guys did it.
Meanwhile, a couple of things to mention about taking your spinnaker down again:
Firstly, douse it as soon as the autopilot loses control. OK, so you could do a better job yourself – but then, how are you going to cope on the foredeck when you have to hand the ship back to the microchips and they let her broach all over the place?
Wear a thick pair of gloves when hauling the squeezer down over the sail: Even with the sheet flying, there’s a lot of tension on that thin line.
Oh, and by the way, I’m not proud: I pull the squeezer down when the time comes to gybe. It only takes a moment and makes the whole operation so much more manageable.
And now, just to show you how stable a symmetrical spinnaker can be – and how fast it makes to boat go, here is that trip across the centre of what the Irish Meteorological Service called a “vigorous tropical low”.


It’s a delicate decision; when to call in the experts. A couple of weeks ago, I had this weird problem with the cooling water for the engine. Sometimes it would flow, sometimes it wouldn’t. There seemed to be no logic to it.

I’d inspected the filter, tested the seacock – easy now that I have a seawater pump in the galley branching off the inlet. I opened up the impeller housing – without dropping any of the bolts into the bilge.

I even asked for advice on Facebook – and terrified myself with the range of wild and technical advice. In the end, I pulled into Dover where I met a lovely engineer called Mick. He was one of those calm and competent tradesmen who takes the cack-handed boat-owner under his wing with a show of mock exasperation at the vagaries of machinery. He didn’t even bring his toolbox onto the boat – just climbed aboard and said: “Let’s have a look…”

The next thing he said was: “Hello, what’s this branch coming off the inlet pipe?”

“Ah,” says I, proudly. “That’s my galley seawater…”

We worked out – or at least, he was kind enough to include me in the process – that, under certain circumstances (motor-sailing on starboard tack) the engine would rather draw air from the galley pump than water from the sea. All you have to do is put your thumb over the tap for a minute to make it see sense.

I felt such a fool! Mainly I felt furious with myself for incurring another bill on the maintenance budget when all I needed to do was think logically. What is it marine engineers charge? £50 an hour? £60.

But Mick shook his head. He hadn’t even opened his toolbox, had he? 

And now here I am in Falmouth with the headsail furling gear working as smoothly as if it was the demonstration model on the Hood stand at the Boat Show. 

That‘s not how it was yesterday. Yesterday, I couldn’t get the last two turns off it – and I had to put the line on a winch to roll it up again. Twice I had dropped the sail and fiddled with the drum – everything was fine without the sail. 

It had to be something to do with the new furling line. On the other hand, the gear had worked to begin with – only after Portland did things start to go wrong – yet here I was about to set out into the Atlantic…

The rigger was called Jake. He would come and have a look when he’d finished with the davits on a brand new Rustler 57. I went and found the boat. It was easy to see why this one took priority. For one thing, all the sail handling was electric (or, possibly, hydraulic). There was a satellite dish, a drop-down bathing platform, the varnish on the rail looked as if it belonged in Harrods furniture department.

I looked back up the pontoon to where Samsara lay with her hand-painted decks and the rust stain dripping out from some ancient fastening buried under the woodwork. 

How could I take Jake away from his gleaming davits? The RIB, by the way, came with individual fitted canvas covers to keep the sun off the various bits without increasing the windage with an all-over cover. Nice idea…

And yet, Jake took a break from this million-pound project to come and looked at my furling gear. He didn’t bring a toolbox either – just a big Leatherman and borrowed my 10mm socket spanner and an Allen key.

Here’s what he found – and if you ever need to change the furling line on a SeaFurl5, you need to know this: Inside the drum housing there is a plastic disc which separates into two halves. When you put it back together, it needs to click into a groove on the extrusion.

Nothing to it really – but, of course, enough to stop the whole thing working and lead to all kinds of potential disasters. 

“I could have worked that out,” I said to the back of his head as we crouched on the foredeck and he tightened the last screws.

Actually, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Already, I’d put it back together once without noticing the groove. The truth is, it’s the tradesman’s expertise that you pay for, not his time. So how much did I owe Jake for his ten minutes?

He shook his head and smiled as he headed back to what he called the “tweaking” at the other end of the pontoon. 

I peeked at the online brochure for the new boat. It’s got a heated towel rail in the heads.

I bet they won’t get that fixed for nothing. 


I was fast asleep when the boat turned turtle. Being a catamaran, she stayed that way. They pulled me off with a helicopter. I had been asleep at the time.

There, that’s out of the way. If I’m going to write about sleep management for singlehanded sailors, I had better admit to the embarrassing moment up front. But the fact is that it happened 20 years ago – in another lifetime, or so it seems.

Now I am sailing along the South Coast of England on my own and without stopping. How on earth am I going to stay alert 24 hours a day for four or five days in the middle of the busiest shipping lanes in the world?

Well, for one thing, I’m getting used to it: Five days from Lowestoft to Falmouth in April, then back from Baltimore in Ireland to Woodbridge on the East Coast at the beginning of July. Now I’m back off to Galway… The English Channel is beginning to become as familiar as my local High Street: The headlands – The Lizard, Start, Portland, St Catherine’s – old friends like Costa’s and Boots.

I admit I am contravening the International  Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. These are very precise and begin by insisting “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out…”

At all times… Every minute of every hour of every day…

Back in the 1960’s when singlehanded began to claim public attention, my old Alma Mater, Yachting World and its then editor, the ferociously correct Maurice Griffiths, mounted a vigorous campaign against the practice, insisting that it was by its very nature, unseamanlike. After all, how could one man (and it was inevitably a man in those days) possibly keep a good lookout at all times?

Well, of course, he didn’t. Singlehanders slept in small snatches – calculated at the time it would take a ship to appear over the horizon and run them down.

And while on the subject of being run down, these early solo sailors seemed to take the view that the ColRegs were written to stop big ships sinking each other. If a big ship were to hit a small yacht, it might not even notice – and if the solo sailor went down – well, that was his lookout (if you will pardon the pun).

Or as Blondie Hasler put it, he would “drown like a gentleman”.

And that is the way I viewed it when I started singlehanded voyaging in the 1970’s with a passage from Poole to Santander, hardly sleeping at all and in a constant state of alarm lest a ship should cover the distance from my horizon in less than 20 minutes – which I’m sure it could have done.

On the strength of that, I bought a gadget called a Watchman which was supposed to detect radar beams and sound an alarm – although I don’t think it ever did.

Instead, as all singlehanded sailors eventually do, I just got used to sleeping in short snatches – and discovered that there is a knack to it.

The first thing to understand is that when alone on a boat, you must never allow yourself to get tired. When you’re tired you make mistakes. So, if you’re going to be out for any length of time, it is most important to start the sleep routine straight away. As soon as you are clear of the harbour, the boat is settled on her course, get your head down.

OK, so it may only be ten O’clock in the morning and you don’t feel remotely tired. Get your head down!

The plan is to sleep for 20 minutes so you will need an alarm – in fact, two because there is sure to come a time when you make a mess of setting one of them or turn it off instead of on…

I use the timer on my phone – and an old phone as a backup. Each has a different ring tone (as loud and annoying as I could find). The two phones sit in the fiddle above my head.

For this first session, it is possible that you will not sleep at all (after all you’re not remotely tired). Never mind, this is just to get you into the routine: You lie awake thinking about supertankers until the first alarm goes off (they are staggered by a minute).

You get up, you look around, you check the course – and then you go straight back to bed. That is important. The more stimulation you allow yourself, the harder it will to be able to go to sleep next time. Just keep on doing this and eventually, the alarm will go off and you will realise it has woken you up. You have been asleep before midday!

With a bit of practice, this will become easier and easier. Then it’s just a question of building up the total sleep time: Three 20-minute sessions in the morning gives you an hour. Six after lunch and you have three hours in the bag. At night it’s easier because it seems natural – which means you will have no trouble reaching your normal total.

Of course, the 20-minute allowance can be adjusted to suit the circumstances: In the midst of a fishing fleet or when closing the land, it can be reduced all the way down to five minutes.

Some people may ask “What good is five minutes?”

Honestly, it can make all the difference. Have you never been tempted, while doing 70 miles an hour on a motorway, just to “rest your eyes” for a few seconds? I hope you resisted the temptation. Just imagine how much you would have welcomed being able to lie down for five minutes…

At times like this, it goes without saying that you must be absolutely sure that both your phones are charged, that you really have started the timers, that the “do not disturb” function is disabled and that you have closed the app before putting down the phone so as to avoid pausing it accidentally by touching the screen (yes, I have done all of these – why do you think I have a backup phone?)

With luck, such precautions will prevent you from sailing embarrassingly up the beach or into the side of a trawler. Remember; everything – absolutely everything – gives way to a trawler.

But there is still the possibility that you may sleep through both alarms. I have found there are two reasons for this. The first is that you have allowed yourself to get so tired that the needs of your body override the needs of the ship. That’s why you must bank your sleep even when you don’t feel tired – especially when you don’t feel tired.

However, there is a less obvious reason for sleeping through the alarms: You can get used to anything – and, of course, you can get used to waking up to the same alarm tone after yet another five minutes’ sleep and, once more, doing the checks and then going back to bed all in the space of some 40 or 50 seconds. In fact, it’s great that you have hardly woken up at all and, so, can go straight back to sleep as if nothing had happened.

Do this enough and the brain will decide it’s a waste of time waking up at all – and that’s when you hit something solid.

So I wouldn’t recommend doing the five-minute routine for longer than half an hour – or the 20-minute routine for longer than two hours.

Obviously, this means that at some point, you’re going to pack in a whole hour at a stretch – and this is where Mr Griffiths will start rotating in his grave. Any solo sailor who goes to sleep for an hour is asking for trouble.

Or are they?

Back to the ColRegs: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out…by sight and hearing and all available means…”

You might imagine how delighted I was to discover, after my 20-year-solo sailing hiatus that somebody had invented AIS. I am writing this while crossing the Separation Zone north of Alderney and simply cannot imagine how we all managed without it. This morning I tacked because I was about to be overtaken by a tanker a mile away on my port side – no problem there but the plotter showed up a fishing boat ahead which I would never have spotted without searching through binoculars (and who does that every 20 minutes unless they’re in Das Boot?)

So now, when I get my head down, I check the AIS (the Absolutely Indispensable Security-Blanket), ensure the VHF is tuned to Channel 16 – and you’ll understand why if you come back and read www.oldmansailing.com/cautionary-tale.

However, if you do read it, you will understand that AIS is only as good as the willingness of everyone else to use it too. In UK waters this is fine – even small day-fishing boats and RIBs full of divers have AIS transmitters and only once have I found a commercial fishing boat without one. Maybe it has something to do with the British willingness to conform – after all, we don’t seem to mind that we have more CCTV cameras watching us than any other nation on earth…

Sailing in Irish waters I discovered an alternative attitude – and when I mentioned it on a Facebook group, it was clear that Americans would no more give up their right to anonymity than their right to bear arms.

That’s OK – just as long as we know. Now, once past the middle of the Irish sea, the radar goes into “watch” mode and, once again, I sleep soundly. I suppose that, venturing into new territorial waters, I will have to assume the natives are in hiding.

 I suppose I can see their point of view: I used to think that one of the nicest things about sailing was that you “disappeared” – rather like the old days when I was a foreign correspondent and delighted in the office having no very clear idea where I was staying – or, on occasions, which country I was in… 

Maybe I’m settling down in my old age.

Or maybe I just want my old age to last a bit longer…