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”.

1 Responses to Old Men Use Spinnaker Squeezers

  • On Contender, I also use a spinnaker, but have never used guys only sheets. I use the genoa winches. Pole with up and downhaul, and often use it singlehanded.
    I have a second spinnaker that is about 75% size of the main one, and in much thicker cloth. I call that my “storm spinnaker”, and use that in winds above about F4-5, but only up to about F6-7, and have never hoisted that single handed!
    Both are symetric. Both are just great downwind, and make the boat move, whereas otherwise its sluggish on just main and genoa, and hardly moves main only, unless in a gale. Did sail downwind in 40knots recently. Genoa only, and did 7.5knots for about 2 hours. Spinnaker – great fun.