Cruising

Spinnaker Flying

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Mention the word “spinnaker” and most sailors think of spicy downwind runs. But some of us have another use for those sails, namely flying. Given the right conditions and some stouthearted companions, getting airborne is a blast.

How it works

First, you need a symmetrical masthead spinnaker, not a gennaker, an asymmetrical, or a cruising chute. Normally, a spinnaker is set to pull the boat downwind, and each clew is attached to a sheet or guy that’s led to the boat’s stern quarters. With spinnaker flying, the object is to use the sail to lift a person into the wild blue yonder, instead of pulling the boat forward. In fact, you should be anchored stern-to, in order to orient the bow downwind.

To adapt your sail for spinnaker flying, remove the sheets and guys and instead run a single line about 100-150% of the length of the sail’s foot (between the clews). Tie the line to the clews with bowlines. This is called the “swing line”; the person sitting on it is called “the flyer”. Attach an additional line to one of the clews and lead it loosely back to the bow to use as a control line. This line should be about 125% of the masthead height.

The Ingredients

A sailboat that’s 40 feet or longer. Anything smaller and the mast is likely too short to fly the kite — and the flyer — safely away from the bow.

Anchors. Set at least one anchor off the stern. Two anchors are preferable and will keep the boat from swinging too much. When using two anchors, set one off of each quarter in a V configuration using your standard scope. Ideally, you want the bow dead down wind (DDW) and thus the spinnaker will float out away from the bow. The photo above shows the boat anchored from the bow, even though we’ve found the stern-anchor technique works best for us.

Also, you’ll want plenty of swing room from other boats (say four boatlengths in all directions), and plenty of airspace for the spinnaker without it hanging over other boats or rocks.

A symmetrical masthead spinnaker. In this case, smaller is better as it’s easier to control. A spinnaker that’s about 1,000 - 1,200 square feet is ideal, but we’ve used ones that are up to 1,900 square feet.

A spinnaker sleeve. This slides over the spinnaker and makes it much easier to set and retrieve. When you pull the spinnaker up while it’s in the sleeve, it goes up as a big sausage that doesn’t catch the wind. Then, when you’re ready to fly it, you pull the sleeve up with a small control line and the sail fills with wind.

When you’re ready to douse the kite, you pull down on the control line, which slides the sleeve down, deflating the spinnaker. While not necessary, a sleeve gives you an easy way to de-power the kite, should things get “interesting”.

A swing line. This line needs to be about 100-150% of the sail’s foot length and at least 1/2" diameter. You’re going to be sitting on this line, so anything too skinny will chafe. N.B.: Bikini-wearers, you’ve been advised to wear shorts to avoid rope burn.

A control line. This line should be roughly 125% of the mast’s height and is used to pull the spinnaker over to the person who wants the next ride. The control line is also used to help collapse the kite when the flyer needs a cold beer.

Conditions. 8-12 knots of wind is perfect. Do not fly in over 15 knots of wind as the spinnaker can get out of control. Too much wind may result in a dangerous horizontal flight.

Good swimming conditions. Since you get on and off the kite from the water, and since there’s always the chance of an unexpected landing, you want to ensure that you’re in at least 20 feet of good, clean swimming water.

People. You’ll need at least a crew of three, one to tend the spinnaker sleeve (if you’re using one); one or two to mind the control line, and one flyer.

The Mechanics

First, set your stern anchors and make sure you have the right conditions. Then, attach the swing line, the control line, and the halyard to the spinnaker and hoist it all the way up to the sheave.

Have the flyer swim to the swing line as it trails in the water, and position herself so that the swing line is under her bum. She should then hold onto the swing line with both hands (one on either side of her body) with her arms extended out sideways. Her weight on the swing line will allow the sail to inflate and lift her out of the water. The flyer can help assist this by positioning her hands and applying muscle strength to the swing lines via her arms. (If you’re using a sleeve, once the flyer has properly positioned herself, the other crewmembers can slowly raise the sleeve so that the sail inflates.)

Once aloft, the flyer can swoop back and forth by shifting her weight and tugging sharply on one side of the swing line. If the wind is gusty, she can ride the sail up and down on the puffs, or she might just hover in a constant breeze. At some point she’ll start thinking about coming down. Here’s how:

The idea is to collapse the spinnaker and ride the sail down as it loses air. Then, when you’re close to the water, you can let go and slide off the swing. Beware that the kite can lift you up high above the water; don’t jump from the stratosphere, but instead wait until you’ve shed some altitude and then let go.

There are four avenues to a successful landing for a kite flyer:

1. If she gets a lull, the spinnaker will sink as the air escapes. When the swing line is close to the water, she can jump off.

2. The flyer can purposefully collapse the spinnaker by pulling the clews together or by shifting her weight on the swing line so that she’s in an offset position. This will help collapse the sail.

3. The person tending the control line can pull on the control line. This pulls down one clew and collapses the spinnaker. This may be necessary in heavier wind.

4. If you’re using a sleeve, a crewmember can pull it partway down to collapse the spinnaker.


Patty Hammar grew up sailing dinghies and old wooden boats, then graduated to Lasers and racing yachts when she attended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. She and husband, Giff, have just completed their first circumnavigation aboard their 50-foot cutter Phoenix.

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