Spinnakers and asymmetricals are great for ticking off miles when sailing downwind, but they can be a chore to handle shorthanded. They require constant trimming, and there’s always the possibility of a crash gybe or a knockdown. For a fully crewed raceboat this isn’t a concern, but for cruisers it can be daunting enough that many simply roll out their headsail instead and call it good. If you fall into this category, you should be setting your headsail off a whisker or spinnaker pole to achieve better performance.
Why use a pole?
Most headsails (jibs and genoas) will set nicely by themselves from hard-on-the-wind to about 120 degrees apparent in light-to-medium breezes. But if you sail any deeper, the sail has a tendency to collapse, especially in light air, as it falls into the mainsail’s wind shadow. A 135-percent genoa (or smaller) with a high-cut clew tends to work best when sailing off the wind because less area is lost in the main’s shadow, and the upper leech sections tend to be cut fuller. Headsails with a lower-cut foot and clew tend to suffer in these conditions, though this can be overcome by sailing wing-and-wing, provided you are sailing a deep enough angle (say, 175 degrees apparent).
Compared to spinnakers, jibs and genoas also have a tendency to collapse in light-to-medium airs off the wind because of the weight of the sailcloth (Dacron is much heavier than nylon) and the overall cut of the sail (flat-cut triangular shapes don’t capture light air as effectively as a big, broad-shouldered masthead spinnaker). Also, in lighter winds the genoa’s clew has a tendency to drift with the boat’s motion, spilling its air. In heavier wind, when spilling air and heavy cloth are far less detrimental, the genoa will pull nicely. In light-and-medium breezes, though, poling out the headsail can make a huge difference.
Poles for cruising boats
Three types of pole are suitable for cruising boats: traditional spinnaker poles, whisker poles, and telescoping whisker poles. A typical spinnaker pole is built tougher than a standard whisker pole, as kites generate far greater loads than a poled-out genoa. Thus, most spinnaker poles have a wider-diameter section and thicker tube walls, while whisker poles tend to be lighter and are easier to set and handle, especially if you sail solo or with a small crew. On a smaller boat you can usually get away without using a topping lift or downhaul on a whisker pole in light air, but on bigger boats or in heavier weather you’ll want to use this gear.
Making a pole
You’ll need a length of aluminum tubing or bamboo that’s a bit longer than the base of the foretriangle (consult your rigger to make sure your pole section is sturdy enough), an adjustable double-sided bail (or bridle) for the topping lift and the downhaul/foreguy, and two aftermarket end fittings—one that fits on your mast fitting (either a jaw or a male/female attachment) and an outboard-end jaw that can accept headsail sheets. These fittings are riveted or screwed on.
This kind of pole works well, but its fixed length means that you have no athwartships control over the sail’s clew. This can also make it hard to properly project bigger (135 to 150 percent) headsails outboard. An alternative is to buy an adjustable-length whisker pole, such as those made by Forespar and Seldn. Note, though, that a telescoping pole isn’t as strong as a fixed-length pole, so in bigger breezes and seas you’ll need to roll up your headsail preemptively and “reef” your pole by reducing its length.