Running Commentary

When we talk about downwind sailing, the debate often seems to be about the relative merits of symmetrical versus asymmetrical spinnakers, or gybing a headsail to go goose-winged. It’s easy to forget there’s more than one way to pluck that particular goose.
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When we talk about downwind sailing, the debate often seems to be about the relative merits of symmetrical versus asymmetrical spinnakers, or gybing a headsail to go goose-winged. It’s easy to forget there’s more than one way to pluck that particular goose.

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Back in the dawn of cruising time—the ’50s and ’60s—long-distance sailors favored a different kind of running rig. To cruisers of the day the spinnaker was what famed ’60s solo sailor Sir Francis Chichester called a “lubberly sail,” and among serious passagemakers the issue was all about the most effective ways of setting double headsails for prolonged downwind voyages. Should twin forestays run side by side or one in front of the other? Jibs stitched together at the luff, or flown individually? Hanked-on or set flying? Mainsail down or left up?

You don’t expect total agreement when any group of sailors talks techniques; then, as now, you found a set-up that worked for you, and you stuck with it. Back in the ’50s, British circumnavigators Eric and Susan Hiscock developed a system that was particularly effective; so effective that the current custodians of one of the Hiscocks’ boats still swear by it.

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I ran into this couple, Thies Matsen and Kicki Ericson, a few years ago in a tiny harbor in Tierra del Fuego, from where they were about to sail to Antarctica. Wanderer III, the 28-foot sloop on which the Hiscocks completed two circumnavigations, had changed little in the intervening half-century, and I suspect Eric and Susan could have stepped aboard and recognized every block, portlight and hatch (and maybe some of the running rigging); Thies is not one to mess with something that works well.

Wanderer III’s downwind rig is a case in point. Some time ago I watched one of the Hiscocks’ films, a scene in which featured Wanderer III careens downwind in the Atlantic trades under her “twins”—a pair of jibs poled out on either side in a most unusual arrangement. Even though the boat’s metronomic rolling through 70 degrees had nearly made me seasick in my armchair, Eric’s cheerful commentary notwithstanding, I was grateful for the chance to get a real-life look at this time-tested setup.

It’s one of those affairs that looks complicated at first sight but is deceptively simple. The articulated inboard ends of the twin poles are secured to a galvanized bracket on the mast.

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The poles are stowed against the spreaders and held in place by their topping lifts (seen running through the deadeye under the spreader); the sheets (white/blue line) are permanently rigged, running from the deck, up through the pole end and back down to the deck.

The sheet is secured to the clew with the sail still on deck; as the pole is lowered via the topping lift, the headsail is raised, and then the sheet is trimmed from the cockpit. (See top image.) Repeat, if desired, with the other pole and sail. All this can be done by one person in a matter of minutes with a minimum of fuss—a thoroughly seamanlike set-up.

A few weeks ago I was idly thumbing through a copy of Hiscock’s Cruising Under Sail and came across some photos of Wanderer III flying her twins, with the identical poles and fittings. That they’ve lasted all this time is one hell of an endorsement.

Thies and Kicki had a successful winter in the Antarctic; when they left Patagonia they could hardly move down below for all the firewood they had stashed for their wood stove. They were counting on finding driftwood along the way to replenish their supplies. I didn’t like to suggest that if they ran out, they could start on the boat…

Thies and Kicki have just won two of the most coveted awards for ocean sailors, the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal and the Ocean Cruising Club’s Award of Merit. Couldn’t happen to a nicer couple.

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