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Choosing a Spinnaker for Your Sailboat

Why are so many cruising sailors scared of spinnakers? Today’s cruising A-sails are so forgiving and easy to deal with that there’s really no excuse for not having one on board.

Why are so many cruising sailors scared of spinnakers? Today’s cruising A-sails are so forgiving and easy to deal with that there’s really no excuse for not having one on board. Wouldn’t you rather reach for the kite than start the diesel? If you’ve yet to take the plunge, the upcoming fall and winter boat shows are the perfect places to get in front of sailmakers and examine your options.

Cracking the Code

If you’ve started looking into A-sails, you’ve been confronted with a confusing array of options and jargon. UPS, APC, Flasher, gennaker, screecher, Code 0, MPS—what’s it all about? Basically, all asymmetric spinnakers have a head, a tack and clew, just like a common headsail. They just have different shapes depending on the wind angles and wind speeds they’re designed for. An A-sail optimized for close or beam reaching has a flatter cut and less luff curve than one intended for broad reaching. Cruising A-sails will almost certainly be of triradial construction.

Serious racing boats normally carry a selection of spinnakers, starting with a Code 0—which is a flat-cut close-reaching sail typically constructed of lightweight polyester or a laminate—and including reaching and running kites that can be used in high winds. If you’re a typical cruiser, you want just one sail that works over as broad a wind range as possible, and you are definitely not going to use it in a big breeze—not on purpose, anyway.

An all-round cruising chute should work at apparent wind angles as high as 50 degrees in really light air, but as the wind builds you probably won’t be able to carry it much closer than 80 degrees without being overpowered—this is where a flat-cut reacher comes into its own. Nor will you be able to carry it much deeper than 150 degrees to the apparent wind because the mainsail will blanket it past this point.

Cut to the Chase

A sailmaker will ask you what kind of boat you have, where you sail, and what kind of sailing you do. The A-sail you end up with will almost certainly be an all-round sail, excelling at neither close reaching nor broad reaching, but performing both tasks adequately, with a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.

Your boat type and home waters will have a bearing on the weight of the spinnaker cloth—for instance, on Long Island Sound where light airs are the rule, you will want lighter cloth than if you sail on breezy San Francisco Bay. If you race as well as cruise, this may lead to a conversation about cuts and construction that you wouldn’t have if, say, you purchased an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all A-sail.

Typically, cruising spinnakers come in two weights—0.75oz or 1.5oz. Anything heavier than that is a storm spinnaker; anything lighter is for zephyrs on a truly windless day. The lighter the cloth weight, the better the kite will fly in light airs. You can fly a 0.75oz kite in wind up to 15 knots apparent, but most cruisers (me among them) will have taken it down by then and will be running under white sails.

Handling your Kite

So you’ve decided to invest in a kite—now, how will you handle it? Compared to a symmetrical spinnaker, with its uphauls, downhauls, pole, sheets and guys, an A-sail is simplicity itself—just a halyard, a tack line and a pair of sheets.

If you sail with enough bodies on board to drop and pack the kite, that’s great, but if you sail as a couple, or your kids are too young to help, you have two options to make your chute really easy to set and hand—a snuffer or furling gear.

Snuffer: Also known as a sock, sleeve, douser and doubtless a few other nicknames, a snuffer is a long sleeve of fabric with a wide fiberglass mouth that you can pull down over the chute. It’s a cost-effective option for a cruising crew. The best known variants are made by ATN and Chutescoop. They work well, though you need to be careful not to get the kite twisted inside the sleeve. You must also operate them from the foredeck.

Furler: Over the past few years, “top-down” furlers for spinnakers have become widely available, and these are the most efficient—though not the cheapest—way for a small crew to launch and stow an A-sail. These furlers have a flat drum turned by a continuous line that is taken aft to the cockpit. The drum spins a stiff anti-torque rope connected to a swivel that rolls up the sail, typically from the top down, though Facnor’s version winds in the sail via a line rigged between the torque rope and the middle of the sail’s luff.

Most deck hardware companies now make variations of these furlers, which allow you to set and strike A-sails singlehanded. The downside is cost—although prices are dropping, furlers are still way more expensive than snuffers. In terms of ease of operation, they’re hard to beat, though. I’ve been using one for a few years and thoroughly recommend them.

What Else do I Need?

Tackline: You’ll need a spinnaker halyard, obviously, and a place to tack down the sail that keeps it clear of the forestay. Usually the tack line is run through a block lashed or shackled to the tip of the bow roller. The tack line is one of the three control lines for the kite—sheets being the others—and you want to take it to a bow cleat or, if you are serious about sail trim, aft to the cockpit.

Sheets: Some sailmakers say you only need one sheet, assuming that as a lazy cruiser you will never want to gybe. I think you certainly will want to gybe, and for that you need two sheets. These will be an investment, as they need to be close to twice the length of the boat. You don’t want heavy sheets, as they’ll pull the sail’s clew down in light air, which is less than ideal. Besides, being a sensible cruiser, you won’t fly your kite in strong winds, so you don’t need a beefy line. A light but strong line is the way to go. I’m a great fan of floating lines for spinnaker sheets (don’t ask why) and use New England Ropes’s Flight cordage, which has a non-absorbent polypropylene cover and a Dyneema core. It’s marketed for dinghies and small keelboats but works just fine on the A-sail on our 34-footer. Most other rope makers have something similar.

Bowsprit: When sailing deep angles it helps to get the sail as far forward of the headstay as possible to open up the gap between it and the mainsail. To achieve this you need an extending bowsprit. It is perfectly possible to enjoy your cruising A-sail without one of these, but hey, why not treat yourself? You don’t need to own a J/Boat to reap the benefits of a sprit. Aftermarket kits are available from Seldén and Facnor, or you can make your own.

Tacker: Our off-the-shelf North cruising spinnaker came with a fabric strop that wrapped around the forestay and clipped to the sail’s tack, so that the sail’s luff would stay close to the centerline and clear of the bow pulpit. ATN markets a much slicker version of this, called the Tacker. Again, these aren’t essential, but they’re plenty useful, especially if you’re using the sail with a snuffer.

Whisker Pole: Don’t think you can do away with a pole altogether by buying an A-sail. No such luck. If you want to sail DDW with an A-sail, you either have to pole the tack out to windward to get the sail out from the shadow of the mainsail, or pole the clew out to windward. If you want to pole the clew out, you’ll need an extending whisker pole and all the associated lines. This sounds like a hassle, but I guarantee you’ll be grinning from ear to ear, because a poled-out A-sail pulls like a train. Then again, you could just drop the mainsail and let the A-sail enjoy an unobstructed airflow.

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