Headsails and Spinnakers: How to Explain Their Functions to a Beginner

While you may already know the functions of different headsails and spinnakers, if you have beginner sailors aboard you'll need to make sure they know the basic uses and features of jibs, genoas, staysails, code zeros, symmetric spinnakers and asymmetric spinnakers.

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Das Boot's symmetric spinnaker is flying while the boat races downwind at the Fran Byrne Regatta, Aug. 2007. (Photo/ Nick Van Antwerp)
Das Boot's symmetric spinnaker is flying while the boat races downwind at the Fran Byrne Regatta, Aug. 2007. (Photo/ Nick Van Antwerp)

Over the past few decades, we have seen a tremendous advancement in sail design technologies—innovative sail materials are now common in the marketplace and computer programs are used to design and model sails. This innovation process is a continuation of what has been happening over thousands of years. Sails have developed from those used on square-rigged vessels from as early as 3000 BC in Egypt and the Mediterranean. This sail design spread rapidly and evidence of square-rigged ships exists in Europe, Arabia, China and as far as the Philippines. However, it was not until the 1600s when mariners first fashioned headsails as we know them today. Mounting sails forward of the mast allows ships to point closer into the wind, which saves ships the hassle of waiting for favorable wind to complete trade or navigation. Evidence of these innovative sails can be found both in Polynesian sea-faring canoes in Hawaii as well as in Europe. The innovation quickly spread during the age of discovery and in the 300-plus years that have followed, sail making and ship design have created numerous headsails for a sailor to choose from. Jibs, genoas, staysails, code zeros, symmetric spinnakers and asymmetric spinnakers can be deployed to help you sail in myriad conditions. This article will discuss the nuances of modern headsails and spinnakers and the best use case for each sail.

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Nick Van Antwerp
Nicholas is a licensed architect in Montana, where he works primarily on custom single-family homes and ranches. He grew up in the Midwest where he fell in love with sailing at a young age, learning from his dad on the family’s Hobie 16. He participated in a local sailing school where he learned to race in dinghies. He applied his knowledge to one design racing, sailing in the Farr 40, Melges 24 and J 70 classes. Outside of buoy racing, he has competed in offshore races such as a Chicago to Mackinac, Caribbean 600 and has completed a trans-Atlantic delivery. In addition to his personal sailing, Nick has been an instructor for adult keel boat classes and youth learn-to-sail and racing programs.