Offshore Log: Rigged For Downwind

Getting Calypso-or any boat-set up for broad reaching and running requires adding hardware and lines, plus a good deal of planning. The payoffs are easy miles downwind and faster jibes…but not quite yet!


A cruising boat has for downwind sailing much the same hardware as a racing boat. The only difference is that the cruising boat is more likely to use an asymmetrical gennaker style downwind sail than the conventional symmetrical spinnakers used by most racing boats. In addition, the cruising boat may want to set a headsail on the pole for deep running or for heavier air, when the gennaker may not be the right call.

Unfortunately, most cruising spinnakers are at their best at apparent wind angles of 120 to 140-just about as deep as you can jib-reach in the same wind velocities. The advantage of the cruising spinnaker is much more area and power for lighter conditions, which translates into a lot more speed. The disadvantage is that the extra power of the cruising spinnaker results in more work when the time comes to douse the sail.

We had North Sails build us a True Radial cruising gennaker which is almost as big as a full-sized spinnaker would be for our boat. Although deployed using a North Snuffer, this 3/4-ounce sail has proven to be a bit of a handful for shorthanded ocean sailing, at least until we get our on-deck hardware sorted out a bit better. We particularly need to install our secondary winches, as well as a lead to a winch for the Snuffer control lines.

Even though it is an asymmetrical gennaker, this sail is cut on a runner mold, so that we can sail more deeply by setting it on a pole like a conventional spinnak(When we set this sail for the first time, we were dismayed to find that North had put someone elses sail number on our sail: BER 145, Starr Trail of Bermuda, a boat on which we sometimes race. Were not quite sure how they confused a spinnaker for a 40-footer with one for a 72-footer!)

In the reaching and running conditions we experienced crossing the Pacific, there were many times when the gennaker would have been usable. When we most needed it (very light winds from almost dead aft), however, the 10′ Pacific swell made it virtually impossible to keep the sail from collapsing and re-filling constantly, even when we sailed the boat high. This is nerve-wracking and potentially dangerous for both the sail and the rig. You may get glassy calms offshore, but in mid-Pacific they often are accompanied by a huge swell.

The inconsistent direction and velocity of the Pacific tradewinds rarely allow for untended flying of a spinnaker.

With only one person on watch to handle the sail, we decided to trade off higher potential speed for a little more rest for the off-watch, and returned to the cruisers classic solution: A poled-out headsail on one side and a heavily vanged main with multiple preventers on the other.

Spinnaker Pole
The key to the success of this system on our boat is an over-length carbon fiber spinnaker pole from Hall Spars. This 4′ diameter, 20′ pole is 1.2 times the length of the 16.5′ J measurement on our boat, which allows us to effectively set a headsail of about 120% bar-taut for downwind sailing. A J-length pole limits you to a headsail of about 100% for effective downwind sailing.

The light weight of our carbon pole-about 20 pounds-makes it possible to stow the pole vertically on the mast without significantly raising the boats center of gravity. An aluminum pole of this length would be at least twice the weight of this carbon pole, making it extremely awkward for a geezer like me to handle on the foredeck.

Many cruising boats use telescoping whisker poles for poling-out a headsail. In our experience, this is a mistake. Extending whisker poles allow you to use jibs of a variety of sizes, including big genoas, but they are never as strong as a spinnaker pole, and are actually heavier than a conventional J-length spinnaker pole. A fully extended whisker pole on a big genoa in a sloppy sea will end up bent-and therefore useless-before you can bat an eye.

Even when used with a headsail, we rig the spinnaker pole exactly as we would when using a spinnaker, with a topping lift and foreguy. We use a spinnaker afterguy in place of the jib sheet, as the shackle guard on the guy keeps us from sucking the bowline of a conventional jib sheet into the jaws of the pole.

Our pole was actually built as an experimental IMS pole for a Corel 45, so it came with a lightweight machined aluminum Hall QuikTrip outboard end fitting, which is about one-third the weight of a more traditional cast end fitting. We swapped the Hall inboard end fitting for a conventional Forespar TS socket end to mate with a Forespar T-125 stainless steel toggle car on the mast.

We were concerned that this car would be impossible to adjust under load, but the three-part Harken purchase we installed for raising and lowering the pole makes it possible to adjust the Delrin-lined pole car more easily than I would have thought possible. It turned out to be a reasonable second-best solution to replacing the conventional T-track with Harken track and a ball-bearing pole car. Were not racing here, after all, and we do occasionally watch the budget.

A Forespar urethane pole chock at the bottom of the mast track holds the pole reasonably securely, but I add a short line from the pole end to a padeye on deck to make sure the pole stays in place when stowed against the mast.

Because it was built for racing, the outboard end of our spinnaker pole is tapered, saving a little weight. In addition, heavy Kevlar reinforcement protects the outboard 4′ of the pole, which could otherwise be damaged from banging into the headstay, the bow pulpit or the bowmans head. In our experience, the typical racing boat bowmans head is significantly harder than a carbon fiber pole-or at least thicker.

Of course, the sophistication of a carbon pole comes at a price. A pole of this type is about twice as expensive as an aluminum pole of the same quality. Its a lot of money to save a little weight, but we think its worth it.

We are still working out the proper leads for the foreguy for this setup, as our foredeck is not quite as uncluttered as that of a Corel 45. The boat is, after all, a work in progress. At this time, we use a block stropped to one of the bow rollers, but this only works well on the starboard jibe.

One disadvantage of an overlength pole is that it is hard to get an effective pulling angle for the foreguy when the pole is eased forward. This is especially true when used with a long-luffed cruising spinnaker, when the pole will be relatively close to the deck.

There is a downside to this wonderful rig. Jibing it is a nightmare, due to our storm staysail mounted on a furler on the permanent inner forestay. To jibe, the pole is eased forward, the sheet tripped and the genoa furled. The inboard end of the pole is hoisted to the top of the mast track as the topping lift is eased to the point that the pole will pass inside the inner forestay.

Then the fun begins. We use a spare spinnaker halyard as the topping lift, so it must be disconnected and led outside the headstay to the other side. The foreguy must also be disconnected and led to the other side to clear the inner forestay. All this time, of course, the boat is rolling around, and the pole must be lashed to something to keep foredeck mayhem to a minimum.

Because we have only one afterguy with a shackle guard to use as a jib sheet, that, too has to be led to the other side of the boat. A second afterguy/sheet is definitely on the shopping list. The topping lift and foreguy problems are more difficult to solve than you might imagine, but were working on that.

All of this extra work is due to the fixed inner forestay-something no racing boat would ever have.

After the pole and all the bits of string are shifted over, the sheet goes into the jaws, the pole is raised, and the headsail rolled out. You then pray for the wind direction to stay stable for a few hours so you can get some rest before doing this again.

The Mainsail
The main is a bit simpler. We found that in light conditions with a big swell running, the inverting of the full-length mainsail battens and the slamming of the sail as it re-filled were really tough on sail, rig, and crew when sailing downwind. We ended up sailing with a reef in the main, even in light air, to reduce the slamming. This was a big price to pay, as it really slows the boat. Were still looking for an answer to this one, as it costs about a half-knot of boat speed in winds of 10 knots or less.

We also broke a shackle in the six-part Harken purchase on our Hall C-24 QuikVang. This one is chalked up to operator error, as I neglected to ease off and then re-set the vang when we went from a reach to a run. We ended up with the main pretty much vang-sheeted, which is a lot to ask of a very small stainless shackle. The upper shackle of the tackle snapped with a sound like a rifle shot in the middle of the night, but I was able to jury-rig another shackle and return the vang to service when it got light enough to see.

The C-24 QuikVang would normally be strong enough for our 400-square foot mainsail, but we are abusing equipment pretty badly on this trip. Needless to say, spare Harken shackles went on our shopping list, as they are (probably for the best) the weak link in this setup. At no more than a couple of bucks apiece, this is the kind of weak link you want to have…as long as you have the proper spares on hand!

Our preventer system also is a work in progress. In Trinidad, we mounted two Wichard folding padeyes near the outboard end of the boom. At the inboard end, I installed a small cleat on either side of the boom.

The two preventers are left permanently installed on the boom, led along it and cleated at the inboard end, with the excess line coiled and stored on the boom. When heading off the wind, it is a simple matter to uncleat the leeward preventer and lead it forward.

The tricky part is figuring out where to secure the preventer. At this time, we lead it all the way forward to one of our bow cleats. This does not give a very good angle of pull unless we are running, when the boom is really eased off. When reaching, I now lead the preventer to one of our midships springline cleats, which gives a somewhat better angle. All this hardware on deck needs to be bloody strong, by the way.

I made a mistake by using 1/2″ three-strand nylon as preventers, thinking that its elasticity would avoid a broken boom if we buried the boom on a roll. Three-strand is just too elastic for this application and it will be switched for Dacron double-braid of the same diameter when I can get some out here in the Pacific.

Eventually, the preventers will be led aft to line clutches so that they can be adjusted without leaving the cockpit as the boom is eased or trimmed.

We actually ended up using three preventers plus the vang for downwind running for our Pacific crossing. Both conventional preventers were led at different angles to the leeward side of the boat. After our vang broke, I added a third preventer-a line tied around the boom and led almost straight down…to really nail that sucker down. Once again, anything to which you attach a preventer must be very strong, as the shock loads can be much larger than the static loads on a mainsheet.

Rolling Downwind
With our pole rigged and the main boom nailed down, there is a lot of string on deck. It all caught up to me one night about 250 miles from the Marquesas, after almost 2,900 miles of sailing in 21 days. The wind was shifting big time, and the third jibe of the night took place at the change of watch at 0300.

The previous two jibes had gone well, but the third that night was a disaster. Every piece of line that could possibly foul on something did. The two lazy jib sheets-my mistake-somehow went from being two neat coils of line to being a Gordian knot wrapped around the headstay.

The spinnaker pole bopped me upside the head. A light carbon pole has a lot less momentum than a heavy aluminum pole, but it still hurt. At the worst point, when I was reduced to a blithering idiot, I simply sat down on the windlass and put my head in my hands, uncertain whether to laugh or cry.

From start to finish, the entire jibe took an hour to execute and clean up. We do the same thing on a racing boat in about 30 seconds. At the end, I was so tired and sore I could barely put my head down to go to sleep.

While we are still working on this downwind setup, it actually works reasonably well most of the time. We covered the almost 3,100 great-circle miles from the Galapagos islands to the Marquesas in just under 23 days. We actually sailed quite a bit further over the bottom in our meanderings over the Pacific.

The downwind pole rig was used for about 1,300 miles of the trip, but should have been used for about 2,600 miles.

Two hours after we dropped the anchor in Nuku Hiva, our friend Joe Dockerys beautiful modern 72′ Alden/Goetz sloop Krisujen pulled in. She had left the Galapagos a week after us, taking only 15 days for 3,100 miles. It just goes to show theres no real substitute for waterline length and sail area when cruising.Krisujen is for sale now, but is just a wee bit outside our budget. Besides, she has almost as much varnish as we do.

Contacts- Forespar, 22322 Gilberto Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688; 714/858-8820, fax 714/858-0505. Hall Spars, 17 Peckham Dr., Bristol, RI 02809; 401/253-4858, fax 401/253-2552. Harken, 1251 E. Wisconsin Ave., Pewaukee, WI 53072; 414/691-3320, fax 414/691-3008. North Sails (East), 189 Pepes Farm Rd., Milford, CT 06460; 203/877-7621, fax 203/874-6059. Wichard, 507 Hopmeadow St., Simsbury, CT 06070; 860/658-2201, fax 860/651-8406.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at