Downwind Sailing, Tips and Tricks

Fast reaching to round the headland
Fast reaching to round the headland

After two seasons of bashing to windward up and down the island chain in the Eastern Caribbean, it has been quite a relief to be bearing away and easing the sheets at last. A bit like banging your head against a brick wall, it’s so nice when you stop!

But it has also meant delving into the bottom of the sail locker for long-forgotten items such as spinnaker sheets, and dusting off the memory bank of tricks of the trade that promote safe and effective offwind sailing.

Having started my sailing life on race boats I learned a lot from regatta sailing that is equally applicable in cruising, and was lucky enough to pick up other good tips from local cruising greats who were generous with their personal knowledge.

Here are some of those tips and tricks:

  1. Six Reasons To Leave The Cockpit Often
  2. Don’t Forget About The Sails
  3. Your Mainsail Is Your Friend
  4. Hoisting the Mainsail Made Easy—Simplicity in Action
  5. Reefs: How Many and How Deep
  6. Reefing Made Easy
  7. Reefing From The Cockpit 2.0—Thinking Things Through
  8. Reefing Questions and Answers
  9. A Dangerous Myth about Reefing
  10. Mainsail Handling Made Easy with Lazyjacks
  11. Topping Lift Tips and a Hack
  12. 12 Reasons The Cutter Is A Great Offshore Voyaging Rig
  13. Cutter Rig—Should You Buy or Convert?
  14. Cutter Rig—Optimizing and/or Converting
  15. Cruising Rigs—Sloop, Cutter, or Solent?
  16. Sailboat Deck Layouts
  17. The Case For Roller-Furling Headsails
  18. UV Protection For Roller Furling Sails
  19. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing—Convenience and Reliability
  20. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing —Performance, Cost and Safety
  21. The Case For Hank On Headsails
  22. Making Life Easier—Roller Reefing/Furling
  23. Making Life Easier—Storm Jib
  24. Gennaker Furlers Come Of Age
  25. Swept-Back Spreaders—We Just Don’t Get It!
  26. Q&A: Staysail Stay: Roller Furling And Fixed Vs Hanks And Removable
  27. Rigid Vangs
  28. Rigging a Proper Preventer, Part 1
  29. Rigging a Proper Preventer—Part 2
  30. Amidships “Preventers”—A Bad Idea That Can Kill
  31. Keeping The Boom Under Control—Boom Brakes
  32. Downwind Sailing, Tips and Tricks
  33. Downwind Sailing—Poling Out The Jib
  34. Setting and Striking a Spinnaker Made Easy and Safe
  35. Ten Tips To Fix Weather Helm
  36. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 1
  37. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 2
  38. Two Dangerous Rigging Mistakes
  39. Rig Tuning, Part 1—Preparation
  40. Rig Tuning, Part 2—Understanding Rake and Bend
  41. Rig Tuning, Part 3—6 Steps to a Great Tune
  42. Rig Tuning, Part 4—Mast Blocking, Stay Tension, and Spreaders
  43. Rig Tuning, Part 5—Sailing Tune
  44. 12 Great Rigging Hacks
  45. 9 Tips To Make Unstepping a Sailboat Mast Easier
  46. Cruising Sailboat Spar Inspection
  47. Cruising Sailboat Standing Rigging Inspection
  48. Cruising Sailboat Running Rigging Inspection
  49. Cruising Sailboat Rig Wiring and Lighting Inspection
  50. Cruising Sailboat Roller Furler and Track Inspection
  51. Download Cruising Sailboat Rig Checklist

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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Dick Stevenson

Dear Colin,
Thanks for this article. Those of us who operate on the more laid back side of sail trim, like (need) to be reminded of the advantages of paying attention once in a while.
An alternative to the Harken blocks you mentioned, which I am sure are excellent, is the Garhauer snatch blocks. When I was pricing things out (almost 15 years ago now) I considered the Harken and Lewmar snatch blocks to be in the jewellery range of pricing. The Garhauer snatch block checked all the boxes, were 1/3 the price and had a larger sheave size (diameter) which is easier on ropes when bringing them around corners. I liked their operation better also, but I suspect that may be personal preference and familiarity. Ours are going fine after all these years even after a few beatings because of operator stupidity.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Colin Speedie

Hi Dick

the Garhauer blocks look good, and I like the way they operate. Good price, too, and I’m sure they would work well. Unfortunately they have never been available in the UK, as far as I’m aware. There are some really good firms that are almost unknown in the UK for there same reason, Colligo Marine being another company producing innovative and interesting deck hardware that I admire.
Those Harken blocks we have are well over twenty years old, and have had a hard life! One of the reasons I like their equipment. Not the cheapest, but the quality and dependability are there.
I’ll check out the Garhauer range when I’m in the USA – interesting stuff!
Best wishes

Colin

Marc Dacey

Dick: I agree with those big old Garhauer blocks, which are perfect for us and for these sort of applications. I have several, acquired over years in anticipation of rerigging “our” s/v Alchemy, which is finally getting her mast back shortly.

Colin: an excellent article for which I have only one suggestion. I would say that the stanchion base or the toerail used with a barberhauler block would be better backed not with “penny washers”, but with an aluminum plate a quarter-inch thick and with rounded corners cut to fit the space. I have backed my winches and genoa track on my fibreglass boat ever since I tore up some track in 28 knots with a 1/2 inch sheet on my No. 3 jib. I replaced the track and went for plates over washers. Nothing has moved or leaked there in over a decade. The sheering forces, as you point out, can be considerable, and I would rather a bent shackle or shorn axle on a block than a hole torn through the deck, which I found spoiled my sail.

Colin Speedie

Hi Marc

I agree, and in fact did suggest so in the piece. Good quality marine ply of an appropriate thickness, aluminium plate or even stainless plate can all be used, and have their own advantages, if properly installed. Penny washers spread the load further, and are again a good policy.
I’ve seen a spinnaker sheet block tear out of a deck due to lack of an adequate backing pad, and any number of boats with bad crazing around deck fittings for the same reason, so I’m right with you!
Best wishes
Colin

Stein Varjord

Hi.
My sailing has been more in racing than in cruising, but a fair amount of the latter too. I’m never content if the boat isn’t going as well as possible, so I always fiddle around to improve a bit here and there, even when cruising. When it’s all perfect, conditions have changed a bit, so this is a job that never ends and those I sail with think I’m mad. 🙂

Extreme racing multihulls are very light and still create insane loads on the gear. Normal deck gear doesn’t survive on those. All loads, also internally in blocks etc need to be balanced. Everything must be light and extremely reliable. If a block breaks while fully loaded, parts shoot out like bullets, fully able to kill at a distance. I’ve seen one such piece shoot clean through the hull side of a spectator boat. Thus fewer parts and a lower total weight is better. Modern materials help, but smarter thinking has become the very big leap forward. The Spectra shackle is just one such undeniable improvement.

A relatively new French brand, Karver has really made quantum leap improvements in deck gear performance and quality. http://www.karver-systems.com/en/ They have proven their understanding of loads and innovative simplicity. Their “High Load Blocks” are nothing short of incredibly good and they have a lot of other gear proving their position as the new top name. They are not cheap, but worth every cent.

Before you discard this as flashy racing gear not suited for a heavy cruiser, think about a 2 pound block with plenty of sharp edges whipping violently around at the end of a rope. How would you like it if that block was a quarter of the weight and still had twice the working load and could handle ten times the amount of brutal misuse? That is not at all an exaggeration.

There are many other good brands of hardware too, (and a few bad ones I will not mention). I think Ronstan deserves a good note, (their best stuff originally from the Danish brand Fredriksen). http://www.ronstan.com/marine/ Quite pricey, but very strong. If you look at Harken, Ronstan would probably be a bit cheaper and at least as good. Often better build quality. The German brand Schaefer also makes very good stuff at a bit friendlier prices. http://www.schaefermarine.com/ Especially their lashing blocks are worth looking at in the context of the topic of barber hauls.
(I have no connection with any of the mentioned brands, but have experience with them all and was sponsored a bit by Fredriksen 25 years ago.)

John Harries

Hi Stein,

I agree that good racing deck gear belongs on a cruising boat. In fact I would argue that good gear is even more important on a cruising boat since there is less muscle available to handle the loads than on a race boat.

We have long used Harken gear, and been very happy with it. I would also endorse the Fredriksen/RWO mast slide systems. We installed one 15 years ago, and it’s still going strong.

One slight clarification: Schaefer is an American company, not German. The founder, Fred Schaefer, was a Norwegian/American—his father was from Stavanger. (Fred was a friend of mine and had the lines to my boat drawn by Jim McCurdy.

Dick Stevenson

Colin, Yes, I am sure Harken has done well by you and I suspect they are the world leaders in hardware design and manufacture. And you buy what is available. I was playing with buying Harken before coming across the Garhauer blocks 15+ years ago at a boatshow. In the UK it would have been Harken or Lewmar for sure. I believe the functional differences may outweigh eachother. I really like the ease of use and the larger sheave, but I suspect the Harken weighs less. That is the down side of some of the Garhauer products and designs, an issue that matters little on my displacement cutter. Then, the price difference was the clincher.
I then found out their product support was impressive for a couple of fiddle blocks where I undersized them and they felt they should have tolerated the strain and replaced them. That said, I wore out one of Harken’s low friction aluminum winch handles and they replaced it for cost, so kudos to both.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

David Nutt

Thanks for the great article. A competitive approach to any sport always hones the fine points. Having competed in my younger days nationally as a skier and internationally as a whitewater kayaker I find the skills of my youth still easily come to the forefront in those sports. I never have seriously raced sailboats however and despite having over 150,000 offshore miles I do not consider myself a particularly good sailor when it comes to the fine details of sail trim and eking out those last few parts of a knots. Glad to have these chapters come to the forefront as it is a poor day we do not learn something even if perhaps we should have learned it years ago.

John Harries

Hi David,

Love you comment about the importance of always learning. Even though I raced sailboats of all sizes for decades, I too learned from, and was reminded of, some useful tricks by Colin’s piece.

Colin Speedie

Hi David and John
glad you found the post useful, and yes, lifelong learning is valuable and fun!
I enjoy getting the best out of our boat, not in endless frantic changes (what Tilman was once claimed to have said was the ‘effete fiddling of dinghy sailors’) but just a regular watch with an eye on boat speed.
I’m looking for a balanced helm and good averages – and I think it really makes for efficient and enjoyable passage making – and what’s not to like about that?
Best wishes
Colin

Marc Dacey

Colin, one of the best books I’ve ever found on sail trim is called “Sail Power” by Wallace Ross. It’s over 40 years old, and deals with pretty well the pinnacle of IOR-style boats, but it’s very comprehensive, and it’s where I first heard of barberhaulers and the exotic menagerie of sails these boats used to use to get around the rules! http://www.amazon.com/Sail-Power-Complete-Guide-Handling/dp/0394727150

richard (s/v lakota)

John and Phyllis, f y I: pegasus vii out of lunenburg is nicely anchored behind us…looks to be an island packet 35 green on white if 6ou know them…leaving shortly for anegada so not likely will speak w/ them…beside also anchored is sweet mango…behind them is sleek-looking fontain-pajot cat privileged one complete with sat dome…about 88f and sunny at 0700…east wind around 15…cheers, richard out of tampa bay

John Harries

Hi Richard,

No, we don’t know them, but I think I have seen the boat.

Have a good cruise.

richard (s/v lakota)

currently leverick bay, virg gorda

Jim G.

Hi Colin,
Great article, thank you. Although I’ve never raced, we are always in a race versus whomever is sailing in our direction- my wife thinks I’m a mental patient- so I guess I have been racing for years. 😉
Agree with your method , when sailing to weather, of letting out the sail until it flaps and haul in a bit. Easy way to ensure sails are not sheeted in too tightly. Do you have any tips for sail trim when off the wind, I have problems using your method when the wind is aft of the beam. Best regards, Jim

Zach

Jim G, it sounds like you need some telltales on your leach. If over trimmed, they don’t trail out behind the sail but down or even forward. Much quicker than easing and re-trimming although that does work. They’ll also help you trim the sail properly from top to bottom.

Jim G

Hi Zach,
I’ve never used

Jim G

Hi Zach,
Good advice on telltales on sails for correct trim. Never have installed them , probably should do so.
Thanks , Jim

Jim G.

Sorry, just saw that chapter 2 on downwind is on the way. Looking forward, thanks.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Jim,
Colin will add some value to this, but a couple of thoughts in the meantime.
One of the down sides of a fully battened main is that it is harder to tell when the sail goes soft and flapping will be less apparent. Telltales will be your most accurate guide. As a beginning, I think that the leading edge of sails should be pointed to the apparent wind and then fine tune from there. As the wind goes aft, sail shape gets less important and the amount of actual sail area (square to the wind) and where it is on the boat (pulling from the bow or pushing from farther aft) start being the primary considerations. The square footage that the sail presents is why keeping the clew down (with a vang and a jib lead change) is so important as well the preventing the attempt of the sail to collapse inward in gusts and lose air.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Colin Speedie

Hi Dick and Zach
Telltales are critical to getting trim right, and as Dick rightly says with fully battened sails this is even more the truth.
Getting fully battened sails really nicely trimmed also requires that the batten tension is correct,and the draft is correct, through the use of the Cunningham, outhaul and halyard – I hope to expand on this more in a future post.
Thanks for your input
Colin

Jim G

Hi Dick,
Thanks for the tip on trying to get the luff in line with apparent wind. I’ll try it!
Thanks, Jim

Gary Green

This is probably a dumb question, but here goes (I’m pretty new at this):
Wouldn’t the use of a whisker pole in the jib present more air to the sail than the Barberhaul configuration? Is the Barberhaul safer, or something like that, than using a whisker pole?
Thanks in advance…
Gary

Colin Speedie

Hi Gary
nothing dumb about your question at all. A whisker pole could be used, and it does move the sheet outboard, but on its own, it doesn’t bring the clew down – you still have to move the sheeting position forward at deck level to close the leach.
Also, whisker poles tend to ‘float’ up or down, as traditionally they are not rigged with an up haul or downhaul. Usually they are only attached to the mast in a fixed position (via a ring), and (at least in my day) we tended to
only use them with spinnakers to make a better angle for the guy when tight reaching.
But your point is in interesting one, in that the very concept you describe has been refined to good effect via the Hoyt jib boom (and variants) to make for a headsail that has the clew pulled down and in a perfect plane to work when the sheet is eased – and thus do away with the weakness of the Bermudian rig that I describe.
Best wishes
Colin

Dick Stevenson

Hi Gary,
No, nothing dumb about that question at all.
With regard to whisker poles, I know many sailors do rig them to “float”, but I would very strongly suggest that one use fore and after guys and a topping lift, especially off shore. One wants that pole nailed in place or it can become quite dangerous: to person and to boat.
It is also much more versatile for sailing when fixed in place. The jib can be cranked in and out to give the exact size sail one wishes while the pole stays, well controlled, in place. The sheeting angle is set just to clear lifelines and need not be played with otherwise. Our pole is carbon fibre and so light we often leave it up for long periods unused till change of watch or wind shift allow it to be used or shifted around (with a higher clewed jib topsail the pole is not in danger of rolling its tip in the sea).
I will leave details for now, as I suspect much of this will be covered in the next installment.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Colin Speedie

Hi Dick

I think we may have crossed lines here.
Over here a whisker pole (sometimes called a ‘reaching strut’) is a short pole that is attached low down on the mast that pushed the spinnaker guy out at right angles to the mast outboard of the guard wires and so bisects the angle between the sheet block and the pole end more effectively, especially when shy reaching with the pole almost on the forestay.
As I suggested in my previous response, these have all but disappeared these days, although they were ‘de rigeur’ in the bad old IOR days of huge kites and headsails.
What I think you’re referring to (correct me if I’m wrong) is what we simply call a spinnaker pole, which fits your assessment and comment perfectly. And I’ll be covering them and that aspect in Part II.
What is it they say? “Two nations separated by one language’!
Best wishes as always
Colin

Marc Dacey

Colin, on this side of the pond, a reaching strut is called a reaching strut and has indeed fallen from fashion. A spinnaker pole is big (usually the J-measurement in length) and is usually fixed and rigged for topping lifts and fore and after guys. A whisker pole, by contrast, can be fixed or variable in length, and does not necessarily require guys or lifts, although it’s often prudent to do so. I have a whisker pole which I typically use sailing wing on wing in preference to rigging a spinnaker. With two of them, you can sail “twins”. (http://www.forespar.com/whisker-poles.shtml)

Colin Speedie

Hi Marc

thanks for that – I think we’re on the same page here and the pole descriptions. Whisker poles to me are still a relative rarity, and as I hope you’ll agree in Part II are far less important than spinnaker poles.
Best wishes
Colin

Dick Stevenson

Hi Colin,
Yes, I was referring to a pole to hold out the clew of a headsail so I am glad that is clarified. I would not call mine a spinnaker pole however as I sized mine for just the compression loads of a wung out jib. A spinnaker pole would have much more beef, and therefore would be significantly heavier (and more difficult to use) and un-necessary as I have no intention of flying a symmetrical spinnaker.
I look forward to your next installment.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Zach

Dick, my boat came with an aluminum whisker pole and a carbon spin pole. The “beefier” spin pole is sooo much lighter and easier to handle that the whisker pole has never made it’s way out of my garage. I’d say this is one of the few areas where carbon makes more sense for the cruiser than the racer. Whether it’s flying the kite or just poling the genoa out to windward when DDW, the light carbon pole makes it an easy, one man job. Most cruisers I know aren’t carrying around a big, knowledgable crew so this really helps when I can put the boat on autopilot and do it myself.

Colin Speedie

Hi Dick, Zach
to me a spinnaker pole is a must, and it’s something we us all the time.
But I wish we had a carbon pole – not that we can’t use the aluminium one we have (see Part II for ways to make this easier), but because the light weight simply makes life so much simpler. Zach’s right – a carbon pole really makes life easier when you’re short handed.

Best wishes
Colin

Marc Dacey

Well, it also depends on one’s sailing inventory and rig type as well…but yes, I wouldn’t say no to a six metre carbon pole!

Dick Stevenson

Good morning Zach and Colin,
I did not go into details about what we yanks call a whisker pole (the pole I use to hold the jib clew out when going downwind, wing and wing) as I was thinking it would fit better in the DW section to come. A few words now, though.
Yes, a carbon fibre pole is easier to use, but more importantly, to me, is my sense that a CF pole is just much much safer to use. Handling an aluminium pole offshore (actually anywhere, but especially offshore) in boisterous conditions, I considered really fraught with possibilities for damage to me or the boat, especially in the transition periods. I also use the CF pole a great deal more and with far less trepidation. My present pole is a 20 foot tube of CF and is 14 pounds (just under 6.5 kg). The end fittings are plastic and very light and easily removable. In 10 years of use, it has made a huge difference in our DW sailing, but more on that later.
My pole is sized to be a whisker pole: a spinnaker pole would need to be beefier. The only reason to have the added weight and expense of a spinnaker pole is if you wish to fly spinnakers, probably of the symmetrical variety. I think when we designed my whisker pole (back then it had to be custom made), I believe it was speced (how does one spell this word) out to be about 2/3rds the size/weight of a spinnaker pole and much less expensive as the given wisdom then was to taper the ends of the spin pole, a big increase in labor/expense. My CF pole is just a tube that we slapped plastic end fittings onto. All this is easier and less expensive now, almost off the shelf.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Colin Farrar

Colin, I think you have the ideal setup, but good snatch blocks are pricey, so we use low-friction rings on dyneema strops. Place one at the toe rail in the desired position and run a second jib sheet through it. Trim this second sheet, and the original sheet becomes a lazy sheet, available if the wind goes forward or a new barberhaul position is desired.

Colin Speedie

Hi Colin
that’s a neat, simple set-up, rigging a second sheet if the wind or the course demands it is a good idea.
Those low friction rings are really useful, and as you say, the price is right. If we didn’t already have the blocks I’d be tempted to try them.
Best wishes
Colin

Bruce Savage

Hi Colin. As a racing sailor learning how to cruise, I am afraid I tend to be way too pedantic about good sail trim on passage. I just can’t look at a poorly trimmed sail without tweaking it. I prefer to use outside leads on a seperate sheet rather than a barber hauler setup. This is a common practice on race boats where when on reaching angles you often have two sheets on the clew, the further forward one lead outside the lifelines. If you attached the outside lead block at the perfect point then all the load can be on that sheet and the primary sheet slack, otherwise you often have load on both sheets with the balance between the two giving you the best sheeting angle. The main advantage of this over barber hauling is to prevent chafe of the sheet on the lifelines. Of course an outside lead on a barber hauler would be another option for this. Rather than the hassle and difficulty of attaching a new sheet to the clew, I unthread the windward sheet and run it to leeward through the outside lead block, I.e. both sheets end up on the leeward side. Like you I like to use spectra loops attached to the rail for the block. Snatch block is ideal for this but I tend to just use old halyard blocks and run the sheet through them. To change lead position you just take the load on the other sheet for a while.

Colin Speedie

Hi Bruce

as an inveterate tweaker myself, I hate seeing a badly trimmed sail, too.

Good point about the lifelines, and I agree that it’s straightforward enough to rig a second sheet, and switch between the inner and outer sheet under tension as the angle demands.

Best wishes

Colin

GUY BLANCHET

Hi guys,

I’m planning to modernize the sails on my 1986 Corbin39 CC ketch.

The only ”modern” stuff she has is a roller furIing jib.

Could you help me to make a priority sequence? I’m a solo sailor.

Roller furling head sails first? Gennaker furler? What come first, the new sails or the rigging?

I need a global plan…

Thank’s

Guy

John Harries

Hi Guy,

Hum, big question. I will be tackling this in detail in the the next few weeks as part of the refit series. Can you wait say a couple of months since I need to cover a lot more on the hull and related stuff first?

In the mean time, I would do the standing rigging and chain plates first since better sails are not going to help if the mast falls down.

GUY BLANCHET

Hi John,

Good point, but I made a mistake with my bad English, I think
I should have say the furling gear instead of rigging.

Like I don’t have any downwind or lightair sail, maybe I should start with a flying sail furler with his sail and after that look to change the other sails.

In that case, is an asymmetric spi is the wright one?

What do you think about this?

And of course I can wait, I plan to use the boat this summer around Newfoundland to do some testing; it will be the first time I’ll be sailing after a 10 years restoration…

John Harries

Hi Guy,

I guess it depends how worn out your working sails are. If they are showing any signs of failure, or are bagged out and don’t drive the boat properly, I would start there.

As to the right downwind sail, that’s a huge question that depends on the boat type and how you intend to sail. Also how your rig is set up. For example there is no point in getting a code 0 if your rig is not set up right for it, including a halyard and tack point that can withstand the loads. What I can say is that most boats can be easily set up for an asymmetric in a sock. I don’t have experience with downwind sail furlers but we have an article from Colin:

https://www.morganscloud.com/2009/07/18/tips-for-using-spinnakers-short-handed/

There’s a lot more stuff under the sails and rigging topic that will help:

https://www.morganscloud.com/category/rigging-sails/

And the online book: https://www.morganscloud.com/category/rigging-sails/book-sail-handling-rigging/

Terence Thatcher

I wasn’t sure where to place this question, but since it relates to downwind sailing, here it goes: when sailing
dead downwind, my main rubs agains the lower aft shrouds. I have thought of creating baggy wrinkle, but I have no old hemp line and probably no patience for the job anyway. What are the modern alternatives to old fashioned baggy wrinkle? Thanks