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The symmetrical spinnaker is an endangered species worth saving

2016 June 1

Alas, what is to come of the symmetrical spinnaker and all its accoutrements: the pole, pole-cars, twings and guys? 

The venerable kite, our pennant, our moniker and the centerpiece of sailing’s visual attraction may be poised to go the way of the blooper. Gosh, I hope not. While the blooper was an unwieldy beast, rightly ridiculed into extinction, the spinnaker is an aesthetic, functional and team-creating masterpiece.

Frankly, the symmetrical spinnaker needs our help. Almost no new boats have them, and old boats that once scooted downwind under billowing, colorful sails now often sail with just a jib and main no matter the direction. Folks that bought sailboats in the 1970s and 1980s are now in their 70s and 80s, so they’re not all that interested in flying kites. That’s understandable. So my focus is on the other factor driving the spinnaker’s demise. Some call it evolution; others, devolution. Whatever you call it, the threat is asymmetry, a triangular kite with a permanent clew and tack, or, for short, the “asym.”

To start, industry marketing helped nudge folks to asymmetry. You may recall the pitch: “Race your race, send the crew off in time for work, and the two of you can reach home at 9 knots under asym.” I’m not sure how often in the real world that actually happened, but I suspect almost never on a 24-foot sportboat or 50-foot sled. Nonetheless, most sailors prefer easier sails, whether cruising or racing, and asyms are usually easier.

Instead of an unwieldy pole that must be stowed on deck and has left more than one bowperson seeing stars, most new boats sport a permanent sprit and downwind sails that look and trim like big jibs. Sail area is often dramatically increased with an asym, since the foot can extend to the deck where the sprit is attached, and overlap can be extreme.


Although they may be very fast on a broad reach, an asym collapses through the jibe, and is simply not designed to sail to an apparent wind angle higher than 160 degrees. By comparison, most sailmakers (and polar diagrams) would tell you that, depending on velocity, a classic running symmetrical spinnaker can easily handle a 170-degree apparent wind angle and will go dead downwind when needed. So we are giving up somewhere between 20 and 40 degrees in downwind angles in return for sail area. In terms of wins and losses, it turns out to be an even trade. So why did we do it? Because while symmetry enables deep angles, sailing them carries costs and risks.

First, a traditional spinnaker demands a bow person with a strategic, organized and agile mind to plan every maneuver and still be able to adapt instantly to change. At the same time, the job of managing loose poles and kites is massively labor intensive, requiring muscles and leverage for many moving parts all the time. Brains and brawn don’t always come together.

Second, symmetrical kite trimming isn’t like trimming other sails. While it is fairly straightforward to teach a newbie to trim an asym, “It’s just a big jib; watch the telltales, and ease or pull this sheet,” symmetrical spinnaker trim depends on seeing flow and attachment without the benefit of any obvious visual cues. Worse, a committee plays a tug of war between the sheet, guy, downhaul and topping lift to position two moveable clews in space. Consensus is hard.

Third, when a symmetrical kite is finally flying happily, it rides a razor edge between fast and utterly ineffective. “Pole back, pole forward, ease, ease, ease, trim, trim, trim” is the lyric of symmetry and the back beat for a low-boil tension that every crewmate feels until the downwind leg is over.

Fourth, anyone who has experienced a spinnaker pole out of its cage, a pole-planting accidental jibe or the terror of a pole-to-boom death-roll knows the precariousness of deep angles. Asymmetrical sails aren’t foolproof, but since you can’t attempt to sail by the lee with them, you avoid much of the terror.

But what do we stand to lose if the symmetrical kite, for all its endearing flaws, goes extinct?

When you’ve assembled ample brains and brawn on your bow team, a workable trimming committee, you and your crew have learned and rehearsed the dance, and you’ve found the edge and developed the confidence to stay there, the symmetrical spinnaker is the key to three priceless sailing experiences:

1. The few seconds when the pole pumps back, the sheet takes ease, and the bow turns down to burst straight for the mark, leaving asym competitors to only wish and watch.

2. The thrill of running in heavy breeze with the kite strapped down. This is when polars can’t predict a target boatspeed, because with a nudge from every perfectly angled following wave and big shoulders lifting high, the boat seems to launch into space. 

3. And my favorite: A downwind leg of “free” jibes, costing nothing in terms of speed or distance. This is when the boat turns but doesn’t slow, the apparent wind angles flip, foiling reverses and the kite flies undisturbed and drawing throughout. It’s magic that only symmetrical kite sailors know.

How do we bring back an endangered species? To start, we have to make sure that the ecosystem still has room for it. Sailors needn’t choose between symmetrical and asymmetrical, we should be making space for both.

Most rating systems penalize a boat for carrying both symmetrical and asymmetrical spinnakers, and as such, most race managers are forced to run races that bias the result to one type of sail or the other. Why carry harder, smaller sails if there are strong reasons not to?

To save the spinnaker, and the unforgettable experiences it delivers, I would like to see races drawn and handicaps adjusted to reward the use of both kinds of sails within a single race, so that teams that take the time to learn and practice true downwind sailing benefit from their effort. Reward skill. Reward adaptability. Reward strategic decisions. Save a species.