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The joys of symmetry in an obsolete downwind sail

2020 June 1

I came across an old photograph the other day and was carried away by a wave of nostalgia.

It was a photo of a person engaged in spinnaker flying. I don’t mean flying a spinnaker, as in setting and trimming a spinnaker, but flying as in being flown by the spinnaker. The person was riding in a bo’sun’s chair slung between the clews of the spinnaker on an upward swing that had him 30 or 40 feet above the water. That person was me.

My nostalgia is not for lost youth or for a time so carefree that an afternoon could be whiled away anchored stern to a hot midsummer breeze, riding the gusts while dangling from that parachutelike sail, with breaks for rehydration with the cold, carbonated contents of an amply stocked cooler. My nostalgia is for that symmetrical spinnaker.

Those old-school spinnakers have been rendered obsolete by asymmetrical versions for a good reason. The triangular A-sails are a leap forward in off-the-wind speed and control. They might be the greatest advance in sail design since square sails attached to yards on ships of yore were replaced by, guess what, triangular sails. 

I love the A-sails and haven’t sailed with symmetrical spinnakers for eons. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss them. I do, and not just because spinnaker flying is impossible without them.

What I miss most about symmetrical spinnakers is the beauty of their jibes. Done right, these were perhaps the most nearly perfect maneuvers in all of sailing. 

They required a skilled team, trimmers in the cockpit, a crew person on the topping lift to dip the pole and a bow person facing aft from the pulpit to trip the release of the guy from the pole with a lanyard and then perform the balletic act of clipping the new guy into the pole as it swung across the foredeck. 

The result was a seamless change of course and wind angle with the spinnaker taut and full of air throughout the maneuver and the boat barely losing speed.

Contrast that with jibing an asymmetric spinnaker, a project that cannot be accomplished without a commotion that involves a gang of crew people running down the deck in a tug of war with the sheet to pull what seems like acres of spinnaker cloth across the deck, slowing the boat and blinding the helmsman. There is no way to do this gracefully, which is not surprising since the sail has to be turned inside out.

If jibing an old-fashioned spinnaker was graceful, taking one down was magical. At a command, the halyard was unsecured and left to run free, which it did with alacrity as the sail streamed aft alongside the hull, where as if by magic it lay spread horizontally above the water on a pillow of air just long enough for the crew to gather it in to the deck.

This worked because symmetrical spinnakers were designed to ride high above the deck. The largest A-sails are built to reach from the masthead almost to the surface of the water. Dousing them in breezy conditions is not for the faint of heart. 

On the highest-tech racing yachts, this is handled by an elaborate retrieval system involving a line from the middle of the sail and super fast winches. On others it’s done manually and with a fair amount of dread.

The go-to method in strong wind is the so-called envelope drop. It would be nice if the term meant the sail falls neatly into a giant envelope, but what it refers to is pulling the dropping spinnaker between the boom and the foot of the mainsail by as many crewmembers as can be mustered.

In theory, this will control the beast. In practice, the beast sometimes wins. If the envelope crew fighting a mass of sail in wind of, say, 20 knots or more can’t get it in fast enough, the boat ends up towing the equivalent of a very large shrimper’s seine.

I will confess to a regrettable (though impossible to avoid) act of pollution when a takedown went bad after we were caught with our biggest A-sail up in wind increasing to gale force. Dragging from the stern and full of water, it whipped a confusion of sheets and the halyard along the deck and through the cockpit that threatened to ensnarl anyone in the way. Out came the knives, and now 2,800 square feet of spinnaker reside somewhere beneath the pellucid depths of northern Lake Huron. Mea culpa.

The passing of the general use of symmetrical spinnakers has also left a void in sailing aesthetics that A-sails can never fill. A broad-shouldered symmetrical spinnaker flying from a boat making knots in a fresh breeze is one the stirring images of our sport.

As I write this, I’m admiring, for the millionth time, an 11 by 14 photo taken from a helicopter behind a C&C 40 I once owned. It shows the boat surging through the water on the power of a symmetrical spinnaker rising high above the deck with its star-cut nylon standing proud in panels of red, blue and yellow against a cobalt sea. I remember that sight from the helm on that glorious day, and it still gives me goosebumps.

Out of fairness, I have to interrupt the praise of symmetrical spinnakers to mention a failing—they will never live down the infamy of playing a role in the invention of what will surely be remembered as the most useless sail in the centuries long history of sailmaking—the blooper.

We should have known from their silly name that it was folly, but we racing sailors listened to sailmakers who told us we had to have these sails to fly alongside of our symmetrical spinnakers to balance the boat, or add sail area, or look cool, or something. I won’t go into detail here, but the sail could manage to stay full only in a wind window about five degrees wide and was so out of kilter with logic that it was trimmed with the halyard. I discovered that the only way it could make your boat go faster was to leave it in the garage.

Did I mention that bloopers were asymmetrical?