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What’s the best downwind setup for offshore?

2022 March 1

Dear Boat Doctor,

We’re finally able to do some offshore passages on our Baba 40 and we’re looking to expand the sail inventory to get better downwind performance. We’re looking at an asymmetrical spinnaker, or maybe a whisker pole. What’s the better option?

Aaron Glenn

Marina del Rey, California

Dear Aaron,

You’ve got a great boat for heading offshore. Babas are very salty above the waterline but deceptively fast at sea, with a seakindly motion. 

A lot of sailing is downwind so it’s a good idea to dedicate some of the budget to maximizing speed potential at this point of sail.  Without a good downwind option, you are stuck motoring downwind or watching a slapping mainsail. Your checkbook isn’t going to like my answer, but both options would be useful.

A spinnaker will give the best performance downwind and, in lighter air, they are great fun for reaching. It’s nice to sail when others are starting up the diesel. But you can’t underestimate the work in managing the sail as the wind pipes up. You definitely want a good furling sock, and even with that, you want to hone your technique before you go offshore. Modern spinnaker furlers make this all slightly easier, but I don’t think they are a good option for your boat as they pretty much require a dedicated sprit.

A whisker pole is used to pole out your genoa or staysail, and is easy to use, but you won’t be a speed demon in light air. The pole will be very easy to manage, pretty much set it and forget it, except when changing which sail you are poling out.

If you had to pick only one, I’d recommend the whisker pole. Poling out in light air will help a lot and it is the perfect answer as the wind gets into the teens and above. With enough breeze, you don’t even need the main, just set a poled headsail, and let it carry you downwind.

If your budget allows, I’d recommend one made at least partially from carbon fiber to keep the weight down. To set your pole, hoist it level with the clew of the sail you are using, and drop the sheet of the furled sail into the jaw. Push the pole out and set it in place, triangulated in place with the topping lift and a fore and after guy. When you are ready, just unfurl the sail. When it’s time to furl, just reverse the process, the pole can stay in place until you are ready to take it down.

If you have cruising kitty left, a spinnaker is a good addition, but I think you’ll get the most value out of the whisker pole.