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Spinnaker Packing

2009 October 1

Avoid the dreaded hourglass by packing your chute correctly

You're about to run downwind and the spinnaker is ready to be launched. You double check that all the lines are attached and run correctly, the pole is up and set, and all that is left to do is haul up the halyard. You jump the line, hoisting the sail, and wait for it to fill out into a nice, big billowing chute. Instead, it takes on a perfect hourglass shape and stays that way. No coaxing will get it to untangle and fill, leaving you with no choice but to take it down, sort it out and start all over again. If you're racing, this may be accompanied by a lot of screaming and possibly death threats coming from the back of the boat.

With all that can go wrong, sailing under spinnaker can be daunting enough without having to worry about the sail going up properly. Whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, any successful spinnaker launch begins with a sail that's been properly packed. Just as a skydiver wouldn't jump out of a plane without knowing his parachute has been packed correctly, you don't want to deploy your chute before checking to make sure it will work the way it should.

Running the sail
The spinnaker is usually packed in its own bag, often called a turtle, and is deployed straight from the bag. The bag can be set on the foredeck and clipped to the lifelines or stanchion on the side it will be set, usually the leeward side on keelboats, or it can be set in the companionway and launched from under the boom. All three corners-head, tack and clew-should be together on the top. Some bags will have a Velcro closure strap that can be run through the tack rings to keep them all together while in the bag, otherwise a sail tie will do the trick. Other bags have Velcro straps on each end and in the middle for each corner.

Exactly how your spinnaker is packed will depend on a number of factors, such as the size of the sail and boat, and whether it's an asymmetric or symmetrical spinnaker, but overall the process is pretty similar. The goal is to have a sail that's been packed cleanly and neatly with no twists. On land, if you have a nice big lawn to work on, packing a spinnaker is easy. Just spread out the sail, bring the three corners together, then, starting at the centerline, uniformly stuff it into the turtle so that the corners end up on top. Again, make sure the corners stay together. If separated, they seem to magically snake their way down in and around the bag, turning everything into a twisted mess.

However, packing the spinnaker is usually done within the tight confines of the boat, so a little ingenuity is needed. The best way to guarantee the spinnaker goes into the bag correctly is to "run" the sail. Starting at the head, run your hand down both leeches (a symmetrical spinnaker is said to have two leeches until it is raised), one after the other, gathering up the edges accordion style until you reach the clews. If both leeches are free from twists then, consequently, the foot will be too. If you've found the corners right away, sometimes it is helpful to temporarily tie them off to a handrail so they aren't lost in the shuffle. Next, without twisting them, bring the three corners together and carefully pack the sail into the bag. When running the spinnaker, you want to keep the head from twisting and flopping about. This can be done by tying it off to a rail or other point with a sail tie, or by simply jamming it under a settee cushion.

For larger boats more than 35 feet LOA or with a large bowsprit, and therefore with bigger spinnakers, some sailors will tie lengths of yarn or use rubber bands along the body of the sail to keep it bunched together. With the yarn technique, it works best to bring the leeches together and roll the "guts" of the sail toward them, making a sausage-shaped roll. This prevents the sail from filling while it's being hoisted, which will quickly load up the halyard and make the hoist much more difficult (and slower). This is mostly a racing tactic, however, and seldom necessary except in the windiest conditions, when a cruising chute is less likely to be used anyway.

Setting and dousing
When launching the spinnaker, the turtle is brought up and attached to the deck to keep it secured in place. Attach the halyard, sheet and guy (make sure to attach them to the correct corners lest you hoist it sideways), and untie the corners if they're still bound together. Make sure all the lines are run correctly and not wrapped around each other or other parts of the boat. When we launch our symmetrical spinnaker, we'll pre-feed the foot of the sail by hauling in the guy until the tack is set at the pole. The pole, of course, has already been raised and set on the mast with the guy running through the outboard end. Then, when ready, the sail is quickly hoisted and the sheet trimmed. The same process works for an asymmetrical kite.

When dousing the spinnaker, a good, clean takedown, with the chute going directly back into the turtle, should prevent any twists in the sail and, ideally, make repacking unnecessary. Again, with our symmetrical spinnaker, we'll start by gathering in the foot of the sail starting at the clew while the guy is slowly eased. At this time, the helmsman will turn down to a very broad reach or run (careful not to accidentally jibe) to blanket the spinnaker with the main as it's brought down on the leeward side. With the foot gathered in a bunch, and both clews separated out to the side, the body of the sail is gathered along the centerline and stuffed into the turtle. Once the sail is in the bag, the corners are once again tied together and set on top of the sail.

The spinnaker is now set to be launched for the next downwind leg. If, however, you're at all uncertain that the sail went into the turtle cleanly, running one or both of the leeches should confirm there are no twists.

Alternatively, if the thought of repeatedly launching and dousing a big spinnaker is unappealing, you can use a spinnaker sock, such as the ATN spinnaker sleeve (www.atninc.com). The sleeve will allow you to keep the spinnaker hoisted on the mast, and the cloth sleeve, which can be raised or lowered, will capture the sail when it's not needed. To launch the spinnaker, just pull on the line to raise the sleeve.