David Dsilo2


Dave Dellenbaugh Sailing

David Dellenbaugh is a champion helmsman, tactician, author, coach, rules expert and seminar leader who has spent his career helping sailors sail faster and smarter.Here are the learning resources that he has created to help you improve your racing skills.


If you enjoy sailing downwind with just main and jib, wait until you set the spinnaker. It'll add a whole new dimension to your sailing.  Imagine beating upwind for several miles on a breezy summer day, and then turning downwind. You hoist the spinnaker, trim the sheets and pop!  The colorful sail fills with wind, the boat lunges forward, and off you go hopping over the waves, leaving the spray well astern. Now you're having fun.

Unlike the main and jib, the spinnaker (also called a "chute" or "kite") is designed specifically for reaching and running.  It has a shape that's very full and round in order to catch a lot of wind. For this reason, a spinnaker cannot be flown when you're going upwind; as a general rule, you must be sailing at least 90 degrees to the true wind before hoisting.

Another difference between spinnakers and other sails is in the material. Almost all chutes are made of nylon, as opposed to the Dacron that's used for mains and jibs. Nylon is a stretchy, lightweight material that offers good tear resistance, easy handling and the ability to fly well even in light air. Another advantage of nylon is it comes in many colors, which means that spinnakers add visual excitement to an otherwise all-white world of sails.

The parts of a spinnaker have names very similar to those used for other sails.  They differ, however, in one important way. With a main and jib, the tack stays attached at the center of the boat, while the clew changes from side to side. A spinnaker, on the other hand, is symmetrical.

The tricky thing about spinnaker terminology is that some parts have two names, depending on whether they're on the windward or leeward side. The clew that's attached to the spinnaker pole is actually considered to be the spinnaker's tack. The leech on that side is actually the luff. When the boat jibes, the pole is moved to the other side. That clew is then the tack, and that leech becomes the luff. Fortunately, the head and foot of the spinnaker remain constant.

A spinnaker pole is always set on the windward side (the side opposite the boom) to hold the spinnaker out and away from the backwind of the main.  One end of the pole is attached to the spinnaker pole ring on the forward side of the mast, and the other end attaches to the spinnaker sheet (called a "guy").  The height of the pole's outer end is controlled by the topping lift. Some boats also have a foreguy, which restricts the upward movement of the pole.  Smaller boats use a twing (or guy hook) to hold the guy at the deck near the shrouds and eliminate the need for a foreguy.

Packing the Spinnaker

Before you hoist the spinnaker, you have to prepare it properly.  This is a little like packing a parachute -- if you're not careful you'll end up with a tangled mess. Fortunately, the consequences of making a mistake are not quite so severe in a sailboat.

The best way to pack your spinnaker is by laying it out flat on a lawn or dock before you go sailing.  Pull the head away from the foot, and follow both leeches from head to clew to be sure they are clear.  Place a "turtle" (this can be a sailbag, bucket or box) by the foot of the spinnaker and carefully flake (fold) the spinnaker into the turtle, beginning with the foot.  I like to follow both leeches the whole way so I know they don't get twisted. 

Leave both clews and the head hanging over the side of the turtle so they can easily be found when you need to attach the sheets and halyard.  It helps if the corners are clearly labeled "Head" and "Clew" so you don't attach the halyard to the wrong corner.  I can tell you from experience that raising your spinnaker sideways is one of the most embarrassing moments in sailing.

Once your spinnaker is in its turtle, you must decide whether to put it on the port or starboard side of the boat. Figure out which side will be leeward when you sail downwind.  This is where the spinnaker should be set up. Bring the ends of both spinnaker sheets and the spinnaker halyard around to the leeward side.  Check to be sure they are not twisted and are led outside all other sheets and shrouds. There are three common ways to attach the spinnaker sheets and halyard: snap shackles, brummel hooks and knots (preferably bowlines).  Knots are the safest because they won't shake loose.

The Spinnaker Set

Once you've packed the chute and attached sheets and halyard, the only thing you have to do before hoisting is put up the spinnaker pole. Begin by resting the pole on the windward side of your foredeck. Put the windward spinnaker sheet (guy) into the forward spinnaker pole end fitting and push the pole forward.  Attach the topping lift to the middle of the pole, and connect the aft spinnaker pole end fitting to the ring on the mast. Tighten the topping lift and cleat it when the pole is roughly horizontal.

You are now ready to hoist the spinnaker.  If you have not already done so, head off onto your downwind course.  One crew should begin hoisting the halyard, while another pulls the guy to bring the clew of the spinnaker around to the pole. In medium and heavy air, let the spinnaker sheet run free as you set so the spinnaker doesn't fill before it is fully raised.  As soon as the halyard and guy are cleated in position, trim the sheet to fill the spinnaker. And off you go. 

One word of caution: If you are on a reach when the spinnaker fills, it will heel you over and make the boat head up.  To counteract this force, head off as the spinnaker begins to fill, keep your weight on the windward rail, and be ready to ease your mainsheet.  On most boats, the airflow to the spinnaker is disrupted by the jib, so the jib should be lowered as soon as the spinnaker halyard is cleated.

Trimming the Spinnaker

The three main controls for your spinnaker are the guy, sheet and topping lift.  The guy controls the fore and aft position of the spinnaker pole. When you first set the spinnaker, the guy should be trimmed so the pole is roughly perpendicular to the true wind direction, and it should be adjusted to maintain this angle as the wind changes.

On a beam reach, ease the guy so the pole (and tack of the spinnaker) is just to windward of the forestay.  As you head off to a broad reach, gradually "square" the pole by pulling on the guy to bring the pole and spinnaker aft.  On a run, the pole is squared all the way back against the shrouds so it's nearly perpendicular to the centerline of the boat.

The spinnaker sheet, like the sheets on the main and jib, is used to trim the sail.  Whoever trims the spinnaker should watch the luff of the sail.  When the sail begins to "curl" (fold back over itself), trim the sheet until the sail is completely full again. Your goal is to keep the luff of the spinnaker constantly on the verge of curling.  Any other trim will cause the boat to slow down or heel excessively. Because the wind, waves and heading of the boat are always changing (at least slightly), the spinnaker sheet must constantly be adjusted to get the most out of the spinnaker.

You can fine-tune the shape of the spinnaker by lowering or raising the pole with the topping lift.  A ballpark adjustment is to adjust the topping lift so the tack and clew are at the same height. In this position, the forward edge of the spinnaker should begin to curl evenly all along the luff. 


Jibing the spinnaker takes every available hand and can be tricky, especially in heavy wind.  If you do it right, however, it can give you a great sense of accomplishment.  The roles of each crew member vary according to the size of your boat.  Let's look first at a jibe with three crewmembers.

Three-person jibe -- As you begin to head off to jibe, the sheet trimmer pulls the spinnaker guy aft (squaring the pole) and eases the spinnaker sheet so the spinnaker stays square to the wind.  At the same time, the skipper, who is steering the boat through the jibe, eases the mainsail. The forward crew releases the twing on the guy (or takes the guy out of the guy hook) just before the jibe and pulls the twing tight on the sheet. He or she then steps up on deck (or reaches the pole from in the cockpit on smaller boats) and prepares to "jibe" the pole. 

During the jibe, the skipper continues to turn the boat (steering an "S" course in heavy air as we discussed in Chapter 6) and pulls the main across.  The trimmer, who is facing forward with one spinnaker sheet in each hand, flies the spinnaker so it stays full during the jibe.  The forward crew unclips the pole from the mast and attaches this end to the sheet (which will become the new guy).  At this point the pole is attached to both sheets.  The pole is then detached from the old guy (using the trip line on the spinnaker pole to open the jaw), and this end is then clipped onto the ring on the mast. 

In a good jibe, the spinnaker will never break. However, this takes a lot of practice. Whenever it's windy, it may take a bit of effort to push the pole out on the new windward side so you can attach it to the mast.  I brace my back against the mast to get extra leverage.  Once the jibe is complete, the forward crew steps back into the boat and helps balance, checking to see if the sheet trimmer needs a hand getting the new guy into the cleat.

On a boat with more than three crew, the basic jobs are the same, but the responsibilities are spread out.  A fourth crew, for example, might adjust the twings during the jibe or help with one of the spinnaker sheets.

Two-person jibe -- In a two-person boat, the roles are a bit different.  When you begin to jibe, the crew hands the spinnaker sheet and guy to the skipper, who usually holds one in each hand and steers by straddling the tiller.  The skipper must now steer the boat through the jibe as well as pull the spinnaker around the bow of the boat. 

At the same time, the crew releases the twing on the old guy, tightens the twing on the new guy, and throws the boom over (in the middle of the jibe).  Staying in the cockpit, the crew reaches around the front of the mast from the windward side, takes the spinnaker pole off the mast ring, and attaches it to the new guy.  He or she then takes the pole off the old guy and attaches it to the mast. 

As soon as the pole is in position, the crew cleats the guy and takes the spinnaker sheet from the skipper. You are now ready to take off again.  As you can imagine, this maneuver takes a good deal of practice to perfect.


There are two ways to take your spinnaker down: on the windward side or on the leeward side.  Each takedown has advantages in certain situations, so it is valuable to be familiar with both.

No matter which way you drop the spinnaker, there are a few things you should do beforehand. First, be sure the spinnaker halyard and spinnaker sheets are clear to run. The last thing you need is a knot when the spinnaker is half way down. Second, tighten your cunningham and outhaul to their upwind settings. Next, make sure to lower your centerboard. And finally, hoist the jib and trim it lightly on the leeward side.  

Windward Takedown -- On smaller boats (two or three person) this is the more common takedown.  The forward crew first detaches the spinnaker pole from the mast, then from the topping lift, and then takes the outer end off the guy before storing the pole in the cockpit or on the boom. 

As soon as the pole is removed, the middle crew begins to gather in the spinnaker on the windward side. To do this, let the sheet go completely, pull on the guy, gather the foot of the spinnaker and start pulling it down. The forward crew watches this and releases the spinnaker halyard slowly so it doesn't go into the water.

In a two person boat, the crew removes the spinnaker pole as above, stores it and then begins to gather in the spinnaker.  If the spinnaker halyard is led back to the skipper, he or she lowers the spinnaker as the crew gathers it in; otherwise the crew must lower the halyard while doing everything else.

Leeward Takedown -- A leeward takedown is most commonly used on large boats where the spinnaker is too big to be pulled around to windward. Dropping the chute on the leeward side allows you to keep it in the wind shadow of the main, which makes it easier to handle. Leeward takedowns are seldom used on smaller boats in windy conditions, because the crew would have to go to leeward, and this would heel the boat too much. It can, however, be an effective takedown in light air. 

Begin a leeward takedown with one crew to leeward holding on to the spinnaker sheet.  Then release the guy completely. At this moment, the crew to leeward gathers in the foot of the spinnaker.  The other crew (or skipper) slowly lowers the halyard as the spinnaker is gathered.  With a leeward takedown, the spinnaker pole can remain up indefinitely until there is an opportunity to take it down. Just remember that you can't tack until it is lowered.

Both spinnaker takedowns will be easiest if the skipper heads the boat on a broad reach or run before you begin. This way you'll have the least possible wind pressure in the chute.