October 7, 2014

The most unseamanlike sail

I HAVE LONG REGARDED the spinnaker as the most unseamanlike sail ever invented. This view was confirmed when I was the navigator/helmsman aboard a 33-foot sloop called Diana K and we raced across the Atlantic from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro. During that race we flew a spinnaker for 3,000 miles.

That darned sail encouraged the boat to roll from side to side, gunwale to gunwale, for days and weeks on end. In order to keep it filled in light winds we always had to head off-course slightly to one side or the other. We could hardly ever steer the boat exactly where we wanted her to go, because it didn’t suit the blasted spinnaker. That rig — mainsail and spinnaker — must be the most frustrating combination known to man for downwind work in the trades.

The continual necessity to jibe, forced upon us by slight wind-shifts, wore us out. Every little change in wind direction meant long spells of hard work for the one man on deck who wasn’t steering. He had to handle the sheets, the guys, the uphauls, the downhauls, and the spinnaker poles themselves.

All this constant work was bad enough in the daytime, but at night it took on a new and frightening dimension. In the dark, the power of the spinnaker seemed ominous, specially in hard winds.

My watchmate, Eddie, was the first to admit openly that he hated charging into the black of the night with the spinnaker up. “It’s like driving down the freeway blindfolded,” he complained.

My friend Nick chimed in: “You can stand it for about half an hour,” he said, “then the mind begins to boggle.” Nevertheless, we did it. We did it because we were racing. If we didn’t do it, our competitors would, and we’d be left miles behind.

At the back of all our minds was the fact that if one of us fell overboard the spinnaker would have to come down before the boat could be turned around. And we knew from experience that sometimes spinnakers don’t come down without a fight. They get caught up on things. They wrap themselves around the forestay. They fall in the water, slide under the hull, foul the rudder and propeller, and generally cause havoc.

To handle a spinnaker at all requires some skill, and to douse one in a strong wind calls for some brute force. And to do this successfully at night takes a bit of luck as well, which is not surprising when you think about the large sail area you’re dealing with.  Diana K’s spinnakers had a surface area of 670 square feet each. Her mainsail and fore triangle, by way of comparison, totaled 420 square feet.

I guess that racing boats will always use spinnakers, symmetrical or asymmetrical, around the buoys and across oceans, but if you’re planning to cruise across an ocean I’d advise you not to touch one with a barge pole. Try a square sail. Try twin jibs. Try the twistle rig. Try anything but a spinnaker.

Today’s Thought
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
’Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
-- Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Tailpiece
A peasant in Afghanistan was handed a sealed ballot at the polling booth. He started to tear it open.
 “What do you think you’re doing?” screamed an official.
“I just wanted to see who I voted for,” he replied.
“Are you crazy?” the official exclaimed. “This is supposed to be a secret ballot.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

10 comments:

Charles Reynolds said...

I'm rather a fond of the square sail, myself. A deck-set square tops'l will carry you a long ways and taking it down can be as easy as letting fly the halyard.

groton said...

Ah Ah Ah!!!! One of the most simple and true explanation of what I already think about unseamanlike sail!
When someone ask me which are for my opinion the most inspiring sailor I always reply:
Moitessier, Joshua Slocum, Knox, Soldini... And John Vigor!!
ciao!!
www.marieholm26.org

John Vigor said...

Hi there, Groton. I am very flattered to be included in such illustrious company, but honestly, I don't really match up to any of them. Still -- never kick a gift compliment in the teeth, I say. So, thanks.

John V.

PS: Nice boat you have there.

groton said...

Ciao John!
thanks to reply me..You are always welcome to sailing in my boat in the Venice Lagoon when you want!!
Ciao Gabriele

Anonymous said...

I am one of those armchair voyagers with a boat and dreams, but as yet not much else. I plan my voyages in my head, read all i can lay my hands on and and picture myself in situations far from shore and wonder how i would handle them. One situation is the spinnaker, and now you have confirmed to me that I will handle the spinnaker by using twin jibs.

Keep it simple. That's how I will handle it.I am in no hurry. Thanks

John Vigor said...

Exactly, Armchair Voyager, you are in no hurry. You will not regret your choice. The trade winds were made for twin jibs.

Cheers,

John V.

Anonymous said...

John.

I am the proud owner of Diana K. Do you have any photos of her?

John Vigor said...

Dear Anonymous:

Yes, I have a great photo of her under full sail in the first Cape to Rio Race taken 270 miles out to sea by a SAAF Shackleton aircraft. I can e-mail it if you give me your URL.

Cheers,

John V.

Anonymous said...

Hi John.

I've been a victim of hacking in the past and since refrain from posting my email on public spaces. I found you on Facebook and sent you a request. Let me know if you received it.

R

John Vigor said...

Hi there Anonymous R:
I am not on Facebook. The best way to get a message to me is to send an e-mail to Karen Larson, editor of Good Old Boat magazine. Ask her to kindly forward your e-mail to me: karen@goodoldboat.com

Cheers, John V.