In the third of this new series on double handed sailing skills, Pip Hare explains outside gybes with an asymmetric spinnaker with two onboard
Outside gybing an asymmetric spinnaker is an under-utilised technique by the average sailor – either as a double handed sailing skill or in a fully crewed environment. It can be trickier to learn than other techniques, and may require a little adaptation of your boat, but the outside gybe has some significant advantages over the inside gybe, particularly when trying to avoid the spinnaker ‘wine-glassing’ in a bigger breeze.
A ‘wine glass’ happens when the clew of the spinnaker is eased, reducing leech tension and creating depth in the centre of the sail. This depth allows instability in the head and if a leech collapses inwards, wind can get onto the front surface of the spinnaker and will spin the head around to fill it from the wrong side.
In severe cases this can escalate to multiple twists, or even wrap the spinnaker around the forestay. This is often a problem for short-handed crews without the luxury of many hands to help pull the spinnaker around quickly. A well performed outside gybe will keep the sail streaming to leeward so wind cannot get behind it.
These techniques are designed for double handed crews sailing a yacht with an autopilot, and an asymmetric spinnaker. We’re sailing a J/99, which has a fixed bowsprit and hanked-on jib. Thanks to Key Yachting for their support.
I find outside gybing physically easier to manage than the inside version on big boats with soft sails (rather than laminate gennakers) and in higher winds. It’s also well adapted for boats where the distance between the luff of the spinnaker and the forestay is very small – those with short bowsprits or cruising chutes that are flown from the stem head. Outside gybing will not work well in light airs, however.
To best understand a successful outside gybe, you need to visualise the manoeuvre from a bird’s eye view. Start the gybe sailing at full power with the spinnaker well-trimmed. Going into the gybe the spinnaker is quickly released so it flies out streaming away from the boat.
The wind takes the clew of the sail away from the tack, stretching the foot out. The spinnaker then remains streaming downwind and the helm steers the boat through the gybe ‘under’ the position of the spinnaker – the spinnaker stays still and the boat turns around it. When the spinnaker is streaming on the new leeward side the gybe is complete and the sail can be pulled in.
Setting up for outside gybe success
It may be necessary to make a couple of modifications to your current set up in order to outside gybe well.
Check the length of your spinnaker sheets, they may need lightweight tails added for outside gybing. The sheets should be long enough to allow the spinnaker to stream completely unhindered in front of the boat during the gybe, while still allowing the new winch to be loaded with wraps and enough tail to pull quickly in.
You can calculate this length by loading your spinnaker sheet on the trimming winch, through its normal blocks, then taking the attachment point to the spinnaker tack (whether that be the stemhead for cruising chutes or the end of the bowsprit). Add on to this length the measurement from the tack of the spinnaker to the clew with the sail laid out flat and then an extra metre for comfort. This will make the sheets a lot longer but the extra bit does not carry the same load so a lightweight tail can be spliced into the end of the regular sheets.
One of the downsides of outside gybing is the problem of the lazy sheet falling under the boat post gybe, and there are a couple of modifications that may help alleviate this problem. Most asymmetric racing spinnakers are made with sheet-catchers sewn into the sail, these are short lengths of batten that stick out just above the tack in the luff of the sail.
After each gybe the lazy sheet will either land in the catcher or a crew member can wander up to the bow and easily flick the sheet inside the batten. Some sails also have a second hook further back in the sail as a further line of defence.
Another option is to put a ‘prodder’ on the bowsprit or stem head. This can be an old length of batten around 30cm long which extends forward from the tack of your spinnaker, pointing diagonally up from horizontal. This should catch the lazy sheet if it tries to fall under the boat.
It’s essential the spinnaker sheets are prepared well before the gybe. This will involve checking the new sheet has not dropped under the bow and preparing the old sheet to release quickly and snag free. Before each gybe I ensure the cockpit sole is completely clean, tidying away all lines that are not involved in the gybe. It’s then best to flake out the working spinnaker sheet onto either the cockpit sole or a seat.
Start at the bitter end and lay the line out in long hanks so when it’s released the line will pay out from the top of the pile. Another method of ensuring the line will run is coiling it and then capsizing the coil, though in my experience flaking is less likely to generate snags. Ensure the spinnaker sheet is away from your feet.
Pull the mainsheet traveller all the way to windward and lock it off. In heavier breeze, or if wanting to reduce boom travel during the gybe, bring the mainsheet in so the boom is close enough to the centre line to reduce impact. Beware of sheeting the mainsail too hard as this can make steering difficult post gybe.
I don’t normally preload my new spinnaker sheet before this kind of gybe but have it ready by my side to pick up and load. Going into the gybe the old spinnaker sheet must be released quickly and completely ‘smoking’ it out so the spinnaker will be taken dynamically forward to fly like a flag in front of the boat.
It may take some practice to get a feel for when to release the sheet: release it too early while the boat is still reaching then the sail and the sheets will be unnecessarily flapping and can get tangled or damaged; release it late while heading downwind then the apparent wind will not be enough to overcome the weight of the sailcloth and fly the clew forward. In stronger breeze you can release the sheet later.
Going into the gybe the trimmer should take the spinnaker sheet in their hands so they can feel the load. They then call the helm to steer down and count them into a release. They’re aiming to smoke the sheet, easing it out and rapidly taking all the wraps off the winch. Keep hands and feet clear once the sheet is running. If the helm steers down too quickly before the sheet has blown, rather than releasing, the trimmer must call the helm to steer higher, reset and start again.
Once the sheet has been released, look forward and track the passage of the clew around the front of the boat. If the old sheet gets snagged, try to release it quickly. If this is not possible alert the helmsman immediately – you may need to abort the gybe, go back up to windward, sheet back in and try again.
As soon as the boat has gybed through dead downwind and the clew is streaming even a couple of degrees on the new leeward side, load up the new sheet and start pulling like crazy. It may take a while to trim the sail fully back to a good shape, so once you can no longer pull by hand, start grinding.
Steering through an outside gybe is best done by a human being, not the autopilot. You need to watch your sails, and respond to the actions and instructions of your co-skipper. It’s essential to watch the spinnaker and be aware of wind angles when coming out of the gybe.
Talk to each other
Going into the gybe be guided by the trimmer. Sail the boat fast, ensuring there is load in the spinnaker sheet. Once ready to gybe, start gently bearing away and wait for the trimmer to make the call on when to release the spinnaker sheet. Once the sheet is released watch the sail to check it’s flying straight out – as soon as this is confirmed bear away quickly to turn the boat underneath the sail while it is still streaming.
This timing is something to practise in different conditions. A slow turn allows the apparent wind to drop and the sail to collapse, too fast and the trimmer will struggle to pull the sail in, and if the mainsheet is centred you may lose control and spin straight into a broach. As soon as the mainsail has gybed, release the mainsheet.
Come out of the gybe to a wind angle that will keep the spinnaker blowing to leeward, avoiding a wrap, but not so high it becomes difficult for the trimmer to bring the sail in. I recommend steering out of the gybe to a wind angle of around 150° true and pausing there until the spinnaker is trimmed. If there’s a lot of sheet to pull in it is possible, with practise, to do a quick dive down, reducing the apparent wind and allowing your trimmer to pull by hand – but don’t linger in this downwind position as the spinnaker may wrap.\
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