The spinnaker provides an excellent cue to driving well downwind. With its light material and large projected area, it can tell you a lot. Does it look powered up and smooth? Is it falling out of the sky and wrinkly? Is there a sudden luff curl with no ease? Is the kite trimmer easing with no curl forming? Vince Brun once told me that the spinnaker is designed to have a flying shape, and you always want to keep it powered up enough to maintain that shape. If you’re going really low in lumpy conditions, and the kite’s bobbling all over the place and it looks distorted, you’re not sailing it how it was designed. Conversely, if you’re sailing too hot of an angle, you’re not only sailing extra distance, but the overtrimmed kite is choked and the leech is hooked. It wasn’t designed to be trimmed that tight. Between those two extremes, there’s a sweet spot, and that’s where you want to be.
Here’s the cycle for typical displacement-mode sailing: Let’s assume that you’re sailing with the chute in its proper flying shape, and you’re doing 6 or 6.1 knots. You get a nice puff, you bear away and soak low. At some point, the speed is going to crash. You need to head up before that crash happens.
Better drivers will head up just before the spinnaker trimmer starts getting light on the sheet. The first clue is that the kite starts to lose a little pressure. You can tell because it starts to look slightly less firm, and will eventually start drooping and then wobble. It also might get closer to the boat as it droops. Just like upwind, the speed goes down slowly at first, from 6 knots to maybe 5.9 or 5.8, and then it drops dramatically.
Don’t get fooled into thinking that if you wait long enough at this low angle, the speed will come back. The only thing that could potentially save you is a puff or header, but this is rare. You have to be prepared to scallop downwind. Instead of crashing the speed, head up right when you see the speed start to drop rather than waiting until the speed gets low. Or better yet, if you have a keen feel or have noticed the pattern for the day, head up just before the speed drops more than a tenth or two.
The best drivers communicate with the crew about intended driving to get help with crew weight—or they let the spinnaker trimmer’s calls guide the crew. Either way, it’s faster if you have a coordinated effort of steering with your weight.
If you want to steer up, have the crew lean to leeward. If you want to go straight, make sure the boat is flat. If you want to bear away, have a few people move slightly to windward. Make sure your steering and the crew’s weight shift work together. If they’re out of sync, you’ll be working against each other.
As you head up, aim a degree or two higher than the optimal angle to power the kite back up and get the speed back up to 6 or 6.1. Once everyone is hiking, you’ll start soaking again, all the while watching the spinnaker to determine when to come back up to your baseline angle. A well-coordinated team helping steer the boat at the perfect time is very fast. The crew should be alert and listening to clues and conversations between the trimmer and the driver. There’s a tendency on a lot of boats for idle crews to sit on their bottoms downwind, but if the boat’s setup allows, it’s good to have the crew on the balls of their feet, crouched low and clear of the helmsman’s line of sight forward. Being ready to shift and adjust their weight immediately will make a big difference when shifting between different modes. Ideally, with dynamic crew-weight movement, there will be minimal—if any—rudder movement, which we know is fast.
Just like sailing upwind, managing shifts and steering correctly through them also separates good drivers from great ones. For instance, I’m sailing along and suddenly, the spinnaker luff curls, even though the trimmer hasn’t eased the sheet. I just got a header. That wind-angle arrow pointing from the back corner of my boat just went forward. Downwind, that’s good, because I want to sail headers, but I’m now sailing too high with a curl.
Not-so-great drivers will allow the trimmer to bring in the sheet, compromising the flying shape and sailing extra distance. Most likely, the speed will increase, but now you’re not sailing the best VMG. Better drivers will bear away, make the curl disappear, and maintain the spinnaker’s flying shape.
It also really helps if the spinnaker trimmer communicates with the driver, saying something like, “Nice header here,” which cues the driver to immediately bear off. If the driver is looking at the spinnaker with the same intensity they look at the jib telltales upwind, they will probably detect the shift at the same time the trimmer gets it, and immediately bear off without having to be told or having the trimmer make an adjustment in the spinnaker sheet.
Let’s now look at the opposite situation. I’m cruising along, everything’s nice, and the spinnaker trimmer has the ease/curl/trim cycle going, as they should. There’s a nice pattern to the puffs, but on the next ease, there’s no curl. The trimmer eases some more, but still no curl. I just got a lift.
That wind arrow shifted back toward the rudder, making me sail closer to dead downwind. It’s as if I bore off with no windshift. Now I’m sailing lower and slower. What to do?
Because the wind shifted back behind the boat, and because the spinnaker sheet has been eased, the spinnaker is no longer at its perfect flying shape (and remember what Vince Brun told us already). This one is a little harder to detect, but if you are dialed in and watching the kite, along with using your peripheral vision to see the trimmer repeat his or her easing cycle, you’ll know you got a lift.
It’s not as obvious as getting a header when the chute luff starts to curl. But another sign to help you decipher the lift is that the boat suddenly feels a bit dead, like you hit a lull. Lulls and lifts actually feel decidedly similar. Both require you to head up to keep moving well. But tactically it’s nice to know the difference in case you want to jibe.
Like getting a header and immediately rolling into a tack upwind, if I’m thinking of jibing downwind and get a lift, it’s the perfect time to roll straight into the jibe. I save degrees in the turning radius, which is fast, and I’m sailing the headers as I’m supposed to be doing downwind. Exiting jibes onto headers feels great, and you can instantly tell you’re doing the right thing because you’ll feel the power in the boat and you’ll be aiming more toward the leeward mark.
I will never forget training against Paul Foerster and Bob Merrick in Sydney, Australia, before the 2000 Olympics, where they won a silver medal. Every day we had a long downwind sail to the practice area, and of course we raced the whole way out. We had to make good use of our time.
During the downwind shifty sail, whenever I thought, Did I just get a lift? and I started to head up, I heard their sails popping onto the new jibe. Looking under the boom, I would see them sailing away on a header, having gained a few lengths. A few minutes later, the same thing would happen. They were so in tune with the wind angle, instantly jibing on the lifts and gaining huge. If you are sailing on the super-long tack or happy with where you are going, head up when lifted to keep speed. But if you are thinking of jibing or the lift is huge, jibing immediately is a big gainer.
Upwind and downwind, precision driving is the result of the driver thinking about their angle to the wind, heel angle and speed. You’re never going to get it perfect the entire race, but no one else is either. If you can keep the boat in the sweet spot 90 percent of the time, taking into consideration all of the factors discussed above, and everyone else is doing it less of the time, you’re going to beat them.
Next time you steer a boat, pay more attention to the jib telltales upwind and the spinnaker downwind, and let them guide your decisions while feeling the speed and power in the boat. Drive with more precision picturing the wind angle as an arrow pointing at your boat, and try your best to keep the boat in the sweet spot at all times. ν