Most sailors know that the bowman’s position requires preparation and organizational skills, but it also tests your physical strength and agility as you are suspended at great heights, or when making a headsail change with walls of water throwing you in different directions. It’s a complicated, mentally demanding job that can be made a lot easier by seeing the job in a purely mechanical perspective. Break down and categorize each maneuver encountered in a race, and have a formula for each one. Think these maneuvers through over and over in your head while sitting on the rail approaching the next weather mark, or while folding the headsail on the way to the leeward mark, and plug in each type of maneuver the next rounding may require. Prepare yourself so that when the tactician makes a call you can act quickly. Good preparation and fast action are most important just before and at the leeward mark, where quickly changing tactical situations will determine the exact maneuver you perform and will help get your boat around the mark efficiently.
Part of this preparation depends on communication between you and the rest of the boat. Be sure to have a talk with your helmsman and tactician before the season starts (or before the race if you’re on a new boat), and make sure the terminology for each takedown procedure is understood, and decide who will call for the halyards to be hoisted or blown. Touch base with your jib and spinnaker trimmers, and discuss the positioning and timing of the halyards and spinnaker pole during the takedowns. Talk to the pitman and mastman about cleanup after the leeward mark, so they can help you with the spinnaker sheets, halyards, and topping lift.
Good communication between the bowman and the tactician can make the difference between a well-managed boat and a real winner. A race can be won or lost approaching the last leeward mark rounding when a quick decision has to be made by the tactician and carried out by the bowman.
It is very important for a bowman to be able to estimate exactly how long it takes to carry out each type of maneuver. Your judgments, calculated by observing boatspeed and distance to the mark, are crucial, and will improve with experience. Experience will also enable you to wait until the last possible moment before committing to one maneuver or another, and still leave enough time to get the job done. Knowing these time limits will help you communicate with your tactician. He may, for example, request a different headsail after observing wind conditions closer to the mark. Most experienced tacticians will ask the bowman first if a quick change is possible, knowing that the bowman should be best able to make the judgment call. If the time allowed is marginal, it should be the bowman’s responsibility to determine whether a last-minute maneuver is feasible. Your tactician will also be watching the competition, and waiting until the last possible moment before committing the boat to a maneuver— just remember that it’s the bowman’s responsibility to get the jib up and the spinnaker down in time.
Headsails & Halyards
After rounding the windward mark, try to have the headsail folded and in its sausage bag as soon as it’s convenient. This eliminates clutter on the bow and also prepares you for a quick sail change if a different headsail is required for the next weather leg. Leave the jib halyard at the bow near the headstay so it can be used for a staysail if needed, and won’t be trapped on the wrong side of the topping lift and pole after jibing. The same goes for an extra spinnaker halyard if a spinnaker change is possible during the leg.
Well before the leeward mark, the first thing to prepare for is the headsail selection. Ask your tactician: If he’s not sure if the sail on deck is the right one, get the other sail being considered up on deck and ready, especially if you’ re near the mark. If you’ re leaning toward one sail more than the other, bring that sail’s tack near the headstay, but don’t break open the zipper or connect the halyard until you’re ready to hoist. This keeps your options open longer. If there’s a windshift, the tactician may request a different type of takedown, and you’ll have to move the sail to the other side of the foreguy.
Pole, Lift, and Sheets
Most boats over 40 feet use a dip-pole jibing system, where the pole is fixed on the mast and dipped inside the foretriangle during a jibe. The topping lift and foreguy are both connected to the pole with a single line, top and bottom, usually led to winches. This setup makes life simple for the bowman when compared to the end-for-end system used on smaller boats, where the wire bridles on the topping lift and foreguy make it harder to position the headsail and sheets off the wind.
With the dip-pole system, you can fold the headsail after the weather mark, disconnect the sheets from the sail, and connect them together, leaving them hanging over the inboard end of the pole, close to the mast, for the duration of the leg. After the proper headsail is picked and the type of takedown is determined, pull the connected sheets over the pole to the side of the boat on which the headsail will be hoisted. Have your mastman connect the sheets to the clew, but not until the sail is ready to be hoisted.
In general, you should not have to worry about the topping lift when you round the mark, as long as the pole is lowered inside the lifelines, and there is plenty of slack in the line. After gathering the spinnaker as the boat rounds the mark, the pole should be lowered to the deck, and the pit man should make sure the topping lift is out of the cleat and off the winch, especially if a quick tack is necessary. If time permits, attach the topping lift to the base of the mast – but if it’s more important to have weight on the rail at first, then that should take priority and the lift can be moved later.
Next month we’ll cover techniques for getting the spinnaker into the boat efficiently, and the different type of spinnaker takedown maneuvers you can choose from as you approach the leeward mark.
A s we discussed last month, a good bowman has to be ready to perform a number of different types of spinnaker takedowns at the leeward mark, and he frequently won’t know for sure which one it will be until the tactician makes the call at the last minute. However, an experienced bow hand should be thinking ahead and anticipating which call the tactician will make, and be ready for any number of maneuvers close to the leeward mark.
Dousing the Spinnaker
The accompanying diagram has four examples that show the most common situations you’ll encounter, each showing the headsail on the side of the boat where it will be hoisted before dousing the spinnaker. In most takedown situations, the boat is preparing to round the mark while broad reaching when the spinnaker halyard is blown, as with Example 2. Two exceptions to this are when the boat is running deep, say during a floater takedown (1), or when close reaching at the end of a reach or if the boat has overstood the leeward mark at the end of a run (3). The key to dousing the spinnaker in all three of these standard takedown situations is the timing of the halyard release in relationship to the mark, and using the headsail to blanket the spinnaker. In light air, the spinnaker halyard can be blown at the last possible moment when the boat turns from a broad reach to a beam reach while rounding the mark. Make sure the spinnaker is kept well forward, and gathered underneath the headsail, which creates a void of air directly behind it and helps keep the spinnaker contained. Ease the spinnaker pole forward to the headstay just before the halyard is blown to get the clews closer together and the spinnaker directly behind the headsail.
When preparing to gather the spinnaker, grab the lazy after-guy first. This enables you to position yourself well forward, underneath the headsail, and near the forward hatch. Have someone down below pulling the chute down through the hatch to speed up the gathering process—he [or she] can also disconnect the sheet and guy, and hook them together for you. The bowman is then free to secure the halyard and hit the windward rail.
When dropping the halyard, the first two-thirds should be blown all at once. This collapses and spills wind from the sail quickly, keeping it close to the headsail. The spinnaker usually hovers just over the water, and can be gathered right away before it has ·a chance to fill with wind below the mainsail and blow behind the boat. In heavy air, the spinnaker should be at least 80-percent contained inside the boat before you round the mark. This may require blowing the halyard well before entering the two-boatlength circle, depending of course on the wind strength and the speed of the boat. In windy conditions, easing the pole forward to the headstay when the halyard is blown can cut the gathering time in half, especially when sailing a broad angle.
A variation on this maneuver is tripping the spinnaker off the pole almost simultaneously with the release of the halyard. The method can work beautifully when done correctly, especially when running deep on your approach to the mark. But it does make it more difficult to keep the spinnaker forward behind the headsail. If the sail is not contained well, it can easily fly behind the boat like a flag after rounding the mark. If you are approaching the mark on a close reach, this technique should not be attempted, especially in heavy air.
When dousing the spinnaker on a close reach leave yourself more time before the mark. The spinnaker will be harder to control, and will try to make its way back to the jib trimmer’s winch. Easing the topping lift and dropping the pole to the deck shortly after the halyard is blown will help stop the wind from getting underneath the sail, and prevent it from lifting while the crew is gathering the sail.
Approaches and Takedowns
There are a few variables to consider when deciding on a particular takedown, including the position of your closest competitors and your wind angle as you approach the mark. Despite the endless number of leeward-mark scenarios, most takedown maneuvers are based on a variation of either a standard takedown or a floater takedown.
Example 1 shows a situation where a floater takedown would work well. This takedown gets its name because the spinnaker is actually floating without a pole just before it is doused. Use this takedown when you need to jibe close to a mark in order to get around it. The headsail is set up on the leeward side of the boat prior to jibing (port side in this example) with the lazy jib sheet led over the pole. The headsail is hoisted, and when the boat jibes the pole is tripped and lowered to the deck. The topping lift can be left on the end of the pole (as long as you’re not using a bridle system) – just be sure it’s uncleated and off the winch. The spinnaker is then flown without a pole until the halyard is blown, and gathered underneath the headsail on the new leeward side. If the competition is close, it might pay to gather the spinnaker on the windward side to avoid contact with a leeward boat.
Example 4 shows how a lifting windshift or a competitor making a move to the inside might change your plan for a floater takedown into a standard takedown after a jibe. This will require moving the headsail and the sheets across to the windward side of the boat before jibing so it is clear to hoist right after the jibe. This procedure can be done quickly if the sail is kept in the sausage bag, and the halyard is secured at the headstay until the sail is ready to be hoisted— move the luff of the sail aft and around to the weather side of the foreguy before connecting the jib tack and halyard. Pull the sheets over the pole before connecting them on the correct side. Having J-lock-type shackles on the sheets can really help you and your mastman get the sheets un-hooked, pulled over the pole and hooked back up quickly if this approach is called for at the last moment. Right after the jibe is completed the headsail can be hoisted and the spinnaker gathered in a standard takedown.
If your approach is on a tight reach, as shown in Example 3, this should be treated like a standard takedown. The only difference is jibing the headsail over the spinnaker pole when rounding the mark. The spinnaker should be gathered and contained on the leeward side of the boat as the pole is lowered to the deck at the same time. Don’t attempt a floater drop in this situation. You’ll have little or no time to gather the spinnaker during or after the jibe. The boat has to make a turn greater than 180 degrees to go back upwind, so attempting to keep the spinnaker up during the rounding will result in a wider turn and a loss of valuable distance to the next windward mark. Most likely there’ll be traffic at the mark, so getting the spinnaker down early will help maneuverability, and give you more time for gathering, which you’ll need given the wind angle. An early drop while close reaching won’t hurt your boatspeed as much as it would while sailing a broader angle.
Original bio: Dan Schiff has worked the bow on a number of long-distance races from California to Mexico, and is a veteran of the last four Transpac races. In around-the-buoys competition he has won several national titles (Schock 35, Soverel 33, and Olson 30 Nationals), and regularly races in ULDB 70 events on the West Coast.