A Little Bit of Downwind Sailing

Author: Forespar   Date Posted:13 July 2020 

Sailing downwind is a great way to get to your destination whether racing or cruising. Using a whisker pole to hold your jib or genoa and go wing on wing is the best use of the combination of both the main and foresail.


Whisker PoleA whisker pole allows you to sail dead downwind without having to gybe, increasing performance and boat handling characteristics. Additionally, sail makers recommend the use of a whisker pole with an asymmetrical spinnaker on displacement boats to help with downwind performance.

Whisker poles hold the clew of the headsail out from behind the mainsail wind shadow. They are flown on the opposite side of the main boom and project and hold the clew of the headsail (jib, genoas or asymmetrical) out into clear air. This aids in downwind speed as you now have the full use of the sail area of whichever headsail is flown. Without the whisker pole, the headsail flops from one side to the other, never fully filling and virtually useless. Whisker poles are sized based on the foot length of the headsail being flown. 100% of the foot is the proper length for the whisker pole when attached to and projected from the mast. This is why telescoping poles make sense on boats under about 55 feet. This length can be as much as 80% longer than “J” for a given boat. You can see why telescoping poles are desirable. If your “J” is 15 feet and you have 180% genoas, where would you store a 27-foot pole! A longer length will be used for close reaching with the length being shortened more and more as you go from broad reach to downwind.

How do you know when it’s time to deploy a whisker pole for downwind sailing? When the jib sheet goes limp and you have to head up to get more boat speed or you have to sheet in until the jib leech is too close to the main and is hurting its performance. Then it’s time! However, other factors require consideration. In heavy winds giving near hull speed, deploying a pole will only be advantageous after you are off the wind by more than150o apparent. In very light winds, you may find advantage as early as 90o to 100o apparent. In general the pole should be kept near 90o to the apparent wind just as with spinnaker pole practice. Properly sized, the whisker pole will store vertically up the mast or on deck.

To get the most lift and best speed out of a poled out jib, trim it until the leech (which is now acting as the luff) begins to curl back just as is done with a spinnaker. As you head more and more on a downwind course, there will be a tendency for the jib clew to lift and even oscillate up and down. A foreguy will help keep the clew at the right height for best boat speed. This height will vary as dictated by apparent-wind speeds and angles or even wave conditions. On smaller boats, say under about 30 feet, the leeward sheet can be tucked under a bow cleat horn and used as a downhaul. On boats 30 ft. and over you should be using both a topping lift and a foreguy.

Whisker poles cannot be jibed end-for-end as with spinnaker poles. The procedure is to ease the foreguy, remove the pole from the mast, pass it aft between the mast and what will become the lee shrouds until the forward end can be passed through the foretriangle and switch the sheet attachment on the forward end of the pole. Then push the pole to weather and reattach to the mast. The sheet trimmer must tend the weather sheet to help control the pole as it is pushed forward or the jib and the pole will be slammed against the head stay. The main should not be jibed until the pole jibe is completed. When it’s time to dowse the pole it is pretty much a reverse process.

On cruising boats that have furling headsails, the safest and easiest way to jibe a whisker pole is to furl the headsail first, then retract the pole so you can swap sheets at the outboard end and reset the pole on the opposite side. Then unfurl the headsail on the new tack. This clears the foredeck and keeps control of the pole as you ease the topping lift and retract the pole to reach the end. Non-spinnaker class racers have found this method to be more efficient and, in the long run, faster as well. If you get a pole fouled during a jibe, the amount of time it takes to clear away (not to mention the course you must hold) far exceeds the time it takes to furl and unfurl the headsail.


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