In high level dinghy classes, many competitive yachts finish regattas with an unnecessarily broad range of results because they can not consistently crack higher placings.
What makes the difference; how do top crews make that critical break from the bunch race after race?
In international regattas, achieving consistently higher placings requires tight, professional crewing techiques. These have become so immensely important they will probably require you to rethink your rigging layout.
Whatever the quality of your start, forging your way to the lead agressively, either in individual places or in great joyful clumps, is largely dependent on the first spinnaker launch and the downwind legs of the first round. Racing in the big time with a 60 to 100 fleet, you may delight in rounding the top mark in the first bunch. However 40 other boats are sharing the same elation. Someone must go out the backdoor!
When the fleet dumps in on the windward mark for the first rounding, helm and crew are engaged in a lot of boatwork that physically takes over the course and acceleration of your boat. A fast spinnaker set will minimize the mechanical burden at this critical time, returning you to fastest downwind trim earlier.
The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles saw crews in the 470 Class begin to effectively explore techniques for launching the spinnaker with the helmsman conducting most of the basic preparations. An extreme example was the Swedish helmsman, Dan Loven, who completed the total launch, pole and all, whilst his crew, steering from trapeze, manouvered the rounding, surfing every wave as other boats bore away to launch.
Fast spinnaker launch techniques will only be possible with thought and changes to your current rigging and personal mechanics. Improved equipment, such as better ball race bullet blocks, kevlar sheets and halyards, and new spinnaker pole ends are designed to complement fast set techniques.
A little guy called a rat cleat, as cunning as its name suggests, has helped uncomplicate reverse pump-up halyards by simply rocking and jamming down on a tensioned line. It is made from wedge-shaped aluminium with a 6mm hole drilled through its length, parallel to one side and rocking fore and aft on a pivot pin. As the pump-up handle is raised to hoist the spinnaker, the halyard leading into the fat end of the rat pivots the tail down to jam the halyard, making a dead point from which to begin the hoist. Once the handle is lowered the angle of the rat rocks and releases the halyard to a shock cord take-away.
To set in a time anywhere near three seconds, your spinnaker system must be installed to run freely and work faultlessly every time. Craig Smith, my crew, and I have designed a spinnaker system that is basically functional for 470, Fireball, 5o5, Flying Dutchman and even junior spinnakered boats.
To start with your mast must carry alloy sheaved bullet exit blocks. The top block will need to have an extra cowling fitted to protect the exit box cheeks from melting. Using 4mm Kevlar it travels through here at 16 ft per second and is inclined to burn out plastic sheaves and cheeks that it may contact along the way. To install a reverse four-to-one pump-up in the hull will be difficult but really worthwhile.
This is the bit that really brings spectator fleet gasps everytime, as you host and set within a length or so of the mark. You may have seen two-to-one pump-ups, which are now quite common in many classes, yet require a large take-away system for the halyard tail which is difficult to fit.
The four-to-one is an endless loop that cannot tangle, knot or twist. Once your spinnaker halyard exists the base of the mast it enters the pump-up loop. Firstly the halyard threads through a standard bullet becket block and returns to the front bulkhead. Tie a bowline here onto a saddle mounted on the bulkhead, and cut the length with the spinnaker head stowed in position under the deck clip.
The becket block now sits against the bulkhead, near the heel of the mast ready for hoisting. Use 4mm pre-stretch line, go aft from the base of the becket block to a point slightly past half of the total hoist height (4.9m hoist, 2.4m pull) and return the line through a suitably mounted standard bullet block back to the pump-up system area.
The pump-up system consists of five parts. A Harken cleat with saddle, a trapeze dumbell ring bent in a U shape to fit over the cleat as an uncleater, a spring mounted alloy sheaved bullet block, a pump-up handle also with an alloy sheave bullet and then the rat cleat itself. The pump-up handle will need to be located in a position so that the helmsman can stand and steer the yacht whilst hoisting, or, in really fresh conditions, enable him to sit and panic whilst hoisting from the security of the side deck. Position the rat cleat exactly 10cm away from the sprung bullet. I suggest the pump-up handle should be a triangular shape to avoid snagging on any running tackle.
Invert an ordinary plastic trapeze handle, and suspend the bullet block on a wire bridle. Immediately after the rat cleat, the prestretch line stops and is stitched to 4mm shockcord that again leads forward on the opposite side of the plate case, returning through a bollet block to terminate at the becket of the original block. This completes an efficient reverse four-to-one pump-up spinnaker halyard.
In addition to the pump-up system, install shy hooks a the sidestays and position a raised alloy clam cleat 3cm off the deck and 5cm aft of the chainplates (the clam cleats are best for holding preset sheets).
Now forget your pride if you seriously want to win, because a telescopic tiller extension for the crew to steer the yacht's approach into the mark, whilst the helm is engaged for approximately 10 seconds preparing the "mega set", will have to be fitted. We have had the most success with the Performance Yacht Fittings extention as it has a comfortable grip coating that assists positive locking and unlocking. Simple but important is its flexible urethane universal that avoids accidental unlocking whilst at full extention.
In Twelve Metres they number each crew to fit a formula of chronological moves necessary to perform three types of spinnaker launch approaches. Their deck gear is positioned and marked to suit and all crew are trained to know rope and tackle positions.
Dinghies can use the same principles to set perfectly at the mark even in the toughest conditions. Remember nothing is easy; these new gadgets still require you to go to sea and develop a feel for the techniques. Timing and distance out from the mark that you'll neet to start setting up, still requires practice.
Helmsman moves forward to release spinnaker head from clip in port bin, crew moves aft on trapeze to maintain correct trim, attach topping lift to pole, clip outboard end of pole to windward sheet, move aft in the boat, then pre-brace windward sheet to black shy mark. The starboard spinnaker clew will now be laying out along the leeward deck and the pole hanging diagonally at the mast.
Helmsman moves aft and the crew twists the tiller extention in, and returns the mainsheet. Ease vang then round mark. Helmsman hoists spinnaker, simultaneously crew swings in off trapeze, stands with his forward hon on mast and grabs the butt end of the pole and clips it to the snotter ring on the mast.
As the pole goes out the spinnaker is being dragged from the leeward bin, thus assisting the helmsman's hoist. The spinnaker will set when it reaches full hoist. Crew returns to trapeze.
As everything must happen so fast and faultlessly we even designed our own spinnaker pole end that would clip onto and off the mast faster. It's also faster and smoother to use in tense shy-to-shy (slam a few more guys at the gybe mark) situations. It features front "clip in" loading for sheets and connections to the mast, so triggering and time spent opening the beak is basically eliminated when loading it.
Under heavy compression and when you're going shy, it can be disconnected from the mast sideways without having to lift or push up to get it off the mast ring. Better yet, its the only pole end featuring an angled slot that cleanly releases the leeward sheet during gybing and is the best yet for tight shy angles.
Port bear away (underlay): If you have prepared for a regular mega set and find that you cannot lay, it is possible to tack with everything still in set-up mode provided the brace is holding the pole beak down to the deck.
Tack Set: Port rounding port tack approach, approximately five boat lengths from the starboard layline, windward sheet above shy hook. Helmsman reaches to leeward and prebraces spinnaker from inboard turning block to black mark shy setting. Spinnaker is now out along the windward deck. Tiller to crew on trapeze. Pole onto topping lift. Go to leeward and connect beak to what will become the brace. Flip brace into the clamcleat at leeward sidestay. Leave the pole on the leeward side of the mainsail so that after the tack it will be in perfect position for the launch. Tack and hoist.
Gybe Set, potentially the fastest set: Starboard layline approach. Windward spinnaker sheet is pulled until the spinnaker clew comes from the leeward bin to the forestay, and even 15cm past if possible. The starboard sheet must remain above the shy hook, and must be cleated in the cockpit tidy cleat. At this point the leeward sheet is pre-set on the last port tack approach to a normal broad reach brace position, and also remains in the tidy cleat.
Position this sheet under the port shy cleat if possible. Round the mark. Gybe immediately. The length of time taken for the boom to pass across only delays the helmsman's opportunity to hoist. The crew should assist the movement of the boom by pulling it over with the vang. The spinnaker is unobstructed and hoists fast and easily.
Next priority for the crew is to take the windward sheet from directly ahead of the sidestay. The sheet is guided to the spinnaker pole beak then the pole is attached to the mast. Note: The crew must remain holding the brace, floating the spinnaker clear of the sail plan whilst pushing the pole out to the tack of the spinnaker.