The floater spinnaker douse is a technique used when a helmsperson is unsure on how to navigate in a crowded situation while approaching the leeward mark of a race. The strategy can be done if there is complete cooperation between the helmsperson and the trimmers.
Approaching the leeward mark in a crowd of boats can be a stressful experience … boats threatening a last-second inside overlap … boats threatening to force you onto the other jibe … your foredeck crew screaming to know on which side to set up the jib. What if you can’t make the call because you’re ensure how to navigate the traffic?
When this happens, your call should be “Floater!” This is the special type of spinnaker douse in which the pole is tripped away, dropped, and stored several boatlengths outside the mark. The spinnaker stays up until the last second, flying without the pole, often pulling you clear ahead of the traffic. But if need be, you can still pull off a last-minute jibe to avoid that traffic or play a late windshift.
Better yet, the floater allows you to take the sail down on either side of the boat without fear of getting the pole and jib sheets entangled. It also allows the spinnaker to be stored on the correct side of the boat for the next set, saving a lot of crew movement and cleanup time. And you can tack immediately after rounding the mark if you need to clear your air. In short, the floater takedown provides a faster rounding and more tactical options. The maneuver does, however, require good driving and crew coordinator to be successful.
Approaching the Mark
The helmsperson must approach the mark at the correct wind angle if the spinnaker is to fly easily without the pole. This is not necessarily the best polar angle for the windspeed. Instead, the angle is often deeper. If you are sailing at too high an angle when the pole is tripped away, the spinnaker will rotate to leeward and collapse in the lee of the main.
The timing of the trip call is also critical. It must be done far enough from the mark to give the crew plenty of time to get the pole down and stored before the douse call is made. The trip must also be made when the boat is at the correct angle to the wind. When the pole is tripped away, the sail should remain flying in the same position, not roll to leeward. You can usually sense if the sail will stay there or not. It helps to make the trip call when the boat is on a wave, as the loads are less. It’s also best to time it on a roll to weather, as the momentum of the roll will help hold the spinnaker out, away from the mainsail. The helmsperson can create this roll by a slight turn to leeward at the time of the trip call. Positioning a crewmember at the shroud to hold the guy out and act as a human pole is another way of keeping the sail out and flying. This becomes less and less effective, however, as the boat and sail get bigger.
It’s always best to plan your final approach so you don’t have to do a late jibe. Assuming that you don’t have to jibe, hoist the jib before you trip away the pole. But if it looks like you might be forced into a late jibe, then trip the pole before the jib hoist because it’s much easier to keep the spinnaker full through a jibe with the jib down. This is particularly important in light wind.
Sometimes there just isn’t enough time to delay the jib hoist until after the jibe. If you have to jibe with the both the spinnaker and headsail up, the bowperson should gather the leech of the jib and hold it forward. This allows more wind to get through to fill the spinnaker.
Making a slow turn as you jibe is one of the keys to keeping the spinnaker flying. If the turn is too fast, centrifugal force will overrotate the spinnaker, and it will collapse behind the mainsail. A slow turn allows the trimmers to float the sail well away from the boat and to match their trim to the turn of the boat.
Cooperation between the trimmers and helmsperson is essential. During the douse, the wind angle steered and the timing of the sheet release will either make the foredeck’s job easy or impossible. If you’re doing a weather takedown, the helmsperson must sail deep until the foredeck crew has control of the sail. The first move after the douse call is to release the sheet, not the halyard. The foredeck must be in position and pulling when the sheet is released. Once the sail has flagged out in front of the boat and is no longer full, the halyard should be eased as fast as the foredeck crew can keep up with it (keep one wrap on the winch). If the halyard is eased too early, you risk running over the sail (otherwise known as “shrimping”). The entire sail needs to be to weather of the forestay before you turn up to round the mark.
If you’re doing a leeward douse, first ease the guy forward until the clew is at the headstay, then hold it there. The foredeck crew should be ready to pull the sheet side in. The helmsperson must head up enough so the sail rotates behind the jib. The sheet trimmer then releases the sheet as the crew begins to gather the sail. Finally, the halyard is eased, but only after the sail is safely in the lee of the jib.
If you have to jibe as part of the mark rounding, it’s very effective to douse the spinnaker on the inside of the jib immediately after the jibe. This allows you to delay the douse until the last second, lessening the risk of the sail blowing away and getting out of control. As you begin to turn into the jibe, overtrim the old sheet to rotate the spinnaker to the old leeward side behind the jib. Then, as you jibe, hold that sheet tight and release the guy. After the jib flops across, release the halyard quickly and the chute will fall down the inside of the jib right onto the foredeck. (Don’t release the halyard until the spinnaker has blown across the boat and against the new weather side of the jib.)
So if you’re looking for a way to open your tactical options and save time at the leeward mark, schedule a crew practice on floater takedowns. First learn how to fly the spinnaker without the pole; then perfect the poleless jibe. The leeward takedown is next and the easiest to learn, followed by the weather takedown. When you’ve mastered all these, try the jibe takedown. Then you’ll have some serious weapons in your bag of tricks.