Boats and Asymmetrics
"Sportboat" was the invention of a clever magazine
editor, who was searching for a catchy phase to describe
a new genre of sailboat small, light, and fast. This
new breed, as he saw it, would give us uncomplicated, uncompromised
racing, unabashedly fearless of the handicappers.
Boats like the Ultimate 20 are catching on simply because
they are so much fun to sail. That fun comes from both the
cloud of canvas that they spread and the challenge of learning
how to tame it. To race one of these boats is a snap. To
win, however, will require you to learn some new spinnaker
The earliest sportboats were equipped with conventional
spinnaker poles and symmetrical sails because PHRF didn't
allow asymmetrics. That has changed. PHRF fleets have legalized
asymmetric spinnakers for sportboats like the Ultimate 20
that are equipped with bowsprits.
Trimming the asymmetric
Asymmetric spinnakers have long luffs, short leeches and
a draft forward, open-leech shape. As long as the apparent
wind and the pole are well forward, an asymmetric is always
faster than a symmetrical spinnaker.
In light air, the apparent wind is always forward when
sailing downwind. In these conditions you would typically
jibe through 90 degrees. Pointing the boat dead downwind
is plain slow.
As the breeze builds all boats can sail lower angles as
pressure on the spinnaker builds. With a sportboat, however,
you cannot square the pole aft as you would with a conventional
spinnaker. This means that you are limited as to how "deep,"
or directly downwind, you can sail. When racing in PHRF,
the only condition in which a sportboat has trouble saving
her time is running in 10-15 knot winds.
There are a number of things you
can do to encourage your asymmetrical spinnaker to "project"
its luff to weather in these conditions. First, ask your
sailmaker to make your sail fuller, especially in the head,
and with a minimum length leech and a maximum length luff.
With a short leech you can ease the sheet without over
twisting the sail. Too much twist causes the head to collapse
When you have a longer luff, the sail will fly further
away from the boat so as you ease the sheet the luff will
have more of a natural tendency to rotate to weather. Easing
the halyard and tack line 6" each also encourages this
However, as you fly the luff farther from the boat, it
also becomes flatter and more unstable. That is why you
want to choose a sail that is designed to be fuller.
As a trimmer, what you are looking for is a 5"-10"
curl in the luff as you ease the sheet. If the curl is too
large, the whole sail can collapse before you are able to
trim the curl out. If this happens, tighten the halyard
and tack line. This will make the luff of the sail fuller,
more draft-forward, and less critical to trim.
You dont trim an asymmetric chute like a symmetrical
one. You fly it by the telltales on the luff, like a jib.
In light to moderate air, the goal is to sail the boat as
low as possible without the sail collapsing behind the blanket
of the mainsail. A common mistake for a new helmsman is
to head down when the chute collapses. The sail usually
collapses because the mainsail is blanketing it; you have
to head up to fill it.
The trimmer must constantly talk to the helmsman about
the pressure on his sheet. As soon as the pressure softens,
he must tell the helmsman to head up slightly until the
sail is repressurized.
As the wind builds, there will come a point when, if you
head up instead of down in a puff, the boat will start to
plane. The apparent wind shifts forward with the added speed,
and the asymmetric chute comes into its own again.
Once planing, sail as low as you can. But dont let
the boat drop off the plane. Your VMG (velocity made good)
downwind is always better with the increased speed, even
if you have to sail slightly higher to get it.
In planing and surfing conditions, a sportboat can accelerate
so fast that your feet come out from under you. No winch
can keep up with the almost instantaneous changes in the
apparent wind. The trimmer has to sit down and trim the
sail by hand; sometimes with two crew on the sheet in blast
reaching conditions. The rest of the crew has to scrimmage
the full length of the cockpit, using all the kinetics the
rules allow to surf waves.
Pumping the sheet of so large a sail is sometimes out of
the question. But you can pump the sail with vigorous steering.
The spinnaker is so far in front of the boat when hung from
a bowsprit, that by simply pumping the tiller you also pump
Handling the spinnaker is no more than a two man job, but
those two had better know what they are doing. Setting is
simple; jibing can be another story.
The big decision when jibing is whether to run the sheets
inside or outside of the luff. Jibing inside the luff reduces
the amount of new sheet to be hauled in, but theres
still a handful. One crew should assist the trimmer by pulling
on the new sheet in front of the turning blocks.
On inside jibes the sail is jibed like a jib, with the
clew pulled across the forestay inside of the spinnakers
luff. For this type of jibe, the easing of the old sheet
If you overease the sheet, the clew goes past the luff.
Underease it and the clew fouls on the headstay. Having
marks on the sheets makes it easier, as does adding a pennant
to the clew of the sail. On a boat like the Ultimate 20,
having the crew roll the boat to weather just after the
jibe hastens refilling.
Leading the sheets inside the luff is the preferred method
in light to moderate air. In moderate to heavy air, its
best to lead the sheets outside. Then, as the boat is jibed,
the entire sail floats harmlessly in front of the boat.
The drawback is that it takes slightly longer for the sail
No matter what the jibing method, an asymmetric always
collapses when jibed. Therefore, you would expect it to
be at a disadvantage to a boat equipped with a symmetrical
spinnaker. However, the asymmetrics draft-forward
shape allows the sail to accelerate out of the jibe faster,
so the net effect is a wash.
To refill an asymmetric after a jibe requires the boat
to come out of the maneuver "hotter" than she
went into it. After the sail refills, the trick is not to
bear off until the boatspeed begins to rise.
The only real crew work disasters in sportboat racing come
at the leeward mark. Because an asymmetric has such a long
luff, the foot of the sail is lapping at the water as the
boat heels. This means that if the halyard is released while
the sail is still "pressurized", the sail will
always end up in the water.
Early sportboat regattas were comical at the leeward marks,
as boat after boat found themselves parked with sea anchors
after an attempted douse. After much experimentation, a
hierarchy of preferred methods has been learned.
The best way to douse an asymmetric is to jibe into it.
Make a last minute jibe while approaching the leeward mark
and leave the sheet cleated so the sail lays against the
weather side of the rig. Then the halyard is released and
the sail falls on deck.
When there is not enough space for a last minute jibe it
seems best to approach the mark from a few boatlengths above
layline. Then the boat is run off so the sail collapses
behind the mainsail. Without pressure, the tack line can
be released and the sail pulled into the companionway. Or
the clew can be hauled around to weather and then the halyard
released, if that is the side from which you plan to set
it later in the race. Either way, make sure the clew is
in the crew's hands before the halyard is uncleared.
Let's say you are approaching the mark on or below the
layline, and you don't want to run off to blanket the sail.
In this case, you can try a risky maneuver. Release the
tack line and let the tack of the chute blow out to leeward.
But the tack line must be very long and carefully flaked.
If it fouls, or if the crew can't hold onto the clew of
the sail, both the sail and the boat will end up out of
Racing one of these new pocket rockets is a challenge,
to say the least. But there is no better way to broaden
your sailing horizons than to learn a new trick or two.