How To Rig, Set Up & Hoist a Spinnaker: Full Guide

Written by William Porter in Sailing Guides

It's a beautiful, sunny day. You're sailing upwind, and all around you colorful spinnakers fill and flutter as boats sail the other way. Wouldn't it be nice to break that sail out of the bag for the ride back down wind?

How do you rig, set up and hoist a spinnaker?

  1. Prepare the kite by finding the corner and making sure the sail isn't twisted
  2. Run your spinnaker sheets and guys before attaching to tack and clew
  3. Attach the halyard to the head, make sure it is outside the headstay
  4. Set the pole by putting the sheets and guys in the pole's jaws
  5. Hoist the pole
  6. Hoist the spinnaker

It seems daunting, but the principles of setting a symmetrical spinnaker are the same whether you're on a 420 dinghy or a fifty foot racer. You may have a few more lines, but the general process is: prep the spinnaker, connect the lines to the sail, hoist the pole on the windward side, then hoist and trim the sail.

There's a little more to it (of course), and each step has a few things to get right. But we've got you covered.

Spinnaker Basics

Spinnaker come in two types: symmetrical and asymmetrical. The symmetry refers to the length of the sides of the sails. An asymmetrical spinnaker has a tack and a distinct leech. A symmetrical spinnaker has both sides the same length and requires a pole to position. The tack and leech of a symmetrical sail depends on which side the pole is on - the pole side is the tack. Symmetrical sails aresailed deeper downwind with the poles, whereas asymmetrical spinnakers are better at reaching and sailing at higher angles, and are simpler to set and handle.

In this article, we'll focus mainly on symmetrical spinnakers.

Spinnaker Controls and Lines

A spinnaker connects the boat with a halyard at the head of the sail to hoist it, a sheet on the leeward side, and a guy on the windward side. While the guy is a pole control, some boats use dedicated sheets and guys, while some use a single line that switches function between sheet and guy as the sail jibes from side to side. In either case, the guy connects to the sail, not the pole, and runs through the jaws of the pole. The sheet is used to trim the sail as we adjust the pole with the guy.

When the sail is set, the lines not under load are the lazy guy or sheet. The sheet on the windward side and the guy on the leeward side will be the lazy sheet and lazy guy. Not all boats use separate sheets and guys, so there may not be a lazy guy/sheet.

Pole Controls

The spinnaker guy is used to control the position of the pole, and the angle of attack of the sail to the wind. Trim to keep the pole at a right angle to the wind. Most poles have a pole topping lift and a downhaul (also called a foreguy). On the mast, there will be a pole car or ring with an attachment point which sets the inboard height of the pole. The topping lift and foreguy keep the pole in a level position, perpendicular to the water, and can be adjusted to match the car position. The pole is trimmed lower in lighter air, though a detailed spinnaker trimming guide is outside the scope of this post.

Steps to Set it

For simplicity, we'll assume you’re out for a simple sail, not racing. The jib is down, and you're ready to turn the boat down wind. Racers do things a little differently, but you will need to master a basic bareheaded set before you get too fancy.

Step 1 - Prepping the Kite

("kite" or "chute" are common nicknames for a spinnaker)

To launch a spinnaker from a bag without twists, someone needs to run the tapes when the spinnaker is packed. Find the head of the sail, run it between your fingers down one edge of the sail (or the tape, referring to the thicker reinforcement on the edge), making sure there are no twists or loops. Continue until you reach the next corner. If you find any twists or loops, work then out. Leave that corner outside the bag, then start again at the head and run the other tape. Leave the head and two clews out. This step can be done at the dock before leaving, or any time, as long as someone knows it has been properly packed. Do not assume.

You can bring the spinnaker bag up on deck for this, or leave it in the v-berth if there is a hatch suitable for pulling it through. This is more common when racing.

Step 2 - Plugging in the Spinnaker

Spinnaker sheets and guys should be run before connecting to the spinnaker. Most sheets and guys go through a fairlead or turning block at the stern of the boat before running forward to the spinnaker.

When you run the lines, take care they are free and outside of all lifelines, jib sheets and other obstructions before connecting to them to the tack and clew of the sail. Take the halyard and connect it to the head, making sure it is outside the headstay and any pole control lines or other entanglements.

Step 3 - Setting the Pole

If the pole isn’t normally stored on the mast, one end will need to connected. Attach the topping lift and down haul, and put the sheets and guys in the jaws now.

Whether the jaws go up or down is a personal preference, and some boats work better than others in different positions. Some argue that spinnaker forces pull up, so that jaws-down holds them from flying out when it's opened. Others maintain it's easier and more natural to slap a non-loaded sheet and guy into a jaws-up pole, with gravity to hold it there. This is a question of comfort and experience.

Hoist the pole to the proper height for the breeze.

Step 4 - Hoist!

When the boat is turned off the wind to the angle you want to sail, you are ready to hoist the sail.

With the pole set forward, hoist the sail up quickly with the halyard, then trim the sail and pole once it is at full hoist.

  • You won't be able to trim the pole until the spinnaker is mostly up, but move it back when you can. It will help it fill and stay under control.
  • To get the sail up more quickly, you can have someone at the mast to "bump" the halyard by pulling it at the mast while some else takes up the slack.
  • If launching from a bag, attach the bag to the boat or you might launch it into the air with the sail. Most bags have Velcro straps or clips on them for connecting to lifelines or other boat hardware.

Setting Problems

There are a few problems to watch for when setting. Twists, hourglasses, and forestay wraps are the most common, and can even happen with a properly packed spinnaker with no twists, though that is the most common cause of hour-glassing and wraps.

Avoid pulling too hard or panicking when these things happen, it just wraps things tighter. You can worked twists out if you stop the hoist and pull down from the center of the foot and the clew. If it's too bad, lower the sail, untwist it, rerun tapes, and re-pack the sail.

The Bear-Away Set

When racing, it's slow to run "bare headed" without a jib. Racers will do a "bear-away" set, which is like the set described above, except on a few points. It's easier and faster, but it takes more people and a little preparation since a quick set is the goal.

  • The jib is left up, so the spinnaker halyard runs outside the jib when the spinnaker is connected.
  • The spinnaker can be hoisted earlier as the jib will blanket it.
  • The pole can be trimmed back when the sail is out and filling.
  • The jib is "blown" - quickly released and gathered on the deck for the down wind leg.

Asymmetrical Differences

Since there is no pole, an asymmetrical spinnaker is far easier to rig, set, and hoist. There are only two sheets, and no pole controls.

  • Most boats will have a short pole on the bow for attaching the tack. There may be an adjustable tack line to set the tack height for different conditions. The pole may also have adjustments.
  • The lazy sheet should run around the outside headstay.
  • Many asymmetrical spinnakers have a dousing sock or turtle, which makes launching easier. The sail is hoisted inside this cover, then the sock pulled down to let the sail fill.
  • Some asymmetrical spinnakers can be rigged on a detachable, lightweight furler.
  • Asymmetrical spinnakers can not sail as deep down wind as a symmetrical sail with a pole. However, they can be carried at higher angles of reaching and can make up for the lack of down wind capability with more reaching speed.

Did you find the answer to your specific question?
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j smithson

You stated for symmetrical spinnaker that the pole is kept “perpendicular to the water - wrong - it should be perpendicular to the wind

Bill Wheary

The pole is kept perpendicular to the MAST to that the luff of the spinnaker is as far as possible from the mast and luff of the main.

Although the pole is usually set as close to perpendicular to the wind, in most cases the pole is adjusted so as to position the the CORD between the spinnaker tack and clew perpendicular to the wind.

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