On The Pointy-End

Santa Cruz 27, Hanalei, sailboat races downwind with it's bright red spinnaker, #1118, ahead of the crowd

Up on the pointy end of a 4-6 man boat, my job is most often rigging, hoisting, changing, re-rigging, and dropping the for-sails, including the most common request of “SKIRT!” where after a tack, I make sure the jib is clear of the life-lines so it’ keeps the appropriate shape. Depending on the skipper and trimmer, if they’re sloppy, some points of sail can be an opportunity for the jib to constantly move from one side of the lines to the other, back and forth, driving the bow-man to plunge themselves overboard and into the sea in order to escape the persistant commands to “SKIRT!”

In general, foredeck is an easy job, often non-intelectual and highly mechanical. As such, it’s been a nice reintroduction to sailing, helping put me into a position of 80% observation and 20% working at 250%.  Most novel to the new position however, is the magic of the downwind kite. The spinnaker, a kin to Andrew and my home-made sail for exclusive use on Boy Scout rafts of the Colorado River, the kite is a large hyper-light piece of cloth used on the downwind. Because of the squarefootage of these sails, they catch the wind easily and deliver a great amount of force on the boat, pulling into which ever direction it’s pointed. Yet all this force is gingerly controlled by only two tiny lines (one a ‘guy’ the other a ‘sheet’ depending on our direction to the wind) and a forward facing boom, the “Spinnaker Pole”, which is controlled by a line on top, “topping lift”, and bottom, “fore guy”.

The up wind tacks are easy for the foredeck, our job, as I had said, was to help the sail keep clear the life lines, add a little weight to the rail and maybe most importantly, sit in front and take any waves so the crew behind doesn’t get wet. However, the down wind life is a little less static, and the tactics of the skipper become much more engaging.

At the windward mark, it’s time to work. The act of hoisting a spinaker, is very unlike the unfurling of a jib on a comfortably outfitted Catalina 42′, it’s more akin to the management of 14 grandchildren on Christmas Eve. Just before rounding a windward mark, about two boats away, the foredeck sets the boom in position on the mast about head high as the crew in the cockpit adjusts the topping lift and the foreguy to stabilize it. Then, foredeck readies the spinnaker (we keep ours below a hatch that I open, but many bring the sail onto the deck in a bag) by leading the head, tack, and clue out of the hatch a bit, but not Too much. By now the boat has the mark on it’s beam and the skipper bares away, easing sheets and I jump on the halyard. Fortunately, the Santa Cruz 27 only has a ~30′ mast, so the job goes quickly enough. However, once the spinnaker is up, the hatch needs to get closed (else I’ll fall into it, again) and the jib needs to come down onto the deck (else it will go under the boat, again), then reset so it’s ready to go up again at a moments notice. So in a rhythmically psychotic ear-ringing numbness kind of way, this all gets done within about 30 seconds of the mark. At least that’s the goal.

Gybing a Sabot is an easy task, and gybing a Catalina 42 can be a bit jarring, but isn’t problematic, however gybing a spinnaker on any boat requires a strict attention to the task from everyone on board. Called for from the back, a gybe is initiated by methodically turning the boat downwind, easing the sheet and pulling the spinnaker pole back, then it is detached, frist from the mast, then from the guy. Depending on how quickly this process is reversed, the spinaker is free flying, controlled by two sheets attached to humans (hopefully humans with tree trunk arms and rock solid abs). Then as quickly as the spinnaker pole came off, the mast end gets connected to the previous sheet, now a guy, and then hooked to the boom. As this is happening, the boat is typically tossing about in the wind and waves and fluttering as the crew does their best at managing the pounding forces on their lines. Once the guy is set, the foredeck lets the skipper know and the gybe is completed by trimming the sail. The foredeck man then slips back into a position of most valuable weight and least windage.

Some regattas we have sailed in were designed in such a way that only one gybe is necessary to complete the race, while other races require, because of course, wind, or competition, many gybes throughout the downwind leg, giving me much desired practice but also creating opportunity for error. Between gybes, I often find myself laying down on the lee side of the boat and looking up at the massive canvas above; the seams tugging and pulling creating mesmerizingly dynamic textures and depth with every fresh piece of air. This romantic peace doesn’t often last long, and I’m usually up again dancing on the bow for optimal boat balance for surfing or for the next gybe.

In my opinion, the bow of the boat is the best place to sail. As waves crest over the boat, with the yaw and pitch magnified, it’s a roller-coaster ride, leaning off the bow watching the boat cut through waves is magnificent, like a champion of the sea. However, best of all, on the pointy end, I’m always first to finish.