This is going to be a slightly more technical article where general understanding of sailboat lexicon is helpful. I will define several words for the uninitiated, the sane, the non sailors.
Sheet- Nothing to do with bedding, this is the line that attaches the corner of the sail to the boat and allows sailors to trim their sails
Spinnaker- Big, bright, colorful sail designed to go downwind, but more complicated and powerful than the jib
Jib- Also known as a headsail, this is the front sail in most pictures of sailboats, and ours is furling so it rolls around the headstay for easy storage when we are not using it
Headstay- support for the mast that goes to the bow of the boat, the jib is attached to it
Knot- unit of measurement for boat speed. One knot is slightly faster than one mph
After a few days of light breeze, my dad asked me, “Where exactly do the trade winds start?”. It was blowing 8-12 knots and steady, so we had our A symmetrical spinnaker, also known as the MPS – multi purpose sail – deployed. The MPS saved us a few days on the Pacific crossing so far by increasing our boat speed in light air, so it was crucial for the rest of the trip.
Despite all of the literature saying “never fly your spinnaker at night”, we did and it was glorious, until it wasn’t. Our infallible logic was that nobody else was as good at sailing as us, and since we race with spinnakers at night, they are a bunch of wimps. I had five hours of hand steering with eight knots of boat speed, which my dad followed with more of the same. He even got to see the moon set, so when I came up, the stars were the only light. As we did our watch changeover the spinnaker collapsed. I maneuvered the boat to where the sail should have filled with wind and Dad sheeted in but it was still flapping after several seconds – usually it doesn’t take that long. I said “I think we lost the sheet” as it continued to flail in the stiffening breeze.
We did, in fact, lose the sheet. The wind continued to build and was up to 25 knots. The sail was hourglassed, wrapping around the headstay. It was 3am, my dad and I tethered to the pitching foredeck with headlamps straining to illuminate the top of the mast, hoping to discover that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It was.
We had three options. First we attempted to manhandle the sail and unwrap it by hand, which almost worked before our grip strength gave out. We had two more wraps to undo before we could drop it, but it broke free from our grasp and instantly was back to looking like a maypole. Our other options were to leave the sail wrapped around the headstay overnight and look at it in the morning, which would have probably shredded it, or send someone up the mast, which in big seas and wind, was incredibly dangerous. Option 3b was to wait until calm weather before sending someone up, but we just got into the trade winds so that was at least three days away. I thought of a simple solution, if we turn the boat so the wind comes from the other side, also known as gybing, it should unwrap. Miraculously it worked and we were able to get the sail down with no damage. Crisis averted.