“Never Fly Your Spinnaker at Night”

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 to deploy 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.

The colorful sail is the MPS

Despite all of the experts 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 wouldn’t be possible for at least three days. 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. Dad turned the boat, the wind started blowing the other side of the sail and just as I hoped, the spinnaker quickly unwrapped. Dad was quick to free the halyard, and I pulled it down as fast as I could. Miraculously the sail came down with no damage. Crisis averted.

Post spinnaker meltdown conditions

10 thoughts on ““Never Fly Your Spinnaker at Night”

  1. Pretty scary, especially since it occurred at 3 am! Glad Hardy didn’t send you up the mast to unwrap the sail. How do you get up there, anyway? Shinny?
    Thank you for the glossary of boating terms for us landlubbers. Wrote them down to refer to for later posts.
    Love, Dale


    1. Travis and Hardy – great riveting tale. You guys should wear heart rate monitors to gauge the tension out there on the deep blue sea. Your title on the piece carried the date 3/10/19 – which was three weeks ago, so I am assuming the date is a carryover from earlier posts, but it’s very interesting back here on the East Coast to have a sense of when these things are actually occurring. Be safe, Boys and keep the posts coming. They are so interesting.


      1. Hi John, basically we have a big backlog articles from when we couldn’t post and were at sea. I’m backdating them to keep them in chronological order, but they will be out of order when they are first published. We’ve had some interesting times out here so far!


    2. Hi Dale, there are lines called halyards used to pull sails to the top of the mast. I would attach one of those to our bosun’s chair (a seat with straps on in) and my dad would haul me up the mast. It was a crazy night and the adrenaline was pumping.


  2. I realize I missed an opportunity to suggest some better headers for your latest commentary , e. g,,
    “no sheet, Sherlock” or “You guys need to get your sheet together!” or ” apparently you guys don’t know sheet from Shinola…”. I’m sure Dale could come up with a few more…😊

    Take care, boys! xox. Dutt


  3. I realize I missed an opportunity to suggest some better headers for your latest commentary , e. g,,
    “no sheet, Sherlock” or “You guys need to get your sheet together!” or ” apparently you guys don’t know sheet from Shinola…”. I’m sure Dale could come up with a few more…😊

    Take care, boys! xox. Dutt

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Now boyz, Looks like a lot of tall grass out there. That was a RK type adventure and solution . GOOD JOB avoiding the mines so ye shall not perish in peril !!!!!! Check the next mail buoy, I sent you sum of my triple chocolate chip cookies.


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