How NOT to gybe a spinnaker

Chaos reigned supreme on deck.  “Gybe the spinnaker” came the roar from the skipper (the boss in charge of the whole boat).  It was almost simultaneous with a strained “Noooooo!” from the foredeck crew (in charge of operations at the bow or front of the boat).    

The spinnaker is the gigantic blue and white sail on the navy blue boat here or the light blue and white sail just visible on the white boat.  On both, you can see the pole sticking out from the mast to support one corner of the spinnaker.  In a gybe, this pole needs to be moved from one corner of the spinnaker to keep the sail supported and under control as the boat changes direction (like from the direction the white boat is going compared to the navy boat).

The spinnaker is the gigantic blue and white sail on the navy blue boat here or the light blue and white sail just visible on the white boat.  On both, you can see the pole sticking out from the mast to support one corner of the spinnaker.  In a gybe, this pole needs to be moved from one corner of the spinnaker to keep the sail supported and under control as the boat changes direction (like from the direction the white boat is going compared to the navy boat).

From my vantage point in the pit (goalie-type position in the center of the boat), I could see clearly that the release line on our spinnaker pole was not working.  In short, the pole had a death grip on the spinnaker, making a gybe an almost guaranteed hot mess.  

Our foredeck crew and mast man (kind of like his executive assistant) were both right up at the bow, possibly stuck together, with the mast man holding onto the foredeck crew’s legs as he flailed at the pole over his head in an attempt to manually pry the rope controlling the spinnaker loose from the pole. 

The trimmers were poised to go gorillas on the winches while flipping the mainsail over to the other side of the boat, as the skipper started our turn.

We were cutting it close with another boat, trying to gybe just ahead of them to take a controlling position for the final reach to the finish line. We had been sailing together for quite a while and could generally pull off some pretty slick moves without a hitch.

With a hitch?  Well, that changes things. 

Being on a race crew is not only about knowing what to do.  As with most sports, having each person knowing what to do is only half the battle.  (Shameless plug: you can win that half of the battle with our specially designed Quicker Crew course!). 

But once you know what to do, you still need to be aware of each other and really work together as a team.  If not, you’re going to have… some difficulties.

Here’s where I would love to say that I heroically mediated between the foredeck crew and the skipper, delaying our gybe so the spinnaker could be kept in flight without it or the foredeck crew coming to grief, while the trimmers executed a flawless flying gybe.  Perhaps the tactician would give a slow clap.

Let’s pretend that IS what happened.  Our competitors respectfully saluted our grand gamble as we pulled ahead and won the race.  Some doves flew overhead at the finish line.  We windmill-high-fived, celebrating our epic victory with the golden light of the setting sun glinting off our oiled skin.... oh. That got weird.

Or…

“Man, I’ve never heard someone use the word ‘spatula’ with so much passion before!” exclaimed the mast man, shaking his head in quiet wonderment as we folded the jib together on the dock.

He was relatively new and hadn’t gotten used to some of the salty talk on board when things got heated.  I looked ruefully over at the foredeck crew who was missing the hat that formerly hid his bed head.  The two jib trimmers hauled a huge sodden mass of sailcloth up onto the deck, one of them rubbing his solarplex where I might have planted my elbow at high velocity during the confusion. 

The main trimmer came up behind us, his thick beard damp from prolonged contact with the soggy spinnaker. “Hey, at least we didn’t hit anything, right?” shrugged the main trimmer.  

The skipper gave a snort and smiled.  “Let’s go eat.”  He led the way up the ramp to where the other crews were all chatting and enjoying a hot lunch together in the clubhouse. 

As we passed their table, we jokingly saluted the crew of the other boat that beat us across the line.  Their tactician grinned and gave us a slow clap while their skipper toasted us from the new plastic mug that was his prize for victory.  

The stakes are not exactly high in weekly club-level racing.  We got it all wrong today.  But maybe next time we'll click once more as a team and get the gybe just right.  Win or lose, I have yet to sail in a race where the whole crew isn't laughing together about the shared moments of brilliance and spectacular failures by the time we sit get back to shore.  


*This is the first in our ‘Sailing Stories’ series.  We’ll sporadically share random tales of sailing, as part of the long tradition of gently embellished yarn spinning that goes hand in hand with the nautical world. 

**Confession: since this did not take place on a sitcom set, there was less slow clapping involved on the actual day.