Comet Versa – Using the Spinnaker


Andrew Simmons.

I thought it would be a good idea if I wrote an article on Versa asymmetric sailing. it’s unashamedly aimed at beginners and some of you will have read some of it before in the owners’ manual.

To start with, I should get thoroughly used to the Versa with two sails before trying it with three!

The Versa’s asymmetric isn’t anything like as big or powerful as one on the new breed of racing dinghy but can still be quite demanding and unforgiving at times.

Try the spinnaker in light winds first, get used to hoisting it, dropping it to windward and leeward, tack and gybe with it. See how close to the wind you can carry it when sheeting in tight and also see how close to downwind it will go. Try all this with the jib furled to start.

The Versa spinnaker is unusual in that it has a swivel ling pole, which allows the pole to swing to windward which allows more wind to reach the spinnaker when sailing deep downwind. The pole should only be swung to windward if you are wanting to sail downwind i.e. racing to a downwind buoy. It can also help to bring the centreboard up to balance the helm (the feel on the tiller, no lee helm just a bit of weather helm). For reaching, it can be better to ease the windward swinging line so the pole moves down to the middle straight ahead position. This helps stop the spinnaker luffing. The centreboard would certainly need to be further down to stop any lee heim and possibly fully down in stronger winds.

Hoisting the Spinnaker to Leeward

1. Sail on broad reach with the wind coming from the right hand (starboard) side. if the sail is stowed on the left hand (port) side then this will be a leeward hoist, which is easier than a windward hoist.

2. Make sure both swinging lines are uncleared.

3. The crew pulls the halyard until the sail is up and the pole is fully out.

4. The helm pulls the windward swinging line to move the pole to the centre or to windward.

5. Pull in the spinnaker sheet just enough to stop the front of the sail luffing.

Hoisting the Spinnaker to Windward

When racing you may find you want to hoist the spinnaker on a particular tack but the spinnaker has been recovered or put in the bag so it is now on the windward side.

While the crew pulls the halyard, the helmsman can help the spinnaker around to the leeward side by pulling the leeward sheet. Do not pull the sheet too tight or it will be difficult to raise the spinnaker all the way.

Trimming the Sails

Sailing along on a broad reach the spinnaker should have increased the boats speed and if the same course was maintained the apparent wind direction will move forward. The boom should be pulled in a bit to match this wind direction.

Often in light winds, the broad reach that the Versa sails with the mainsail and jib turns into a close reach when the spinnaker is up! Keep the dinghy on a steady course and constantly adjust the spinnaker to suit the changing apparent wind direction. You will soon notice that there is an optimum course relative to the wind where the Versa seems to come alive and perform best. If you are just out for fun, try and hold this course and enjoy the ride.

If you are racing and the course set has a directly downwind leg, the fast racing asymmetric dinghies will shoot off on a series of broad reaches with gybes all at a vast rate of knots! These boats cover a much greater distance than a conventional spinnaker dinghy going straight downwind but their extra speed more than makes up for it.

As the Versa has a much smaller asymmetric and is a lot smaller than those hot new dinghies, a slightly different technique must be used. The Versa needs to sail the most direct route it can to the downwind buoy.

Centreboard Position

In any breeze the centreboard will need to be kept fully down to balance the dinghy, but in right winds on a deep broad reach it could be usefully raised a bit. if you haven’t got enough centreboard down you will soon know about it with lots of lee helm. (The tiller will seem to push you.)

Gybing the Spinnaker

The spinnaker gybes just like a normal jib, but with the extra task of swinging the pole. Just before the gybe, the helm should release the windward swinging line and the crew releases the sheet, the pole will automatically blow down to leeward, and the crew should cleat the other swinging line tight. Gybe, the crew sheets in, and away you go!

Spinnaker Halyard Adjustment

If the halyard is eased off in an attempt to make the spinnaker fuller off wind, unlike a Trio, the Versa halyard is combined with the pole outhaul system so if the halyard is eased the pole comes in.

To make the sail fuller for better down wind performance, either a larger bowline can be put in the halyard at the top of the sail or a small “loop Knot” put into the halyard 1′ or so from the head of the spinnaker. In theory this knot can be undone if the wind drops and you want a tighter luff in the spinnaker for closer reaching. On Versas the halyard always needs to be tight to make sure the pole is fully extended.

Dropping the Spinnaker to Leeward

Release the swinging line and the spinnaker sheet, grab the leeward sheet just forward of the block, release the halyard and pulls the sail down by the leech. When it’s all down and in the boat the sail is pulled back bringing in the pole with it.

The sail must be brought in and put in the bag outside of the jibsheet. Keep pulling down on the halyard until it’s tight and put it in the clip.

The helmsman does not seem to have much to do so he or she can help by trailing the loose spinnaker halyard back to check it’s clear before the spinnaker is dropped. There is nothing worse than getting the spinnaker half down only to find a tangle jamming in the cleat.

The helmsman is often the one who adjusts the swinging line as the crew might be sat to leeward especially when sailing downwind.

Dropping the Spinnaker to Windward

The spinnaker can also be dropped and put in the bag on the windward side. You might want to do this because it will be on the correct side for the next hoist. Uncleat the swinging line, let go the leeward sheet and pull the sail around the forestay with the windward sheet.

As soon as the corner (clew) is around the forestay the halyard can be uncleared and the sail pulled down and brought in. Do not forget to put it in the bag by passing it under and outside the slack windward jibsheet. It is even more important to make sure the halyard is clear of tangles on this type of drop.

A Few Golden Rules

1. Get confident with two sails first and start in light winds.

2. Avoid crowded waters. Remember the visibility is very restricted when the spinnakers up, Even if you’re just cruising, have someone on “lookout duty” down on the leeward side.

3. Don’t make hard work for yourself by oversheeting (pulling the sails in too much). Continually “play” the spinnaker by easing it out, keeping it on the verge of luffing.

Onto the Race Course

The accompanying diagrams shows a typical “triangle and sausage” course comprising a beat upwind to a windward mark or buoy, a reach out to the wing or gybe mark and another reach to the downwind or leeward mark. The next lap is a beat upwind to the windward mark followed by a run downwind to the downwind mark.

Occasionally, the “triangle” is replaced by a ” P ” course where after rounding the gybe mark you reach to another mark that is placed half way up the beat, then a short downwind leg to the leeward mark.

This reaching leg can be good fun in Versas (and Trios) as it gives the heavyweights a chance to keep their spinnakers up, whereas the lightweights might struggle. However it can also reward those that err on the side of caution and possibly avoid a capsize by dropping the spinnaker for this leg!

Let’s assume you’ve rigged the Versa with the spinnaker stowed in the port side bag, and the course is as in the diagram.

Diagram of the racing course

Refer to the notes for the detail at each numbered point.

The set of the sails and the angle of the pole should look roughly like the diagram.

Position A.

You’ve gone round the windward mark and are now aiming for the gybe mark. The crew will probably be sitting in the middle of the boat or even to leeward if it’s light winds. Leave the centreboard down for now and the jib out but set for a reach. Hoist the spinnaker and the helm should only pull the windward pole swingers enough to get the pole to the straight dead ahead position. Trim the sails and don’t forget the jib. Once the boat is trimmed and up to speed, the centreboard might be raised if the helm finds he’s getting weather helm. Any “pull” on the tiller to keep a straight course is bad for speed.

Position B.

Approaching the gybe mark, the helm should loosen the windward pole swinger a little and the crew then tightens the leeward one. Once around the gybe the pole should end up straight ahead again and very little speed lost when gibing. Once settled on the new reach the crew could release the leeward pole swinger. l this one is left tight it can be difficult to drop the spinnaker quickly.

Position C.

Assuming you are on the ” P ” course, gybe around the gybe mark as normal but now sheet in, sit out hard and try and aim for the next mark. Put the centreboard fully down. While you were coming down to the gybe mark, look ahead and if boats ahead are struggling to keep their boats up with spinnakers up and you know they are heavier than you (let’s assume they are more skilled as they are in front) then I would drop the spinnaker before the gybe mark. If you do this you will need to hoist the spinnaker again after the next mark on the short run. Do this after gybing around this mark and you will have a leeward hoist and sail on a starboard deep reach.

Position D.

As you approach the leeward mark put the centreboard down if not fully down already, tighten the outhaul and a bit and maybe the downhaul as well. On this course if you drop the spinnaker to leeward as normal it will result in a leeward hoist on the next “sausage” downwind leg, but only if you leave the windward mark with a gybe and sail downwind on port (position E).

Position E.

You’ve made it up the beat again, you’ve gone round the windward mark, gybe and hoisted the spinnaker. This time furl the jib away as it won’t really work on the downwind leg. Generally you need to sail as deep as possible, as close to sailing straight downwind as you can.

Before the crew sheets in, the helm should pull hard on the windward pole swinger, swinging the spinnaker round to get as much wind in it as possible. The crew should ease the sheet to get the spinnaker to balloon out to windward. The boom should be right out to the shrouds and the centreboard can be quite well up but if the boat becomes unstable, then put it down a bit.

Position F.

After making the decision to gybe, the helm should completely loosen the windward pole swinger. The crew should now fully tighten the leeward pole swinger and release the sheet. The helm should steer through the gybe. The crew now sheets in on the spinnaker sheet just enough for the sail to fill.

So often in a race you might have a battle with another nearby dinghy and get carried away looking for extra speed by coming round to more of a reach to beat your competitor, meanwhile the boats ahead of you are pulling away and maybe even the boat that was behind you and your adversary is now ahead of you both.

In the excitement of the race it’s easy to loose site of the “big picture” and forget where you’re meant to be going! lt really is a question of “speed versus distance”. There is no hard and fast rule on the best way downwind. It depends on so many factors such as wind strength and tidal flows.

In very light winds, to try and sail as low downwind as possible might not be best. The mainsail can flap and the spinnaker collapse causing the boat to stop dead now and then. in this case it can be better to get the boat moving by sheeting in a bit and coming round to a deep reach. As soon as you can though, try and sail deeper back towards the downwind mark.

Sometimes it’s better to sail 1 % times the distance if you can do it at 2 times the speed.