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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Lessons Learned from Our Circumnavigation: Spinnaker vs Twins

Bill Norrie

Bristol Channel Cutter
February 7th, 2018

Moving from coastal cruising to bluewater cruising one is faced with new sailing conditions.

Approximately 80% of most west-about tradewind sailing routes provide running and reaching conditions in steady 10-20kn breeze and 2 meter swells, day after day, with regular late afternoon and evening squalls.  These squalls (20-35kn) arrive within 5 minutes and generally depart within 30 minutes. At least 40% of this downwind sailing is running with an apparent wind angle (AWA) of greater than 135 degrees, where the “twins” are an ideal rig. Above 135 AWA, reaching headsails and mainsail work well, as we are all familiar with from the coastal world.

Racing fleet with spinnakers flying

Downwind coastal and racing fleets often hold the spinnaker and even a poleless gennaker in high regard.  Wing-on wing, i.e. opposing mainsail to leeward and roller furling jib (RFJ) poled to windward, is another popular sail rig.  In brisk breezes, a solitary leeward RF jib also works well.

The “Spinnaker Sock” has simplified and eased the physical work of hoisting and, especially, striking the unruly chute, but to bring the “Big Boy” under control by the usual “ma and pa” geriatric couple, or childbearing-age cruising crew on the high seas is the most common, dangerous sail trim maneuver.

The spinnaker or gennaker sock requires the foredeck crew to work with both hands above their head on the foredeck, while trimming the douser control lines.  The spinnaker is an all or none sail.  It functions only in a narrow breeze strength window of 6-15 true wind speed (TWS), and obviously it is not able to be flown in a reduced size.  After dousing the chute, the sock then needs to be struck from the foredeck and mast position, which is also a two person job.

This situation has now been eclipsed by the combination of a 2.2 oz nylon drifter, with a spectra luff rope and continuous line furler (also called code zero furler).  This 105% – 125% sized nylon sail (similar to the old-fashioned Genoa light air Dacron jib) is flown to leeward and twinned with the working Dacron RFJ poled to windward. The main sail is struck and under cover, with the boom secured and out of harms way. These twinned, furling headsails put the spinnaker or gennaker to bed.  Hands down.  No question.

Flying the twins using one pole

Twins stabilize the boat with the centre of effort (COE) far forward with starboard and port forces equal.  Most importantly, the twins are 100% titratable; i.e. easily furled down, even to bare poles, and then redeployed by one crew from the cockpit in all breeze strengths.

At zero knots, the sails are stabilized by the poles in the swells; at greater than 30 knots they would be completely furled and the vessel can run under bare poles. The pole or poles may be left up overnight and taken down the next day in daylight. Or the twins can be later unfurled to size, with diminishing breeze, day or night.  The poles are far above the ocean swells, whereas the boom is vulnerable to catching the swell and breaking with the preventer deployed to protect the crew from the boom in an accidental jibe.  The twin sail area changes can all be done by a solitary crew member in the security of the cockpit using the twin rig only.

Flying the twins with storm trysail as a balance sail

The Volvo/Vendeé boats all use continuous line furlers (CLFs). The current 2017-2018 Volvo Race boats all show these (CLF) furlers at the jib tacks of every headsail they fly. The CLF twins allow a double-handed crew to regularly fly this rig into the night.   The twins are beauty and function, at least in the view of the Terrwyn crew, co-skippers Cathy and Bill.

To read Jimmy Cornell and Brian Hancock promoting and selling their spinnakers to the average old cruising couple is disappointing to say the least.  In our experience, few (~1/50) circumnavigating boats deploy a spinnaker at all and rarely at that. A spinnaker flown after dark in the open ocean by a double-handed husband and wife crew is definitely not recommended.

For those who are interested in hearing more, Terrwyn’s expanded “Trade Wind Sailing” tactics and general sail plan is available on YouTube, including a 7 part lecture given to the Calgary Chapter, and multiple at-sea videos.  I recommend “Sailing South of Madagascar” for our best 7 minute sailing video.


  1. Nick says:

    Great article. Agree with you 100%, twins win hands-down for ocean work.

  2. blake hoffert says:

    Hi Bill
    An excellent article with which I strongly agree having sailed from Argentina to Florida.
    I have a 44ft cat and a sister ship has recently purchased a Elvstrøm Sail ‘Blue Water Runner’ and I am interested in your opinion of that sail.
    It uses CLF from a 5 ft fixed sprint pole but also has option of being a screecher as well.

    1. Bill Norrie says:

      Hi Blake,
      Thanks for commenting . Appreciate your “support”. I looked up the “BWR” sail. It is functionally very similar to our rig. I must add that one of our syestem’s strengths is that it minimizes carrying around extra sails. The RFJ never comes down or off and the Drifter would be 1/2 the size of the BWR . Either system uses a CLF or a CLF and RFJ to work thesesails safely by one crew in the cockpit and are totally titratable , able to be fullered to sizes to match the wind strenght, so more similar than different. I wanted to add that these rigs work as well or better than a spinnaker because as Blue water sailors/crusisers we (dare I admit ) we NEVER play the jib sheet and coordinate the “curl ” with a man on the helm to provide lift , its square surface area exposed to the breeze that counts. Cheers, Bill

  3. Ken Wright says:

    Hi Bill, I appreciate your suggestions on downwind sailing setups.
    i have 2 thoughts, based on 1000+ races and a few ocean passages.
    If one is using the spin pole, then it stays attached to the mast and is simply lowered to the deck (topping lift)
    and held down with the downhaul, all from the cockpit.
    Also, you may not be aware of the use of a spinnaker umbilical…a light line from the centre of the spin to a hatch on the deck (foredeck or cabin top). this line leads from the outside of the bag underneath the foot and over the pulpit back to the hatch. it does not interfere with the flying of the spin on either tack.
    Only 2 crew are required….1 in cockpit dropping the halyard (quicker than you think)
    … 2 in the cabin pulling the cord down through the hatch
    When as much of the bag as possible is through the hatch THEN the spin guy is released with the corner pulled to the hatch by #2. Then the sheet is released…same story.
    Then #2 connects spin halyard to guy/sheet shackles and puts outside hatch and closes hatch.
    One minute only for slow crew….racing crew in 30 seconds…..
    Then the pole is dealt with . Yes an autopilot is useful for 2 min.
    Dropping the halyard quickly and pulling in the umbilical quickly breaks the shape of the bag ,and dumps most of the pressure, so it is not hard to pull down.
    Think about it. I know that it works very well.
    cheers Ken

    1. bill Norrie says:

      Thanks Ken. No I had not used a spinnaker umbilical. Sounds interesting HOWEVER it still means an all or none spinnaker vs the twins fully titratable to breeze strength. Our forward hatch is also hard to reach underway and nasty movement , to be avoided. staying in cockpit is vital after dark esp as you mention .our spinnaker and whisker poles are also supported 100% without sail clew sheet by fore guy, afterguy and topping lift., all run from cockpit as well.and requires us to venture forth to put to bed therefor in daylight only. thanks again for reading an commenting.

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