A lot of sailors say “running” downwind is their favourite point of sail. Why is that? It’s mostly because with the wind behind you the boat is stable and quite level (there’s limited heel). What you can get however is a rolling motion which can make those with slightly sensitive stomachs feel a little queasy. You also have to take some precautions, which we’ll discuss below.
Unlike other points of sail, when you’re running downwind you’re being pushed along, rather than pulled (…when sailing upwind and the sails are acting like an airplane wing). Therefore you need to expose as much sail area to the wind as you possibly can to maximize the push.
There are a number of techniques to achieve this. Perhaps the most obvious being a spinnaker (which we discussed in Issue #22). There are also other options, which might not give you as good a performance but which you can achieve with what you already have (and with less faffing about).
In most running downwind setups, your mainsail will be right out to one side. Without anything holding it out there, there’s a risk that it comes swinging over the boat to the other side (should there be a shift in wind direction, or if the helm has a lapse in concentration). This is called an uncontrolled jibe, and can be incredibly dangerous. To help prevent this from happening, you can rig a ‘preventer’. As the name suggests, it helps prevent, as opposed to avoid an accidental jibe, so don’t be over reliant on it.Most of the articles below cover how to rig a preventer, but here’s a short video explanation from Captain John.
Here’s a demonstration of an accidental jibe, it’ll be very clear why you want to avoid one!
Goose-winging with a poled-out jib
One of the best way to maximise speed when running dead downwind is by goose-winging. This technique basically puts your main sail on one side, and your jib on the other (which avoids it being blanketed by the main). Often your jib won’t want to stay there of it’s own accord – it’ll start losing air and flogging (loudly – it sounds expensive!). It does them no good whatsoever so you’ll need to get it “poled out”.