This is what happens when you try to fly a spinnaker on a tiny boat it’s not designed for, without really knowing what you’re doing.
It was a blustery day on the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix for the annual Ironworks Regatta. Sailing from Boyne City to East Jordan brought the boats with their spinnakers across the lake in front of our house around 3:00 pm. With the nice northerly wind at our backs, we decided to join them. We hadn’t raised our spinnaker in almost two seasons, but what the heck, we got it out of the garage and gave it a try.
There was some debate between my dad and I about how exactly we should rig the sail. We own a beautiful symmetrical spinnaker custom-made for us by Yager Sails & Canvas in Spokane, WA. A Christmas gift for my dad from my brothers and I, its panels are yellow, green, and red, the colors of the Lithuanian flag. Traditionally we have sailed the spinnaker in pretty much the same style that my family does anything else: We bought it, hoisted it up, and figured the rest out later. My dad pointed the boat down-lake to run with the wind and cut the motor while I grabbed the sail bag and crawled up to the bow. I pulled the sail out of the bag (up to this point it had never occurred to any of us that there is a correct way to pack a spinnaker to guarantee it will deploy without getting tangled). Since we don’t have a spinnaker pole, one way we’ve tried to rig it is by tying a short line to one of the clews like a tackline and tying the other end to the pulpit rail, with both sheets tied to the other clew. (Yes, we were trying to make an asymmetrical spinnaker out of a symmetrical spinnaker.) However, I decided to raise the sail before tying that little line on, or even passing the sheets back to my dad at the tiller. I just attached the halyard and hoisted the sail into the heavens. Panic ensued. Let’s call this, Launch Number One.
I desperately reached my tack line to attach it, then tried in vain to get a hold of the sheets flying frantically in the wind high above my head. There was shouting. I pulled the spinnaker back down.
Launch Two was more of the same. The only difference is that I decided to tie my tack line on before raising the sail. I insisted that the line should be shorter, to better control the sail. My dad said not too short. It was still like four feet long. We raised the sail, it twisted in the wind like an absurdly surprised fish, sheets flapping. It didn’t work.
I sat on the bow in a pile of colors, frustrated. We decided that maybe we should give up on the tackline idea, and I untied one of the sheets and tied it to the other clew, attempting my best “bowline” (I put this in “quotes” because it only vaguely resembled a proper bowline knot, though thankfully it did hold). I passed the sheets one at a time back to my dad, not entirely sure I had them rigged correctly. I didn’t. Remember, I was not stuffing the sail back into the bag between launches, rather letting it sit on my lap in a lugen-themed heap. Launch Three and the sheets were twisted around the forestay.
One thing you should know about the Virskus family: We don’t give up. We were running out of lake with the marina less than half a mile away but I pulled the sail down, untwisted the sheets making sure that the entire sail was sitting in front of the forestay, and hauled it up one more time. With a brilliant pop, the chute exploded in the sky, a burst of primary colors. Success! In one smooth move I tossed the sail bag into the cabin, climbing back towards the stern and opening a cold bottle of beer. Just one—the marina was right in front of us. My dad gave me the honor of the first swig, and then I handed him the bottle. He handed it back to me empty. OK, we did have time, and drank one more before having to douse the spinnaker and start the motor.
The race competitors were having lunch and their awards at Murray’s Bar & Grill so we pulled on some dry clothes and headed up to join the party. On our way into the restaurant, we even got a couple of compliments on our boat, and on our chute! We were satisfied.
After my parents went home, and I was again alone at the cottage, I got to thinking about what the “right” way would be to fly a spinnaker on a Victoria 18. Turns out on Launch Four, we had more or less got it right—though I did find a few things online that would make it easier. Watching the other boats during our Tuesday night races gave me some good tips too. For example, packing the sail into the bag in an organized manner makes for much easier launching. And for a symmetrical spinnaker, a pole is a good idea.
Though my sailing skills have significantly improved during my time on Lake Charlevoix, I wouldn’t dare attempt a solo spinnaker launch (not yet), but with my new-found knowledge and perfectly packed sail, I was dying to let it fly. I was in luck. A couple of friends came up a few days later, and the wind picked up just in time. We planned a day sail up to Ironton to have the traditional margaritas and nachos at The Landing’s. Well, it was a beautiful day, and it didn’t take all that long to sail the six miles up the lake. As we slowly motored through the channel, I thought it would be fun to work up our thirst on the big part of Lake Charlevoix. My crew was inexperienced, but they learned quickly and we had the boat running on a beam reach, well heeled over and loving every minute of it. I said to them, “What do you say we try to fly that spinnaker?” I’d been telling them about the history of our little sail all the way up the lake and they thought it was a great idea.
We pointed the boat into the wind and furled the genoa. I climbed up to the bow and they tossed me the spinnaker bag. Working methodically (just like Wikipedia told me to) I secured the bag to the pulpit rail and handed the sheets back to my crew to rig as I’d instructed. Attaching the halyard to the spinnaker, I hopped back to the tiller. I promoted my pit (Wo)man (the position usually lovingly known on our boat as Beer Bitch) to trimmer, and moved my trimmer to the position of bowman to raise the spinnaker halyard. With my dad absent, I was the acting skipper, and I carefully brought the boat around to run with the wind. The chute popped once again, without even a single wrinkle.
As usual though, the wind was gusty and the waves were more than a few feet high. Without a spinnaker pole, it was tough to keep the sail properly trimmed. We enjoyed a few minutes of success before I sent my bowman up to douse the chute. My mistake was not keeping the boat on course while he stuffed the sail back into the bag. Instead, I thought it would be best to turn into the wind, attempting to stabilize the mainsail in irons, but instead catching a gust sending bowman and spinnaker into the water. Somehow, he managed to hang onto the boat, and back in position, the pit (wo)man grabbed the ladder out of the cabin to help her husband back into the cockpit Without hesitating she then turned to get the sail out of the water, neither husband nor sail any the worse for wear.
Needless to say, we were finally thirsty. With margaritas on our minds, we headed back to Ironton to dock the boat and order a pitcher—on the rocks, no salt. Hours later back at home, I pulled the wet sail out of the bag to dry. Sailing is like a microcosm of life: You learn something new every day. And no matter whether it’s exciting and rough or calm and relaxing, the one thing sailing always is, is fun.