Cruising Downwind Performance

Downwind cruising should be a good combination of comfort and speed. Selecting the ideal sail plan to accomplish that is an art that differs not only from boat to boat but also depending on the conditions.

The simplest and most economical way to sail downwind is to simply pole out your headsail. While this is effective if you have a good overlap, it doesn't provide much off-wind power if you have a short-overlap or self-tacking headsail, so you will frequently look for a way to increase off-wind power.

You can comfortably carry more sail area than you might think by sailing farther off the wind because there is less apparent wind at that distance. After some practice, you'll be able to adjust your course constantly to maximize the impact of the wind and your sails.

In this article, we will look at some of the most common downwind options for cruising sails.
Symmetrical Spinnakers

A symmetrical spinnaker's benefits include speed downwind and the ability to project a significant amount of sail area. They are versatile when used with a rotating pole, but the pole requires a downhaul and an uphaul to keep it stable, so there is a lot of rigging involved. They project a sizable area when reaching, but their shape is less effective than an asymmetrical sail.
A symmetrical spinnaker with a cut out and wing in the center that acts as a soft batten helps to stabilize the sail. They do have some advantages over traditional spinnakers for cruising sailors. It's not easier, but it's more stable in strong winds. When cruising, a snuffer sock is frequently added to make hoisting and dropping safer and easier.
Asymmetrical Spinnakers

For cruising, asymmetrical spinnakers have traditionally been paired with snuffer socks for hoisting and dropping. Top down furlers have grown in popularity in recent years. The top down furler works by allowing the sail's tack to swivel and wrapping the sail from the head down around a soft torsion rope. An asymmetrical spinnaker designed specifically for furling will have softer corners and a flatter cut, but it is still possible to retrofit an old sail to a top down furling unit.
When sailing angles downwind with an asymmetric spinnaker, gybing maneuvers must be much more frequent, and unless the wind is very light, will usually require snuffing or furling it to gybe if you are short-handed. The advantage is that it can be used to reach in lighter conditions and is easier to set up tacked onto the bow without requiring a pole from the mast. They can be worn with a furler, but some people prefer the sock. They can go dead downwind when tacked on the center line and the mainsail is hoisted; however, be aware that once you start to get overpowered, it happens quickly and will require sea-room to shadow the sail behind the mainsail if using a sock.
Cruising Code Zero and Screecher

The advantages of code zero sails include being more durable and gentle than a spinnaker, as well as being easier to trim due to the straight luff and internal torsion rope. The disadvantage is that they can become heavy on larger boats, and because they are not as large as a spinnaker, they are not as fast for deeper reaching or running.
The Code 0 can typically be set up with the furling line led aft to the cockpit, which has the advantage that it allows for partial or full furling as needed without requiring anyone to move forward. It cannot, however, be used to sail deep, though it is surprising how deep you can sail with one if you ease the halyard/luff and allow the sail to sag to windward, similar to an asymmetric, but the halyard tension must be restored before furling.
Another benefit of using the Code 0 spinnaker is that it allows you to sail through a wider range of wind angles, allowing you to sail remarkably close to the wind or as deep as you could with an asymmetrical spinnaker. Additionally, because it can still be used partially furled, you can effectively reef it and use it in situations where you wouldn't be able to use a normal-sized spinnaker.

If you are looking for downwind sails gear or hardware for your sailboat, please call us at 805.930.9210 or email us at