Many cruising sailors favour a cruising chute over a spinnaker – but how do the two sails compare on different points of sail? David Harding tried both on the same boat

Cruising chute or spinnaker?

It’s often assumed that spinnakers are for racing sailors and cruising chutes for everyone else – but is that really the case?

What most of us see out on the water suggests that by and large, it is: few racing sailors are prepared to tolerate the limitations of a
cruising chute, and only a small percentage of dedicated cruising sailors regularly fly a conventional spinnaker.

Cruising chute or spinnaker? A yacht sailing a spinnaker during a yacht race

The popular perception of a spinnaker: a sail for fully-crewed race boats. Credit: David Harding

Despite this ‘them and us’ division when it comes to choice of sail, many cruising sailors race as well and most racers also go off on the
occasional cruise.

Even when cruising short-handed, however, the racers generally like to fly a spinnaker because they prefer it, they’re used to it and, in reasonable conditions, it rarely presents a serious challenge.

In this article, I will be examining how the two sails compare on different points of sailing.

A yacht sailing with a blue and white cruising chute

Cruising chutes are often used with snuffers by short-handed cruising sailors. Credit: David Harding

The boat we used for our trials was Jim Barham’s Contessa 26, Topaz. Joining Jim were James Clarke and Hyde Sails’ Paul Austin.

Topaz is equipped with a Hyde mainsail, furling genoa and spinnaker. Paul also brought along a cruising chute for the day.

Cruising chute or spinnaker? Angles of efficiency

We flew both the spinnaker and the cruising chute from as close to the wind as we could carry them to the broadest angle possible.

This is how they compared. The conditions are shown in the graphic above the photos.

A diagram showing wind direction

A yacht sailing under cruising chute

Cruising Chute: This is about as close as Topaz can sail in these conditions: the apparent wind is almost exactly on the beam. Credit: David Harding


A boat sailing under spinnaker under a blue sky

Spinnaker: Up and fi lling, the spinnaker is sheeted in and the pole is well forward to allow the boat to sail as close as possible, with the wind on the beam. Credit: David Harding


A diagram showing wind direction while comparing a cruising chute or spinnaker

Cruising chute or spinnaker? A yacht sailing under a blue, white and red cruising chute

Cruising chute: Now the wind is slightly further aft, and Paul has eased the tack line a few inches to
slacken the luff. Credit: David Harding


A yacht sailing under spinnaker

Spinnaker: As the wind comes aft, the pole is moved back so it stays roughly at right angles to the wind. At the same time, the sheet is eased slightly. Credit: David Harding


A diagram showing wind direction while comparing a cruising chute or spinnaker


A yacht flying a cruising chute

Cruising chute: Further off the wind, both the sheet and the tack line have been eased again to keep the chute flying. Credit: David Harding


A yacht sailing a spinnaker

Spinnaker: Bearing away further means bringing the pole further aft and easing the sheet to keep the spinnaker away from the mainsail. Credit: David Harding


A diagram showing wind direction while comparing a cruising chute or spinnaker


A yacht sailing under a cruising chute and mainsail

Cruising chute: With the wind well abaft the beam the chute is approaching its limits and the boat slows down substantially. Credit: David Harding


A boat sailing under spinnaker

Spinnaker: At this point, with the wind well abaft the beam, the cruising chute was only just filling but
the spinnaker continued to draw well. Credit: David Harding

Ways to keep the cruising chute working

It’s clear from these two sequences that the cruising chute is ineffective at deep angles downwind – typically from around 135° – when it collapses in the lee of the mainsail.

Easing the tack line and sheet will encourage it to fly by keeping it as far away from the mainsail as possible, but it will still be blanketed eventually.

This presents a problem because we often need to sail on a broad reach or a run, with the wind between the quarter and dead

A chart showing a cruising chute or spinnaker limit

A spinnaker’s useable range is nearly double that of a cruising chute
set on the same side as the mainsail

Having a sail that starts working at around 90° (often further forward in light airs) and stops at 135° is only a halfway solution, because from 135° all the way to 180° you need to do something else.

At these angles, any headsail that’s tacked to the stemhead – be it a conventional upwind sail or a cruising chute – is likely to spend
much of its time collapsed under the mainsail, causing irritation by contributing no drive most of the time and then occasionally filling with a bang that, in any breeze, will set the whole boat juddering.

A boat sailing under cruising chute

The point of collapse on the cruising chute: blanketed by the mainsail, the chute hangs limply.
There’s no more scope for adjustment. Credit: David Harding

We should differentiate here between a typical cruising chute and the sort of asymmetric spinnakers carried by race boats.

For a start, asymmetrics are normally set from a retractable bowsprit that helps project them clear of the mainsail.

They’re also cut in such a way that they will ‘rock’ around to windward when the boat is sailed with the wind well astern, and that’s a further help in getting them into clear air.

A yacht sailing away

The spinnaker keeps going. Dead running: here the cruising chute would have no chance but the pole projects the spinnaker into clear air. Credit: David Harding

Yet another factor to bear in mind is that the sort of boats that carry these asymmetrics tend to have a performance bias, so their speed is likely to increase substantially as they head up from a dead run towards a broad reach.

Their increase in speed will more than offset the extra distance they sail by ‘tacking’ downwind.

How far it’s worth heading up is determined by a calculation of the boat’s VMG (velocity made good) – its effective straight-line speed towards its destination.

This is a relatively simple calculation using speed and angle that race-boat navigators will be making regularly, especially on longer legs.

A cruising chute on a sailing boat

In flat water and steady winds, a cruising chute can be flown goose-winged. Credit: David Harding

Compared with race boats, a typical cruising yacht will see its speed increase only marginally as it heads up from a run, even with all its sails working efficiently at every angle.

This means that tacking downwind is usually a slower way of getting home, quite apart from the extra work it involves.

Cruising sailors are often prepared to sail a little more slowly in exchange for an easier life, whereas having to keep gybing a cruising chute on what should be a leisurely downwind leg is both harder work and slower.

One further factor limiting the downwind efficiency of many modern cruising boats is their swept-back spreaders, which means the boom can only be eased to around 60° from the centreline.

As a result, the projected area of the mainsail on a run is substantially less than with a sail of the same area on a boat with in-line spreaders.

Without an effective downwind sail, many modern cruisers can be frustratingly slow when the wind comes astern.

Cruising solutions

If you want to use a cruising chute on a broad reach, one solution is to drop the main and fly the chute on its own.

That means lowering the mainsail either when head to wind before hoisting the chute or when going downwind – which isn’t always easy.

Then, should you need to make upwind again, you have to hoist the main with a following wind or after dropping the chute and rounding up.

A yacht sailing past the coastline

Spinnakers are not flown only by large and athletic crews. Credit: David Harding

Although the mainsail’s lee is the cause of the chute’s collapse when you’re sailing along and want it to be filling, it’s easier to hoist and dowse the chute behind the main.

Ideally, you want the mainsail up when hoisting and dowsing the chute but out of the way the rest of the time, and that’s not always practical.

An alternative approach, if you can keep the wind dead astern, is to sail goose-winged. That’s easiest in flat water.

A yacht with a pink sail

Cruising chutes are occasionally seen in races but are restrictive. Credit: David Harding

In a seaway it’s much harder to keep the boat on course; as soon as you start yawing through 20 or 30° the chute is likely to collapse – and, of course, you’re more likely to gybe inadvertently.

Solution number three when the wind comes well abaft the beam is to treat the chute like a spinnaker and fly it from the end of a pole
– but if you’re going to do that there’s an argument in favour of having a spinnaker in the first place.

At least you can gybe a spinnaker relatively simply if you need to and you’re benefiting from the extra drive and efficiency all the time.

Ups and downs

Surprisingly, a cruising chute can be harder than a spinnaker to hoist and drop. Because the tack is attached to the centreline, once the chute is about half-way up it often tries to start filling unless the boat is kept dead downwind.

With a spinnaker, the guy is left slack allowing the sail to remain in the mainsail’s lee until fully hoisted.

Continues below…

A crew dropping a cruising chute on a yacht

How to use a cruising chute

For non-racing sailors, a cruising chute is often the downwind sail of choice: it’s nothing to be afraid of, but…

Similarly, dropping can be easier with a spinnaker because easing the guy allows it to move right behind the mainsail.

Using a snuffer can make life easier, though racing sailors and those who regularly use spinnakers often find they don’t help and prefer
not to use them.

Which is best? Cruising chute or spinnaker?

Because it doesn’t have a pole, and its tack is attached directly to the boat, a cruising chute is often seen as the easier option for short-handed sailors.

In some conditions it is, but the difference is less than you might expect and any gain in simplicity comes at a price in terms of efficiency.

Some sailing clubs run races, or have divisions within their regular races, for two-handed crews, many of whom are husband-and-wife teams.

When you see a couple confidently hoisting, flying, gybing and dropping a conventional spinnaker, you realise that you don’t need a boat full of muscular crew to take advantage of it.

If you’re frustrated by the limitations of a cruising chute, there’s no need to be daunted by the prospect of flying a spinnaker.

As this article has shown, it gives you a lot more drive for your money

Enjoyed reading Cruising chute or spinnaker? We compare both sails on the same boat on different points of sail?

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