For non-racing sailors, a cruising chute is often the downwind sail of choice: it’s nothing to be afraid of, but how do you use it to best advantage? David Harding offers some guidance
Last summer I was doing a photo shoot with a cruising couple aboard a 32-footer.
Upwind sailing produced the best angles for the shots, so we covered a fair distance to the west.
As we then faced the prospect of a slow and potentially rather tedious run home, I asked whether any downwind sails were lurking in the cockpit locker.
They had a cruising chute, I was told – but it had only been up once, with the help of a more experienced friend.
None of them had been convinced that it was the right size for the boat and, lacking confidence in how to use it, the owners had left it in its bag ever since.
As we eased the sheets and pointed the bow eastwards, I could hear the cruising chute crying out from the bottom of the locker.
Here we were, about seven miles directly upwind or our destination on an absolutely glorious summer’s day with a flat sea and a steady 12 knots of wind.
We just had to take pity on the poor sail, so we dragged it on deck, rigged it up and hoisted it.
It worked perfectly, bringing the boat to life, getting us home faster and making life a lot more fun into the bargain.
We experimented with hardening up and bearing away to cover all the angles, and threw in a few gybes to show how easy they could be.
We were three on board, but everything could have been managed easily with two – especially given the engagement of the autopilot.
I headed for home that evening with the owners promising to make more use of the chute in the future.
It’s hard not to wonder how many other cruising chutes are confined to lives of darkness in the depths of a locker.
Nonetheless, confidence in setting, handling and, importantly, dousing has a major part to play, so that’s what we’ll be looking at in this feature.
For our testing we headed out on a Saare 41 with a crew of offshore racing sailors who, between them, had covered hundreds of thousands of miles and amassed an impressive collection of silverware at a pretty high level.
By the time we had repeated each hoist, set, gybe and douse about three times for the filming and photographs we had done more in three hours than most cruising sailors would in a month – and it was also blowing over 20 knots much of the time – so as it turned out it was no bad thing to have been slightly over-crewed.
Hoisting the cruising chute: no handling aids
Relatively few cruising chutes are used with no handling aids – snuffers, furlers and the like – but how easy is it?
1. The helm bears away to allow the chute to be hoisted in the lee of the mainsail. The mast crew is jumping the halyard, as racing sailors do, but it’s being tailed from the cockpit. Nobody would have to be on deck for the hoist.
2. Sailing the boat at the correct angle is what matters during the hoist.The cruising chute is nearly up but still hanging limply in the mainsail’s lee.
3. Now it’s fully hoisted and the cockpit crew can start to tension the sheet.
4. The helm brings the boat up a few degrees towards the wind.No longer blanketed by the mainsail, the chute fills. That’s it!
Dousing the cruising chute: no handling aids
This is the bit that tends to worry people – so what’s it really like with no snuffer or furling system?
1. As when hoisting, the first job is to steer the boat deep downwind so the chute is in the lee of the mainsail.
2. Now it’s totally blanketed.The halyard is being lowered from the cockpit and the sheet is used to pull the chute inboard under the boom. No one is on the foredeck.
3. There’s a lot of spinnaker nylon to bundle down the hatch, but no hurry as long as the halyard is lowered at the right pace.
4. Nearly all safely below decks and ready to be packed back in the bag ready for the next hoist.
Hoisting the cruising chute: snuffer
Using a snuffer is still the most popular way to handle a cruising chute, especially on smaller boats
1. A snuffer has to be operated from the foredeck. The chute in its snuffer is hoisted in the mainsail’s lee, then the mast crew uses the snuffer’s internal halyard to haul it up over the chute.
2. Again, the helm points up a few degrees. The idea with a snuffer is that the wind starts filling the chute as soon as the crew is ready, helping slide the snuffer up and over the sail.
3. With the wind now doing the work, the mast crew simply has to tail the uphaul line.
4. Chute filling, the helm bears away again and the chute is trimmed to the course.
Hoisting the cruising chute: top-down furler
Various types of furler for downwind sails have been developed in recent years and are becoming increasingly popular on larger boats.
The top-down variety is one that lends itself to use with cruising chutes.
1. The furled sail is hoisted in a thin sausage. On deck, one of the crew uses the continuous furling line (it can be led aft) to release the locking mechanism on the furler that stops the sail flying open if the sheet is pulled prematurely.
2. In the cockpit, a member of the crew tensions the sheet to start unfurling the sail. Note how it opens from the middle first.
3. Once started, it unfurls quickly. The top is last.
4. A few seconds later, it’s all unrolled and filling nicely.
Dousing the chute: snuffer
In theory, snuffing is easy – but here we had over 20 knots of wind…
1. Again, the first job is to bear away and collapse the chute in the lee of the mainsail. A crewman is ready by the mast.
2. With the chute collapsed, the mast crew starts pulling the snuffer down over the chute.
3. With a blanketed chute and a well-designed snuffer, this shouldn’t be hard work but it might take a while.
4. The halyard can now be lowered to bring the snuffed chute back down on deck.
Dousing: top-down furler
This should be the quickest and easiest way with a sail of this size in this amount of breeze…
1. It’s the usual start: bear away and collapse the sail. Don’t make life hard for yourself. A member of crew is on deck starting to furl.
2. This is 15 seconds later. The head of the sail is wrapped around the torsion rope first – hence the “top-down” designation.
3. All furled. It’s a tight sausage that can, if necessary, be left hoisted on upwind legs, unlike a chute in a snuffer.
With the crew we had on board, it proved quicker and more straightforward to hoist and douse the chute without handling aids.
This is how racing crews handle spinnakers all the time.
You don’t need lots of hands for this – a cruising couple can manage perfectly well, and life can be easier still with the help of an autopilot.
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The biggest chore might be repacking a chute that, after being bundled down the hatch, will be occupying most of the saloon!
Some racers are of the opinion that, on cruising boats over 12m (40ft) or so, a top-down furler is the way to go.
A snuffer can be more of a challenge when you have to stand on a heaving foredeck.
Whichever method you use, one critical factor is to have a helmsman (or an autopilot) capable of steering the boat at the right angle to keep the chute in the lee of the mainsail for hoisting and dropping.
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