Downwind Sailing - Preparation | Sailing Blog - Technical Hints and Tips - Sailing Television

Downwind Sailing - Preparation

For anyone planning a tradewind crossing of the Atlantic - Canary Islands to the Caribbean - planning for downwind sailing is important. Heading east to west in the tropics generally means the wind at your back, and this will also be the case on passages across the Pacific. So we have to prepare for 3000 miles of (hopefully) downwind sailing, and we haven’t done that with this boat. In the next few weeks I will be setting her up to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible.

The Downwind Rig

Prevailing winds on the standard transatlantic route will be almost dead astern. Sailing with the wind this far aft means we need to pole out a headsail. While bigger crews might try to fly a spinnaker, we use a jib or genoa. Some boats even have two poles allowing them to put out two headsails. The twizzle rig is another alternative... google it ;-)

Here is our basic setup - main well out (with a preventer) and genoa poled out opposite.

Pole Setup

In this picture you can see our pole downhaul running up to the pole end from near the shrouds. This has worked well enough for occasional use but it is better to have a foreguy. This will be a line running from the foredeck back to the pole end. That’s a project I am working on now, putting a block on the foredeck and running the rigging for it back to the cockpit. I figure $200-300 for this. We already have a nice pole topping lift and a very nice system controlling the pole inboard end on its track.


Genoa sheet

In our case we have an inboard genoa track, so the sheet rubs on the lifeline when it is poled out. This won’t be good for a long crossing so I set it up running out the gate. This isn’t a very good long term solution so I plan to run the sheet aft t a block on the aft corner. This will reduce stress and friction as well.

Balance the helm

For many long downwind miles, the autopilot will be steering and we want to be sure we have the boat as well balanced as possible for easy steering (actually we would want this also if we were hand steering). Today wasn’t a bad day to test since tide against the swell was producing a bit of a roll. The transatlantic will be rolly since you are generally running in 15-20 knots with seas astern. In our experience these can be 2-3 meters. I find our very deep keel steadies the roll quite a bit. We draw over 10 feet with the keel down and that does seem to help. Also the twin rudders seem to make her track very well downwind. For our previous boat Two-Step (which was a full keeler info here) it was tougher to balance downwind. I found we had to reduce the mainsail to double reef so she didn’t slew around. This effectively moved the centre of effort forward so she didn’t want to round up.

Autopilot Setting

Reduce the autopilot settings to match the seas and use minimum power. We have a Raymarine Autopilot system tat has a "response" setting. By default this is set at 5 every time you turn on the breaker. I generally reduce that number (making it less sensitive) and have been using a setting of 3. For rougher water the boat will naturally weave bit around her set course, so a higher setting just means the autopiot is doing more work correcting when the boat would come back anyway. I have been trying settings of 1 and 2 and they seem to work very well. You might try adjusting the settings on your autopilot to see what you can get.


With our swept spreader rig we will need to watch chafe on the spreader ends. I will be adding chafe patches to the sail where it rubs on the spreaders. I will do this for the 1st and second reefs since we are likely to use these on the breezier days. Discs of the adhesive sailcl;oth about 20 cm in diameter work well and are easy to apply.

I also take a very close look at reefing lines, sheets and blocks etc to check for any small chafe. Over a long passage this can add up quickly to a bigger problem. This one passage will be more downwind miles than we have done so far in the 8000 miles we have sailed Distant Shores II.


The tradewind passage across to the Caribbean should be an enjoyable crossing. It will take between 2-3 weeks so time spent preparing for it is well worth it. And will help make it fun!
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