Gybing in heavy airs

By Tony Bull - reproduced by permission

It is justifiably the most harrowing manoeuvre to undertake on a yacht. A lot can and often does go wrong. Anecdotes and imagery abound of horrendous wipe-outs and roundups from gybes gone awry on windy days. No wonder so many sailors approach it with trepidation.

Every sailor of any experience has been involved in these mishaps – they are an everyday facet of sailing. But there are a few rules that can make it a lot more feasible to perform these gybes with a strong chance of success. There are two components in gybing a boat – changing the course and transferring the sails from one side of the boat to the other. It is a reasonably tricky manoeuvre in its own right, but can become incredibly difficult with the strong wind factor placing so much extra load on the sails. Not to mention the waves making the boat a much more unstable platform to perform on.

Symmetric spinnakers

With Symmetric spinnaker the gybe is made easier if the spinnaker is kept flying right through the process. If it collapses and resets, the extra impact of the spinnaker popping when resetting can really make things awkward mid- or post-gybe. So it is imperative the helm and the spinnaker trimmer keep the sail stable right through the gybe. It amazes me the number of helmsmen who just turn the boat with scant regard for the flying of the sail and expect the trimmer(s) to be able to cope. Both need to keep an eye on the spinnaker as much as possible – the trimmer to keep it flying and the helm controlling the turn to make it as easy as possible for the trimmer to do so.

If the spinnaker remains full during the whole process then the chance of it being successful are greatly enhanced. A common mistake is to be overly concerned about the spinnaker getting away and as a result being sheeted on too tight to keep it close to boat. This makes it harder to fly and if it is sheeted on too much the sail will wrap around the forestay or get blown between the mast and forestay on the wrong side. When I am the spinnaker trimmer, I like to take the sheets into the bow and make a mark on them that I can refer to from my normal position. If I have the sheet eased out to close to this point as we gybe, I know the forestay will not hook up the spinnaker as we change course.

Asymmetric spinnaker

With an asymmetric spinnaker it is a completely different kettle of fish. We actually have to collapse the spinnaker and pull it inside-out to reset on the other gybe. On heavy days make sure you run the sheets on the spinnaker with the lazy sheet run around the outside of the spinnaker luff rather than in between the spinnaker luff and forestay. This outside gybe will reduce the chances of the spinnaker catching and semi setting mid-gybe, causing an unwanted load-up on the helm. Once again it is imperative that the sheet is eased off to a point where it will not catch on the forestay as you swing the boat.

Go Fast

In strong winds it is always much easier to gybe when you are at maximum speed, preferably surfing down a wave. This is when the apparent wind in the sails is at its least and therefore reduces the load. This makes it a lot easier to manhandle them from one gybe to another. So time your gybe for this, get on a big wave and as you race down it the reduced load will help enormously. If you do slow down as you begin to gybe, don’t go through with it. Wait until a more appropriate time.


The single biggest problem with heavy air gybing is invariably getting the mainsail across from side to side. It is a big sail with a lot of load and it can take a huge amount of effort. There is no easy way. To winch it on means the helm will load up and threaten to broach the boat. Doing the gybe at high speed does help a lot and some sportsboats or high performance boats can make it a simple, one-handed flick through as the sail loses its apparent wind. But on most reasonable-size boats it may take a few extra people (and strong ones at that) to haul it in and throw it across. Once the sail has gone past centre it is very important to ease it out as quickly as possible to unload the helm.

Always go into the gybe with your vang pulled on – you want the sail to swing across the boat like a big barn door in one motion. To have no vang on and a lot of twist in the mainsail means the bottom will gybe before the top and completely throw the boat around. This split-loading can also have a catastrophic effect on the sail, not to mention the rig!

Once the gybe has been completed it is a good time to ease the vang to keep the boat on its feet. The sheer weight and impetus of the mainsail crossing the boat is the majorfactor in the boat rounding up or broaching. So a quick vang ease to depower post-gybe will help lessen this effect and keep the boom out of the water if the boat does fall over. On boats that have limited crew numbers it is a good idea to use your resources to gybe the main first and then gybe the spinnaker. This is popular in three man keelboats and works very well in the really big winds where two men are needed to get the main across.


The steerer is a key person in a gybe. It is extremely important to keep the boat level, and the helmsman will have to be right on his game as the crew are trying to get through the gybing procedure. As I stated earlier, the impact of the main being thrown across is usually what causes the wipe-out. To negate this it is important to steer in an S curve as you go through the gybe. Turn the boat into the gybe, but as the boom passes over your head and the mainsheet is being dumped on the new angle, steer away back downwind to unload the rig and keep the yacht level. Your course through the water should resemble a shallow S.

On an asymmetric boat this is more pronounced. The steerer will have to sail a bit higher out of the gybe as he will have to help reset the spinnaker by making sure the course is high enough to catch the wind, but on a windy day it will load up quickly. So be ready to bear away as soon as it sets. The trimmer will need to throw the sheet off quickly as well to enable this. Remember the boat will be a lot easier to steer keeping the spinnaker in front of the boat and not to one side causing unbalance, so keep steering under it.

Be Prudent

You are steering into a gybe and the boat is rolling to weather, the boom is cocked pointing skyward and you can tell it will get ugly if you go through with the gybe. Pull out, even if you are trying to round a mark. Try again when you are under control or, if you can’t see it happening at all, then drop the spinnaker and complete the gybe or even “granny” tack. It can take a long time to recover from a botched gybe in heavy airs so be sensible and take the course of least potential loss. An out of control gybe can be very dangerous to your crew.


When you have been wiped out gybing (it will still happen occasionally despite all your precautions) concentrate on getting back on your feet in methodical fashion. Don’t hold the helm in full lock tugging at it to get it back under control; you are simply stalling the boat. You need to get water flowing over the rudder to regain control, so hold the helm in the centre and wait for the boat to semi-right itself. Once it does this it will be easier to get steerage and bear away.

If the spinnaker is flapping in the wind and won’t let the boat right itself, it will need to be dropped. You may have to fire the brace on a symmetric or the tackline on an asymmetric. In extreme conditions, ease some halyard as well. Make sure you have no knots in the sheets as they may need to run fully out in order to haul in the spinnaker. It can have a lot of load on it and be hard to recover.

So to gybe successfully in heavy winds, you need to make sure you are going fast down a wave if possible, keep the boat flat, the vang on hard through the gybe and eased immediately after, be ready to steer back down as the gybe is finished, and all the while keep control of your spinnaker by flying it out in front of the boat and not to one side. Easy!

Obviously the key to mastering the technique is practice – make sure you get out there and put yourself through the paces. The skills will come and you will learn a lot about the limitations of your own boat and when it is plausible to gybe. Maybe the nature of your boat will require a conservative approach, but more likely you will find yourself comfortable with gybing in strong winds. You will never know unless you incorporate it into your training.

There is a great deal of satisfaction in really nailing gybe after gybe in conditions where others around you are struggling.

Tony Bull

Bull Sails
33 Eastern Beach Road
Geelong 3220
phone 03 52222930
mobile 0438 212930
skype tbull2005