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Global Solo Challenge: Spinnaker sleeve, all you need to know with Etienne Giroire

by Global Solo Challenge 27 Apr 13:37 BST
ATN Spinnaker sleeve in action © Global Solo Challenge

The spinnaker sleeve, also known as the spinnaker sock, has changed single-handed sailing. It was not until the mid 80s that Etienne Giroire setup ATN and started producing a system that truly worked.

Legendary sailors like Eric Tabarly had been trying various systems with their sailmakers but none was working reliably. When sailing single-handed, a reliable way to hande spinnakers is essential in the success of a racing campaign. We interviewed Etienne Giroire, in all respects the father of the modern spinnaker sleeve which he has been producing since 1985.

Etienne Giroire on the history of the Spinnaker Sleeve

What was the state of the equipment when you got involved in the single-handed sailing scene?

The beginning of the story for my ATN spinnaker sleeve was when i got involved with the second BOC. I happend to sail to Newport where the race was going to start from with Bruno Peyron with his big catamaran. There were many French people in Newport working on the BOC boats. Half of the fleet was french of course, offshore sailing was dominated by the French. It's there that I discovered that all the spinnaker sleves that even the top skippers had didn't work at all. Not even the ones made by Doyle, North Sails and such. There was nothing safe on the market and I saw an opportunity there.

So, this is when I started making spinnaker sleeves and founded ATN Inc. to make a business out of it and to this day it is still my main source of income. We've made 30000 ATN Spinnaker sleeves to this date, it's still our most successful product.

In 1985 there were very few self tailing winches, and every single boat had a windvane. This was the beginning of heavy duty long-distance single-handed offshore sailing. I was born in France, so I am part of that generation that had many legendary sailors. I met personally sailors such as Alan Colas, Eric Tabarly, Jean Yves Terlain and Bruno Peyron. These guys at the time were the sailing stars, and I always thought that one day I would like to get into single-handed sailing.

Where you a single-handed sailor yourself?

I was a professional skipper for a while when I came to America. As a skipper I sailed on some of the most beautiful boats around back then in the '80s. I always wanted to do single-handed sailing, it was the logical follow up for me. So, my first single-handed race was the OSTAR in 1992. I found an abandoned formula 40 built in America in 1985, near Newport, Rhode Island, and I bought it as a wreck for 15,000 dollars.

I fixed it up and then in 1992 I sailed over from Florida to Plymouth to do the OSTAR by myself. I got there on a Wednesday and the race start was the following Saturday. I had all sorts of issues with the boat after the delivery but this was the beginning of single-handed sailing for me. I was doing it because i thought that any sailor worth his soul should do it, as a personal challenge. Then I realised that I liked it a lot, it was great, it was a lot of fun, it was very fulfilling.

Thanks to my spinnaker sleeve and to my circle of friends I always remained in that milieu. I was part of that little crowd of single-handed sailors, we are like a little family.

The first Mini Transat, an epifany!

Let me also mention this, I had the luck to be in Antigua in 1977, as a young sailor on a Swan 65. I was just a deckhand, but there i witnessed the arrival of the first Mini Transat, in Antigua. I had no idea it was coming there, I just happened to be around when the Minis arrived. I saw Daniel Gilard winning the production class on his 6 and a half metre boat. Jean-Luc Van Den Heede finished too, Loïck Peyron was there, lots of sailors that went on to incredible careers.

When I saw them arrive I thought wow, this is where it is at. It really impressed me and there and then I decided I would do so single-handed sailing sometime. So that is my opening to single-handed sailing, and what an opening, I was mesmerised.

What were the problems with the first spinnaker sleeves?

You are opening a big subject for me here, I think I can call myself an expert here. I've thought about this for a very long time as you can imagine, over the years. The genesis of the spinnaker sleeve is mostly associated with Eric Tabarly, and in fact yes it is in a way. After Eric Tabarly won the OSTAR in 1964 with Penduick II he kept the boat, brought it back and did all the races around Europe. 1965, 1966, he was always with Penduick II and he kept optimising the rigging. Then he did the King's cup, I think it was called, in scandinavia, in the Baltic sea.

The swedes are very busy sailors, there are lots of good sailors there and Eric went to a boat show there. He walked around the boat show and he saw something that caught his attention, which was the very beginning of the spinnaker sleeve. That swede who had this system wanted to gain market share and had patented it. But that product didn't go anywhere really and didn't get noticed. It is only in 1976 when Eric Tabarly wanted to do the OSTAR in Penduick VI that he went to see his sailmaker. He told Victor Tonner he wanted to do the race but needed something to handle the spinnaker.

Eric Tabarly had been thinking about it quite a bit, it was the result of very careful design. Because he then won the race and his name was Eric Tabarly the rest of the sailmakers noticed in earnest the spinnaker sleeve concept. As you can imagine every sailmaker around France started to make their own spinnaker sleeves!

The problem of the control line

The main problem with the spinnaker sleeve is that no one had solved the problem of the up line inside the spinnaker sleeve. The line would tangle up with the spinnaker most of the times. So every time you would raise the spinnaker sleeve would end up tangled up with the up line inside the spinnaker sleeve. There were other issues but I reckon that was the main problem.

So, what I did is I created a side sleeve along the main sleeve which contains the control line which is a closed loop. You pull on one side to pull the spinnaker sleeve up and pull on the other side to pull the sleeve down. I had solved the problem of the line tangling up with the sail as they couldn't touch each other. The side sleeve is also made from a different colour to the main sleeve so that you could always see if there was a twist. You could see a twist in the spinnaker right as it was coming out of the spinnaker bag. That also helped a lot and solved lots of problems during hoist of the closed spinnaker sleeve.

The ideal funnel

Another component was the funnel at the bottom, the opening that takes swallows the spinnaker. It used to be round, I've seen some of Eric Tabarly's original spinnaker sleeves. It was a very crude affair, the bottom ring was just a steel ring with small attachment points to it. The first step was not to make them round but go for an oval shape. The oval shape works better, takes care of the spinnaker better, it takes less space in the bag. It is easier to shove down through a hatch, oval is a much more logical shape.

Also, it is a double funnel, with nice and smooth inside opening. We made them of kevlar and epoxy, and came in 5 different sizes for any size boat. They also looked good so I knew that when a sailmaker would see one he'd want it. Very quickly when I started up I had Hood ordering from me, even North Sails then afterwards they copied my design, Hood also copied me. Otherwise every small sailmaker within America was very thankful that someone had come up with a proper spinnaker sleeve.

It catered for a lot of sailors, and because now sailmakers had a system that worked. Many sailmakers ended up selling a lot more spinnakers compared to before. Because of my sleeve the spinnaker became a cruising sail, not just a racing sail. Now we've made 30 thousand of them and we keep selling them. I have added other ATN products like the Mastclimber but to this day the spinnaker sleeve is our main product. We make spinnaker sleeves of 60 metres, the funnel, or hoop at the bottom is almost 2 metres wide.

When you normally supply the sleeve the control line is made of quite a particular material?

Yes the line is quite special, we tried different types till we found the ideal one. At the time of Eric Tabarly's spinnaker sleeves they were using three strand rope as a control line. But a thre strand rope uncoils very badly, it get kinks in it and rounds and twists. When you used it those twists would get stuck inside the head block at the top of the spinnaker sleeve. The first move was to find a rope that would not kink at all, it would fly up and run back without any problems. The control line must be very soft because you don't want it to kink at all.

The control line is a closed loop, on one side you pull it to raise the spinnaker sleeve. When there is no load whatsoever, just the weight of the sleeve. Now, to bring it down, especially on big boats, there can be big loads, because your spinnaker doesn't want to fold. Sometimes you can literally hang onto the spinnaker sleeve control line and it doesn't come down even with your full weight. So the closed line that I supply is made of two different lines spliced together.

The up line is a small line, 6mm or 8mm or 10mm line depending on the size of the boat. It is very soft, nylon, because I want it to have some stretch in it. This allows us to use a small Harken block at the top. There is no need to use a big heavy fat block at the top which only adds weight aloft. Once the small line is through the block it is spliced with a heavier line, 12 to 15 mm, depending on the boat size.

The most common mistakes

The most common mistake that i see people do when they want to lower the spinnaker sleeve is to ease out the sheet. If you ease out the sheet on a broad reach the spinnaker remains in the airflow and it flies forward. If you are on a small boat no big deal, you can bring it down, your own weight will do it. On a bigger boat that is a bigger problem, obviously the loads at play are much higher.

The best way is to run the control line through a snatch block (a ratchet block) on deck behind the mainsail. Then whilst sitting down you pull down the spinnaker control line in total safety. The spinnaker will be in the lee of the mainsail protected from the main airflow. To do this you bear away to a broad reach or run, without going too deep, as you might gybe. So you just want be on a nice deep run. Then you winch the spinnaker sheet in, this way you bring the spinnaker in the lee of the mainsail.

The spinnaker will loose part of its pressure and become more manageable. At that point you let completely go of the tack line. This needs to be long enough and have a stopper knot at the end so it doesntt fly off. The spinnaker will just fly loose in the lee of the mainsail. It is then that you take quickly down the spinnaker sleeve, open the hatch and dump the whole thing below in total safety. By easing the spinnaker halyard you can then take it down very easily. That is the way to drop the spinnaker especially on big boats.

The evolution of the funnel

I should to mention that I am now manufacturing the new SOFT ATN spinnaker sleeve Hoop. I developed it for the Vendée Globe competitors and the mega yachts: it is a hoop that is unbreakable, smooth, and light. It is what I recommend for any spinnaker over 12m / 40'. It is paired with the head pennant in spectra + softie, so it is light, extremely strong and validated by several wins at the Vendée Globe.

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