Marine News from the Great Lakes

Stop the Flop by Adding a Whisker Pole

Published: Thursday, December 3, 2020
By: Ken Quant, Broad Reach Marketing

As the famous sailing quote goes, “gentlemen don’t sail to weather.” Certainly good advice for a civil cruiser, but any experienced sailor also knows downwind sailing is not always a picnic. Depending on the strength of the wind and sea-state, it can be either the sail of dreams or highly, highly annoying. In particular, in light to moderate winds and confused seas, downwind sailing can be just as rough as beating into the wind with its washing-machine motion and flopping sails. To compound the discomfort, that noise from that sail flop can drive you crazy and take life out of your expensive sails.

The problem for most cruisers is that sometimes the quickest way to your destination is dead downwind, so you either tolerate the annoyances, or head up on a faster point-of-sail to eliminate the pain. Of course, the extra distance needed to sail on that faster angle can add significant time to your passage on most cruising boats. Neither of these solutions are great but adding a whisker pole is a simple way to tame that headsail downwind.

A whisker pole connects to the clew of your headsail at the base of the mast and will virtually eliminate headsail flop and bounce during unruly downwind sails. It helps project the headsail out to weather and away from the mainsail’s wind shadow. This allows it to remain filled and stable so that you can drive the boat down to that preferred deeper angle without the sails going limp. A whisker pole will even allow you to safely sail “wing-on-wing” with the mainsail on one side of the boat and the headsail on the other.  If the wind is consistent enough, you can “prevent” the mainsail over to the opposite side of the headsail by connecting the boom to the rail. This is a technique commonly used by long-distance offshore sailors in the trade winds and it gives you surprisingly good downwind performance in most conditions without the hassles of setting a spinnaker. 

In recent years, asymmetrical spinnakers have become popular, especially on more modern performance boats. A whisker pole can also be used with these sails if it is long enough because they are subject to the same dynamics as jibs or genoas. 

There are two basic types of whisker poles available. One is a static length pole that is usually sized to work with a specific sail like your jib or genoa. The other type is an adjustable length version that can be used across a wider variety of sails and sized on the fly to perfectly work with most headsails for optimum performance. Telescoping whisker poles also allow you to furl your headsail in high wind conditions. The main determinant between the two is cost. The adjustable ones are significantly more expensive. 

If you think a whisker pole may be right for you, there are a few things to think about before purchasing. The most important is the size. It’s recommended that a pole be the same length as the foot of whichever sail you prefer. For adjustable length poles, it should be sized the same for the largest sail you plan to use. Another consideration is the actual strength of the pole. If you plan on sailing in heavy conditions, you may want to consider a heavier pole, keeping in mind that adjustable poles are weakest when fully extended.

Two other important considerations are how you will store the pole when not in use and how it connects to the mast. The easiest way to store it is on the foredeck and then simply add a ring to the front of the mast for pole connection. The other way is to store it vertically in front of the mast on a track system that allows it to be deployed and stored with the pull of a line. This is often used for larger poles and requires much more installation, but it is a great system once it’s in place. 

No matter what type of pole you choose, a whisker pole is an excellent upgrade to any boat. Once you try one, you’ll wonder why you didn’t add it earlier. After all, if you need to go downwind, why not enjoy the ride?

About The Author

Ken sails his T10, Eclipse, out of McKinley Marina in Milwaukee. He races regularly with the South Shore Yacht Club and MAST sailing club.

This article first appeared in the Buyer's Guide 2021 (Nov/Dec 2020) of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt magazine.

tags: Retrofitting, Sailing

2021 jan / feb

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