Spinning in the Gulf of Mexico

Flying the spinnaker on a port tack.

Flying the spinnaker on a port tack.

When you have wanted to learn how to fly a spinnaker since you were a kid, and you finally have the chance in mid-life, you do whatever is necessary to take that opportunity. That is how I ended up sailing a Colgate 26 in the Gulf of Mexico in early December.  This happened thanks in large part to my friend, Deb, who offered me a class at Offshore Sailing School. Deb had won the course gift certificate at a Leukemia Cup Regatta silent auction, but her busy schedule had prevented her from using it. Given my lack of income, financing the trip was a challenge, but I could not let this chance pass me by, so I made it happen, $37 motel room and all, and am very pleased that I did.

Offshore Sailing School has a facility at the South Seas Island Resort, which is at the northern tip of Captiva Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, just south of Fort Myers. The resort is a great place to spend a few days in December. The Colgate 26 sailboats are of an ideal design for students, and for racing. Among other features, the boats point amazingly high, and crew can handle just about everything from inside the exceptionally roomy cockpit. That is, everything but setting and jibing the spinnaker (a large, usually colorful sail, which flies something like a kite, and is often seen floating like a balloon in front of a sailboat).

Three other students attended the three-day Performance Sailing course: a retired woman from Tidewater, a woman who works for a Boston area manufacturing company, and a businessman who came all the way from Bogota, Columbia. Rosemary, Susan, and Tony are also experienced sailors, making us a well matched crew, including that we were highly interested in learning the spinnaker.

Instructor Bart Lowden demonstrates the correct stance for safely setting the spinnaker pole: feet wide, leaning against the mast.

Instructor Bart Lowden demonstrates the correct stance for safely setting the spinnaker pole: feet wide, leaning against the mast.

The first morning, we spent three-and-a-half hours in the classroom, with instructor Bart Lowden leading discussions, showing us Powerpoint presentations, and reviewing knots with us—including the difference between a bowline and a “dirty” bowline. It turned out that I was the only one who had read any of the highly technical textbook, having made it only about a third of the way through. My classmates and I were anxious to put all this theory to work in real life, so we were pleased when we headed to the dock at noon, to rig the Colgate 26 and then motor out to Pine Island Sound. As we exited the harbor, we were greeted by a curious dolphin, while a flock of pelicans and cormorants looked on from their row of perches. Once through the channel and into a deeper part of the sound, we raised sails and cut the outboard.

The wind had fallen, so we went out to the Gulf of Mexico, but stayed close to Captiva, practicing smooth tacking and jibing, as well as experimenting with the sail trim we learned about in class. After coming in for an hour lunch break, the five of us went back aboard, and rigged the boat with the spinnaker, using the seven steps we learned in the classroom. Out in the gulf breeze, my classmates and I rotated through crew positions and flew the spinney, grinning widely.

Saturday’s morning sail was cut short due to lack of wind, excessive heat, a swarm of hungry flying ants attacked our boat, and we learned that the Cutter insect repellent wipes in my kit did not ward off ant bites. After a long lunch break, we went back out for a nice sea breeze sail with lots of kite flying and a lovely run back to the harbor.

Sunshine, warm temperatures, and a reliable afternoon sea breeze make Captiva a great place to sail.

Sunshine, warm temperatures, and a reliable afternoon sea breeze make Captiva a great place to sail.

Sunday morning brought our final classroom work, another couple hours of instruction on the water, and, finally, our “free sail,” in which our team of three students went out without the instructor.  Our fourth student, Tony, had to forego the free sail due to time constraints with his travel.

The main lesson for me in the free sail was this: if the crew informally nominates you as skipper of the sail, accept the honor formally, and take full charge of the boat. Meaning, primarily, check your crew’s work on rigging the spinnaker before leaving the dock. Otherwise, you may find that most of your spin time is used up with resolving the twists in the rig, by a crew member bouncing on the foredeck in a choppy sea.

Once the issue was resolved, we raised the spinney, flew it, and doused it well. Unfortunately, in order to beat our way back to the dock on time, we had to limit our kite flying to about 15 minutes. On the way back, Rose, Susan and I agreed that what happened on the boat stays on the boat, and we would tell Bart that “everything was fine.” I joked that our instructor may have had a hidden camera or recorder on the boat.

As we came from the gulf into Pine Island Sound via Redfish Pass, Susan spotted our instructor on the seawall. I knew then that he had been watching us the whole time, and that our shame was his to enjoy. Sure enough, when we reached the dock, Bart asked how it went. Sticking to our plan, we all said it was fiiiine! Then he asked, “And how was the spinnaker?” We told him there was a small issue, but we resolved it, and Bart noted that he had “a hidden camera on the boat.” I turned to my mates, asking “See? What did I tell you about that guy?” and all had a laugh.

Although Tony left early, all four of us had passed the written and practical exams, received certificates on the spot, and agreed that we had learned a great deal that we looked forward to putting to use in the next sailing season.


Offshore Sailing School produced these helpful YouTube videos that explain and demonstrate spinnaker set and use. They happen to be filmed at the South Seas Island Resort facility.

How to Set Your Spinnaker

How to Jibe a Symmetric Spinnaker

Spinnaker Leeward Douse

Spinnaker Windward Douse

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