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Using the Xenon Gennaker

The Xenon gennaker is a joy to use and if you have not yet attempted to do so you may be missing out on a whole new experience. Do give it a try. Contrary to popular belief it is not difficult to use and can make an otherwise tame sailing session a very enjoyable experience. The video clip below illustrates how easy it is to use... in reasonable wind conditons of around 10 knots or less. Since we first tried our gennaker we have not set sail without it. With winds of around 10 knots the Xenon will readily plane, in this mode the speed of the Xenon increases substantially (but controllably) and the wake of the dinghy becomes very smooth. If you have time you will notice the foam from the bow wave flying past the gunwhale and watch the wave following the rear of the Xenon.

In stronger winds the crew will feel the Xenon accelerate underneath them as the full power of the Gennaker turns on. In these circumstances the Helm moves to the back, literally sitting on the transom and the crew moves rearwards to the thwart seat for the purpose of keeping the bow clear of the water but not so far as to cause the rear of the Xenon to dig in. The Xenon will behave like a leaf dancing through the waves. It is difficult to avoid shouting with the pleasure that the Xenon travelling at full speed gives!! ... all adding to the look of terror on the faces of peaceful fishermen who see the monster sail bearing down on them.

The following guidance assumes a correctly rigged gennaker. See the Rigging Guide for info on this

The video clip shows the Gennaker being launched in dying wind conditions. However note how quickly the Xenon dinghy picks up speed and how smooth the ride becomes.

The Xenon is not planing in this run but is close to achieving it.

Crew stands up to drop Gennaker to obtain maximum length of pull, and therefore speed of drop.  These are ideal wind conditions for getting a feel for the Gennaker.

I have read much about the problems of retrieving the Gennaker from owners of other dinghies. In particular the complaint that the gennaker jams and cannot be pulled into its chute. Whenever I have experienced this problem, and we all do, it is for one of the following reasons;

1.  The retrieval has been attempted before the Xenon has been turned on to a 'Training Run', ie the wind is coming too far abeam, causing the retrieval line to enter the chute from the side. Consequently the knot or bunched sail jams on the side of the chute.

2.  The retrieval has been slow, allowing the sail to blow into the water. A good technique is for the crew to stand up and then bend to grasp the retrieval line close to the pulley and then heave a quick armful inboard and at the same time straighten up further increasing the length of line brought inboard. Practice snapping the spinlock cleat upwards to release it as part of your first armful of line. Speed is everything on the retrieval.

3.  Helm is in a hurry! Avoid the temptation to go around the buoy before the retrieval is complete - if this is a problem the retrieval should have been started earlier! To free the jam turn back downwind, partially rehoist and start the retrieval again. Never use brute force during the retrieval - it will not help and is likely to damage the gennaker.

Tip: The point of sail known as 'The Training Run' is also known as the 'Hoist/Drop Zone' or 'Strike Zone'.

Launching the Gennaker

Initially practice using the gennaker in light wind conditions, ie up to 10 knots and away from other boats and the shore.  You need space.  Whilst learning turn the Xenon on to a 'Training run' ie about 30° off from being fully downwind. The purpose of turning on to a 'Training run' is to get the gennaker to inflate as soon as possible but also get a sense of just where the wind is before allowing the gennaker to fully power up - avoiding a rapid capsize if the wind is too far abeam. Crew should launch the gennaker as rapidly as possible and as soon as the Head of the gennaker sail hits the hoist block at the top of the mast the crew should make sure the Spinlock cleat is locked (pulled down). Rapidly pull in the gennaker sheet (on the same side as the boom) until the Gennaker stops flapping. As the flapping stops the Gennaker will inflate, then slowly release the sheet to allow the Gennaker to swing towards the bow.  In stronger wind conditions the gennaker may flap and crack as it rapidly inflates - the Xenon may also accelerate so rapidly that crew are left stumbling! This can be avoided by crew immediately pulling in the gennaker sheet reasonably tightly as soon as the hoist is complete. A slower controlled release of the sheet will then permit a more gentle inflating of the gennaker and a more manageable acceleration of the dinghy. The crew will feel the pull of the Gennaker on the sheet and the Xenon will pick up speed. In light winds and on a 'Training run' have no fear of the Gennaker, it will not pull you over as long as you stay reasonably downwind. As the Xenon heels the Helm can, if preferred, make a slight course alteration ('bear away' ) to follow the Gennaker. Alternatively crew can start hiking on the side, in which case there will be a substantial increase in speed.  If the speed increase is more than is comfortable or there is a shift in wind direction simply make a gentle course alteration to follow the Gennaker downwind. You will rapidly 'get the feel' of handling the gennaker in such conditions and appreciate the pleasure it provides.

Tip:  It is essential that as soon as Helm realises that the wind is too far abeam and there is a risk of the gennaker pulling the Xenon over bear away (follow the gennaker by pulling the tiller into your stomach!) immediately. Any hesitation will allow the Xenon to heel, as it heels the rudder will lose some of its steerage capability. In short order you may discover that the Xenon is no longer answering to the rudder. This is not surprising as by this time the heel is so great that part of the rudder is now out of the water.... and worse still the part of the rudder that is still in the water is at such an angle that it is now assisting the capsize!  Think about it.

At some point soon after launch you will notice the leading edge of the gennaker beginning to curl. Curling signals the limit of the gennaker sheet release. Slowly pull in the Gennaker sheet until the curl just disappears. The Gennaker is now operating at its best. Ideally keep testing the gennaker by gently releasing the sheet until the curl just starts and then tighten until the curl just disappears. This behaviour is necessary to keep the gennaker at maximum efficiency as the following wind shifts in direction..... but be gentle and smooth with your actions. In light winds I find it best to avoid allowing a curl to form as sometimes this leads to a partial gennaker collapse - this forces Helm to alter course to recapture the wind and reinflate the gennaker, not good if you are racing!

In this practice session remember to 'strike' (retrieve) the gennaker well before you approach the shore. The Xenon will continue to travel quickly during the retrieval and the Xenon must be turned on to a Training Run and kept at this point of sail until the retrieval is complete.  Speed of launch and speed of retrieval is the essence of handling the gennaker, but this can be done in an unhurried fashion by the crew standing up and bending down to grasp the downhaul line (look at the video again to see this in action). Then by pulling in the downhaul line and straightening up as you do so it is possible to pull in more than 2 metres of line at a single sweep, using your free hand to swing down and grasp the line ready for the next pull.  As you start the strike remember to uncleat the Spinlock, otherwise the retrieval will come to a sudden halt!

Tip: On the subject of the retrieval coming to a sudden halt - avoid treading on the loose retrieval line!  A number of us who sail Xenons have tied a small pulley block to the end of a piece of thin soft bungee cord and the cord is fastened under the thwart seat. The retrieval line is fed through this pulley. In use this pulley and bungee cord keeps the retrieval line neatly out of the way and in a position ready for quick use on the drop.  Another tip is to avoid an excessively long launch / retrieval line. An overly long line results in excess rope in the cockpit (minor problem) but also when retrieving the gennaker the excess line has to be pulled in before the actual gennaker begins to be pulled in. The consequence when racing is a slower retrieval allowing the gennaker sail to fall into the water causing a rapid slow down and an unhappy helm!

Crew should call to the helm indicating the Gennaker has been retrieved after which an upwind course can be started. The helm has an important part to play in retrieving the gennaker. Helm should bear away (swing further downwind) but at all times keeping the gennaker slightly inflated. If the Xenon is taken too far downwind the gennaker will collapse into the water as soon as the spinlock cleat is released. The crew must work fast to ensure that the gennaker is on its way into the chute before the collapse starts. This all seems a little dramatic but with very little practice you will rapidly get the hang of dropping the gennaker quickly and smoothly.  The danger is that in the excitement of race conditions helm may not take the Xenon properly into the drop zone or may turn away (to round a buoy) too soon, causing the gennaker to wrap or jam. Ideally the crew should stand up when launching or retrieving the gennaker. This enables large fast long pulls on the gennaker line to speed the launch or drop processes.


Gybing the Xenon gennaker

Gybing the Gennaker in light winds is a very simple operation - but note light winds!  As the Helm calls "Gybe Oh!" release the cleated jib sheet and give the new Jib sheet a quick pull so that the Jib sheet is on the new side - but do not waste time adjusting it - just make sure it is given a good pull and then forget it.  In my first pull I often manage to grasp both the new jib sheet and the new gennaker sheet together and pull them both across, briefly pausing to loosely cleat the new Jib sheet before continuing to fully pull in the new Gennaker sheet. If I am quick enough the gennaker will often re-inflate long before the new gennaker sheet is pulled in, giving the impression that the gennaker has simply glided from one side to the other with very little loss of power. Only turn your attention briefly to the Jib sheet setting when the gennaker has settled down and is giving full power. Downwind the Jib plays an insignificant role and when racing it is the gennaker that deserves your full attention.

Gybing the gennaker is undoubtedly straightforward in light winds but it is worth emphasising the need for speed in pulling in the new gennaker sheet, the greater the wind speed the more important is speed in handling the gennaker. As soon as helm calls "Gybe Oh!" start pulling across the new gennaker sheet in large armfuls, do not wait for the Xenon to respond to the tiller - that's not your problem - get the new sheet across as fast as you know how.  Do not allow your attempts to pull the Jib sheet across delay the pulling in of the new Gennaker sheet. If the new gennaker sheet is not pulled in swiftly the Gennaker will happily drape across the Jib wire or develop the 'hour-glass' twist. It may be necessary to Gybe back to effect a release of the twisted gennaker. In my experience whenever a problem is experienced in gybing the gennaker it was due to my not being quick enough, often the simple act of missing my grip, ie. failing to grab the sheet immediately, is sufficient to cause a minor problem in stronger winds.

Tip: As soon as the gennaker wraps on the Jib wire if it does not immediately come free with a tug of the gennaker sheet call to helm to gybe back again - nearly always the gennaker will free up and fly - then immediately gybe again when hopefully all will be well. Don't waste time and risk damage to the gennaker by incessant tugging when a quick gybe will sort the problem. Then ask yourself what caused the delay in pulling the sheet across!

In occasions the gennaker will develop the hour-glass twist. Again usually caused by some hesitation or pause in pulling the gennaker across. This can frequently be cured not by pulling in the gennaker but by releasing the sheet and then gently pulling it in. The twist will often blow out and racing can resume. If necessary try gybing back on the original course - often a successful way of freeing the gennaker.

Gybing in strong winds

In strong winds gybing with the gennaker can be real fun if you like living on the edge. Avoid the temptation to allow the Xenon to slow down. After the gybe Helm must be quick to bear away if the wind is too far abeam. When gybing the Helm should not oversteer. The consequence of oversteering is to bring the wind almost broadside and a capsize is almost inevitable.  Absolutely essential is the need for crew to speedily carry out the gybe by pulling the gennaker rapidly across to the new side and just as rapidly hike out on the new side as the boom swings across. If the crew is too slow the heel of the Xenon coupled with the swing of its boom (possibly touching the water!) will lead to a capsize. Practice gybing until the movement starts to become instinctive - I am not there yet!!  It is often a temptation to try to set the jib sheet correctly before hiking out..... resist this and get up on the side to balance the boat.


One of the great strengths of the Xenon is its enormous gennaker. It is well worthwhile learning to get the best out of it and one of our delights, when not racing, is to simply head upwind as far as possible, then turn downwind and let fly with the gennaker with spray flying in all directions - much to the concern of nearby fisherman and cruising sailors!!  When enjoying yourself do keep your leeward side clear of boats and shore - this is your escape route if the wind suddenly veers Helm will need room to bear away before the Xenon gets dragged over.


On the topic of helming with the gennaker at full power - Helm must gently but immediately bear away in a veering gust. Any delay will cause the Xenon to heel rapidly, partially lifting the rudder out of the water. This reduces steerage. It is no use the helm saying afterwards that steerage was lost - of course it was because the Helm did not anticipate the gust and reacted too slowly!!  At the point of no return all steerage will be lost and usually a graceful capsize follows.  The Xenon is highly predictable, unlike some dinghies, so get to know the signs- look out for approaching gusts and react promptly.  The crew can help in an emergency situation by simply releasing the gennaker sheets, this will momentarily take the power off reducing the heel and giving Helm the chance of recovering steerage - but it doesn't always work for me! 

Finally a short clip illustrating the enormous power of the Xenon gennaker. The clip shows the Xenon travelling at high speed on the plane not to dwell on the near-miss capsize! It was a real adrenaline ride - very enjoyable.