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Idiots guide to sailing a Fireball

This is a total beginners guide to rigging and sailing a Fireball. It is intended for the Fireball Helm and crew who already know a bit about sailing, but don't know anything about trapezing, spinnakers or Fireballs. Read this carefully before going afloat. Now read the bit on capsizing again, this is going to be very relevant. You are allowed to talk to other Fireballers if you need advice - they are all very nice people and will be happy to help.

The Boat

The Fireball is a two man (person) dinghy with a jib, mainsail and a conventional spinnaker. The crew is permitted to use a trapeze, which requires them to wear a trapeze harness (usually over their buoyancy aid, can sometimes be under). You will want to trapeze, it's fun. If you don't want to, then you shouldn't have bought a Fireball in the first place. The Fireball is a proper boat. It does not have an asymmetric spinnaker, wings, or bits of scaffolding bolted on the sides. However, it is also a performance boat - there is no room for granny and the kids.

Helming a Fireball

The helmsman / helmswoman steers the boat and adjusts the mainsail. He/she also gets to pull the spinnaker up when necessary. If the boat has a spinnaker chute, the helm also has to pull the spinnaker down again. If it has bags, then that's the crew's job. Once the crew is completely out on the trapeze, the helm has to take over boat balancing by easing the mainsail out. And in again; it is bad form for the helm to allow the crew to go in the water if it could have been avoided. The helm is in charge and is expected to know the basic collision avoidance rules like 'Port gives way to Starboard' etc. The helm is always right.

Crewing a Fireball

The crew controls the jib, and is expected to keep the boat flat. This involves sitting on the wrong side of the boat in really light winds, all the way up to trapezing flat out in a blow. After that, it's the helm's problem. The crew also gets to launch the spinnaker if the boat has bags, fix the spinnaker pole on, set the thing at the right angle to the wind and eventually retrieve it all again. This is not easy, and respect is due to crews who can do this. As the helm cannot see much, it is also up the crew to tell the helm what is going on behind the jib and look out for other boats, gusts, windshifts etc. Tell the helm about these things before they hit the boat please. The crew is always to blame for anything bad that happens.

Rigging the Boat

Jib Shackle the foot to the plate on the foredeck. If there are two holes in this, use the aft one. If there is only one, the jib shares it with the forestay. In this case, they will use the same shackle, with the wire loop on the foot of the jib going through the loop of the shackle (i.e. as far off the deck as the shackle permits). The top of the jib is then shackled to the halyard, ensuring that none of the spinnaker sheets/halyard get in-between the jib and the forestay. Hoist the jib, and secure to the highfield lever or the metal hook at the aft of the mast just above the mast gate. Apply a little tension to the jib halyard and furl the jib around the forestay to keep it quiet until you are ready to launch.

Spinnaker This has three sides. One is red, one white and one green or blue. The white side is the foot (bottom). Tie the port spinnaker sheet to the white/red eye using a bowline. Tie the starboard sheet to the green/white (or blue/white) eye, and the halyard to the remaining eye. Check that the halyard goes straight to the sheave in the mast above the jib halyard. If you have a chute, tie the downhaul which comes out of the chute to the eye in the middle of the spinnaker. Now stuff it in a bag, or pull it into the chute.

Mainsail Get the boat head to wind near the water. Slide the foot of the sail along the boom, pinning it at the mast end and attaching the outhaul at the far end. Put slight tension on the outhaul if possible. Attach the halyard to the top of the sail and hoist it. The person who is not doing the hoisting should feed the sail into the mast and lift the boom when necessary so that the hoister can get the sail right up. The kicking strap should be completely loosened or unclipped so that it never interrupts this procedure. Get the sail as high as possible, with the boom above the level of the gooseneck. Very few sails will go too high, and most slip down a fraction anyway. Lock the main halyard securely by whatever means is available, trying not to let it slip at all as you do so. Pull the boom down and slot it onto the gooseneck (not forgetting to set up the Cunningham first if it is the sort that loops over the gooseneck). Tighten the outhaul until the foot creases up. Reconnect the kicking strap if necessary.

Rig tension - Now apply rig tension using the highfield lever on the mast, the levers on the shrouds or the pulley system led to the back of the centreboard case, as applicable. If you have a pulley system and levers, use the pulley system part first and then apply the levers. You should have some method of gauging how much tension to apply. If not, go for a melodic Boing noise when the shroud is twanged. Don't overdo this, it won't help at all.

Mast - You now need to 'chock' the mast, either by putting wooden blocks down the front of the mast gate, or by locking the strut into place. The idea of this is to ensure that the mast bend that is already present from the rig tension is maintained. When you apply the kicking strap it will tend to force the mast to bend more at deck level, which we are trying to avoid. Hence the blocks (if you use these) go in the gate in front of the mast.

Adjustments - If it is windy, you should aim to de-power your rig by the following methods:

Tighten the outhaul. This flattens the sail. Get this good and tight before you go out.

  • Tighten the cunningham. This flattens the leading edge of the sail, where the airfoil shape occurs.
  • If it is very windy, loosen the rig tension a bit and/or
  • Allow the mast to bend more by adjusting the strut or removing a block from the gate.

Now unfurl the jib and thread the sheets through the fairleads and back to the cleats. If you have a spinnaker bag, ensure that the jib sheet on the side of the bagged spinnaker goes between the spinnaker halyard and the mast.

As the kicking strap often catches on a centreboard in its 'up' position, it is recommended that you do not tension the kicker until you are on the water with the board down.

First time out

Choose a day when there is not too much wind. Put the boat in the water. Convention dictates that the crew holds the boat while the helm gets in and sorts itself out however, it is often easier to reverse this if the wind is onshore as the helm can push off better by virtue of being at the back. Once afloat, get centreboard half down and the rudder right down and engage whatever item it is that stops it coming up again. If the rudder is not right down it will be very difficult to steer the boat and may break the rudder-blade. Fireballs should require very little effort on the tiller. Now put the centreboard 75% down and apply some kicker (kicking strap). This pulls the boom down. At the very least, you want the top batten looking as though it is doing some work - too little kicker and the top of the sail will fall away to leeward and make the boat very difficult to balance. You should apply more kicker when going to windward (sails tight in), and less as you approach a dead run (when the back half of the top batten should be roughly parallel with the boom). In light airs when the crew is not even thinking about trapezing you don't need any kicker at all.

Trapezing

As you pull the sails in on a beat or reach, the boat will start to lean. Both helm and crew should move their weight out on the windward side, and the crew should hook the trapeze loop onto his/her harness. If it is adjustable for height, the loop should be set low enough that it can be knocked off the crew's harness easily while the crew is sitting on the deck. As a rule of thumb, don't be hooked on unless you are actually about to go out on the wire. Crew can now straighten his legs against the centreboard case so that the trapeze wire takes his weight. Don't hold onto the trapeze handle. Assuming that the mainsail needs pulling in a bit more yet, the crew can now go out on the trapeze - secure in the knowledge that the helm will sheet the mainsail in at the same time to avoid any wetness entering the equation. Don't wait until the boat is at 45 degrees - that's hard work and too late anyway. The crew kicks off from the centreboard case and aims to get his/her front leg (leg nearest front of the boat) onto the side where all the rubber is, just behind the shroud. Now straighten that leg a bit and get the other one out here too. Now, if all is still OK, straighten the front leg but leave the back leg slightly bent so that your body points at the mast. The trapeze wire will tend to pull you forwards, and you really really don't want to go there, OK. Keep your feet apart and facing forwards. Well done. Of course you remembered to take your jib sheet with you - hang on to that, it may be useful. Now watch out for other boats, and keep an eye on the mainsail - if the helm has pulled it in tight and you are still heading downwards you'll need to bend your knees or come in again.

Now that the crew is out on the wire, the helm can concentrate on keeping the boat level. In a constant wind, you just have to pull the mainsheet in, or let it out to get things balanced up. You should be able to find the point at which a very small movement of the mainsheet (say one arm's worth) is enough. When going upwind (close-hauled), this is what you do, whilst watching the telltales on the jib to make sure you are going to windward as efficiently as possible. However, if you are reaching, it is more economical to keep the boat flat by using the rudder. If you pull the tiller towards you (bear away), you will find that the boat leans less, and ultimately that the crew goes in the water. Luff up a bit and the boat leans more. Both actions can be accompanied by adjustments to the mainsail, but you are now sailing faster because you are using the gusts rather than just dumping them. Practice this technique - when it is windier you will find it invaluable. If at any point you manage to dump the crew in the water, pull the mainsail in tight. If you were beating, bear away. If you were reaching, luff up. With luck, the boat can be made to pluck the crew straight back out again and continue as though nothing had happened (a process known as tea-bagging). Anything more than a couple of seconds in the water however will cause the crew to float away  from the boat (crew, this is one good reason for hanging on to the jibsheet). If this happens and the crew stays hooked on, the trapeze wire causes the boat to capsize to windward. This rarely bothers the crew who was well wet anyway, but can cause the helm to become unpleasantly damp. As a rule of thumb, crews should always disengage the harness when they go in the water, and should hang on to the jib sheet when being tea-bagged.

When you feel that it is time for the crew to come in off the wire, tell them so. The crew can swing in quite gently, probably this is best done by having one hand on the trapeze handle and aiming for the centreboard case again. Gently though please. The helm will ease the main to accommodate this (on a windy day, the crew should ease the jib before coming in too). Disengage the harness immediately if you are about to tack, gybe or capsize.

Draycote has a trapeze simulator outside the bosun's locker, which is basically a Lark with trapeze wires. Play around on this before you go on the water to get the hang of the basic going out and coming back in procedure. If you are heavy, get somebody to counterbalance you on this rig - it doesn't look entirely stable to me.

Tacking

Helm: "Ready About".

Crew: "Hang on". Crew comes in and unhooks. Helm luffs up a little as this happens. This keeps the boat flat, and can also be viewed as the start of the tack.

Crew: "OK, ready". Helm pushes the tiller away hard.

Now at this point, if you weren't sailing close-hauled, the boat leans a lot and possibly falls over. Remember, luffing up at speed makes the boat lean more. Only ever tack from close hauled. If you were reaching, luff up, pull sails in etc while the crew is still out on the wire, before considering tacking.

Fireball helms always tack facing forwards. Forget about the RYA method of tacking - it won't work here. Assuming you are on Port tack, you have the mainsheet in your left hand and the tiller in your right. Get your right hand to the very end of the extension (furthest end from the tiller), stay seated on the side tank and push the whole lot away to arms-length. As soon as the boom starts to move towards you (and not until), cross the boat facing forwards, still holding the end of the extension. Sit on the side tank when you arrive and you'll find that your right hand is now behind your back and still holding the extension. You can steer like this, and your left hand still has mainsheet. When the crew has sorted the jib and things have settled down a bit, cleat the mainsheet and swap hands.

Telltales

Your jib has bits of wool or similar stuck to it on both sides. Just use the bottom bits for the time being. When the jib is set correctly, the airflow over both sides of the jib is horizontal, and so are the telltales. If the telltale on your side of the jib starts to lift or fall, the jib is too far out, if the telltale on the far side (it's visible through the jib) starts to lift or fall, the jib is too far in. If you are reaching towards a fixed point the crew should adjust the jib to suit. When you are beating, the jib should be tight in regardless. Now, if the nearside telltale lifts, you are pointing too high and must bear away a little. If the farside telltale goes wobbly, you are bearing away too much and must luff up a bit. Get them both flying nicely and you know you are OK. Telltales don't work on a run.

Mainsail

On the beat, it should be tight in or as tight as it will go whilst maintaining a level boat. On any other point of sail, set the jib as described above, and then let the main out until the front of the mainsail starts to bulge inwards, then sheet in again until the unsightly bulge goes away. Basically, all sails should be as far out as they will go whilst maintaining a proper airfoil shape.

Spinnaker

For use when on a beam reach, broad reach or run. Before launching the spinnaker (kite), let the kicker right off and the mainsail right out, and bear away onto a broad reach. This gives you some chance of staying upright while you launch. If your boat has a chute, then the helm can pull the kite straight up. If the boat has bags, then he can probably pull it straight up if it is in the leeward bag. If it is in the windward bag, it needs to be thrown round the front of the forestay. First, the crew needs to make sure there is plenty of free spinnaker sheet so it will make it that far, and check that the spinnaker halyard is not wrapped around the spreaders while you are at it. Now get the kite out of the bag and scrunch it up into whichever hand is furthest from the mast. Hold the mast in the other hand, lean forwards over the foredeck and post the kite round the forestay. Don't throw it up in the air - put all your effort into making it go forwards. The helm will see you throw it and will hoist it as soon as it goes round the front. If it goes in the water, give the helm a good slap.

Now, regardless of bags or chutes, the crew needs to hook the spinnaker pole onto the nearest spinnaker sheet, push the pole out and clip it to the mast. While you are at it, make sure the pole goes forwards and rests on the forestay. Pull the twinning line in on this side of the boat until the pole just comes off the forestay by about 6 inches, and release the twinning line on the far side of the boat (The twinning line is only there to enable the crew to get out on the trapeze without getting tangled up in spinnaker sheet). Now the crew can clip onto the trapeze and sheet the farside spinnaker sheet in until the kite starts to fly. When it does, ease the sheet out again until the leading edge of the kite looks as though it is about to collapse. Now get out on the trapeze and move back towards the helm while watching the kite - don't let it collapse. Whilst poor old crew was doing all that, the helm was leaning out and steering to keep the boat level. Now he/she can put some kicker back on, aim the boat in the desired direction and start to pull the mainsail back in again. Not too much kicker please, and if you let the boat lean more than 30 degrees, the boom will go in the water and you'll capsize, so dump the mainsheet in big lumps and bear away like mad in the gusts.

Getting the kite down; again bear away onto a run if possible and invite the crew back in. Crew gets the pole off the mast and stows it. If you have a chute, the helm will pull the kite down, steering with tiller between his knees. If you've got bags, the poor old crew has to grab the sheet which he just took out of the end of the pole and pull it until the kite arrives. Now the helm uncleats the halyard, and crew stuffs the kite into the nearest (windward) bag, avoiding sticking the jibsheet in there too, and ensuring the jibsheet is on the mast side of the bag while this is happening. If your leeward spinnaker sheet tends to loop itself over the end of the boom or the (stowed) pole whilst crew pulls it in, nail the leeward twinning line in first.

On a broad reach or run, the crew probably won't need to trapeze, and pole will need to be further away from the forestay. If the kite just crumples up and won't fly, try bringing the pole further back still. Theory says the pole should be in line with the boom.

Gybing

Something of an acquired skill. You need some kicker on, but not too much - about the same as for a dead run probably. Reverse the tiller extension, sheet the main in a little, then pull the tiller towards you and duck. Ideally the crew should be sitting astride the centreboard case and will help the boom across by heaving on the kicker lines where they meet the boom. When the boom whistles past your head, centralise the tiller. You can luff up later if all your appendages are still where you like them.

Getting Ashore Again

Come in slowly, let the rudder come up but keep enough in the water that you can still steer. Let sails out to decelerate and get the centreboard up before it hits the ground. Crew gets out first, usually into waist deep water on the windward side of the boat. Helm should try to get the boat pointing into the wind if possible as this happens. Well done, it can only get easier from now on.

See also:

Useful tips 1 - we get more technical

Useful tips 2 - full power!

CAPSIZING - it's gonna happen so you might as well.