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Rigging and sailing a Fireball

This is a more detailed examination of rigging and sailing a Fireball. It is intended for the Fireball Helm and crew who are familiar with their boat, but want to get more speed out of it.

Before you start doing this, make sure that:

1.Everything on your boat works properly. If you still suffer from slipping main halyards, sticking spinnaker halyards or broken thingies, fix them first. They make far more difference.

2.You have noted all the original settings, so you can get back to normality if all else fails.


Check that the mast foot is as far forward as it will go and that the mast is held firmly in place, central and with no twist.

  • Check that the mast is set centrally. Measure from mast to shroud plate at deck level and check for same result on both sides. Do the same for forestay fixing plate to shrouds.
  • Check your slot gasket is still there and working, and that the centreboard cannot twist or wobble when down.
  • Check spreader length is 410-425mm measured from shroud to the side of the mast
  • Check spreaders are at the same (fixed) angle. Tie string tightly between the shrouds at spreader level and check that the distance from the centre of the string to the mast is 140 - 180mm

Rig the jib and apply your usual maximum tension to the rig - roughly 300 lbs on fibreglass boats, 350 lbs on wooden boats and 400 lbs on foam sandwich. You will need to borrow a rig tension gauge for this (always measure the tension on the forestay). Leave the strut loose.

Set the mast rake to 22'8" measured from the black band at the top of the mast to the centre of the back transom. If you need to change the shroud heights to do this, don't forget to reset the rig tension afterwards using the gauge.

Now check your mast pre-bend by pulling the mainsail halyard tight to the mast at the gooseneck and measuring the distance between it and the mast at spreader level. It should ideally be around 25mm, although up to 40mm is acceptable. Manufacturers suggestions are 0-25mm for the M2 mast, 20-40mm for Proctor D, M3 and M7, 25-30mm for the Stratus and Cumulus. You can adjust this by adjusting the angle or length of the spreaders. More spreader length = more pre-bend, as does angling the spreaders further back. Keep your spreader settings within the limits specified earlier. Of course, adjusting the spreaders will affect the mast rake, so re-set this again. Lengthening spreaders will also stiffen the mast - good for heavy crews but bad for light ones.

Check that the spreaders are still parallel by tying a bit of string between the shrouds at spreader level, and another at deck level. With the boat on its side, and rig tension on, sight down the first string to the second and check that they are parallel. If not, adjust spreader angles accordingly. Then re-set rig tension and re-check pre-bend. Don't assume that the spreader brackets got rivetted onto the mast such that they are symmetrical - they didn't.

If you think you have got this far, sight up the mast from the gooseneck to the top with the boat upright and the rig tension and strut off. The mast should be dead straight. If it isn't, you've been wasting your time. Now put the rig tension on and sight up again. You should see a nice curve front to back, and still dead straight left to right. If the latter is not true, then:

  • The spreaders probably aren't symmetrical (check with string again),
  • Or the mast is bent below the gooseneck (which is difficult to detect without getting it out of the boat),
  • Or possibly the spreaders are not at the same height on the shrouds,
  • Or maybe your shrouds are not the same length - swap them over and see if the bend goes with them. Then buy new ones if it did.
  • Or, there may be some play left to right in the mast gate - very small movements down here go a long way at the top. Push the mast across the gate and see if the bend goes away. If so, pack the gate to stop this happening.


Now mark the position of the jib halyard hook on the mast and the position of the strut carriage. These will be your light airs settings.

Now drop the shrouds by one hole on the shroud plate, apply rig tension (using the gauge again) for the medium airs setting (should give about 22'6" mast rake). Mark the jib halyard hook and strut.

Now drop the shrouds by another hole on the shroud plate, apply rig tension (using the gauge again) for the heavy wind setting (should give about 22'4" mast rake). Mark the jib halyard hook and strut.

Check that the mast cannot move sideways in the gate.

In light airs, hoist the sails on the shore, park the boat at 45o to the wind and sheet in as though beating. Set kicker, outhaul etc as well. Check that the slot between the leech of the jib and the back of the mainsail is as parallel as possible by adjusting the fairlead height. The leech of the jib should go up in a straight line for 75% of its length, then curl in towards the mast at the top. Simulate luffing up a bit (by moving the boat) and see if the top telltale lifts before the bottom one. It should do, but not by much. If not, shift the fairleads up/back. When the telltales all lift at roughly the same time, see if you can move the fairleads inboard without causing the mainsail to back. If so, leave them there, but recheck the telltales. The fairleads should be 225-275mm from the centreline. The fairlead settings need to be re-checked in a similar manner when you are on the water, doing it all on the beach is not really accurate enough.

Note that setting pre-bend at 22'8" and then raking the mast back to 22'6" or less has the effect of increasing the pre-bend well beyond the desired setting, giving rise to flatter sails and less power. Generally this is considered to be a good thing - the whole point about raking the mast back is that you do it when it gets windy, so a bit less power is OK. However, if you find that your boat will not point worth a damn with 22'8 and you have a heavy crew, you may find it preferable to set the boat up for desired pre-bend at 22'6. The procedure is exactly as above, but start at 22'6 instead of 22'8. Note that the further back the mast is raked, the better your boat will go to windward and the slower it will go offwind.

There is much more than this to tuning the boat, but this is a good place to start. The make and shape of hull, mast and sails will also have a significant effect, so be prepared to try other combinations of mast and sails in pursuit of the ideal set up. P&B sails are cut for the Proctor Stratus and Cumulus. Rush sails are cut for the M7. Speed sails prefer a pre-bend of 25mm at 22'6 as a datum, and you never go to 22'8". All sailmakers offer a guide to setting your boat up for their sails, and they are not all the same.

You are now ready to launch.


Sailing the Fireball

Instructions in brackets refer to very windy conditions, say F5 and above.

In very light airs - F1 and below, leave the kicker off altogether and set the sails fairly if it were a F4 or so.

Generally you will select:

22'8" pre-bend in F1-3

22'6" in a F0 or F4

22'4" when it's blowing old boots.

In a blow (especially with a light crew), you want to pull outhaul and cunningham on tight, loads of kicker upwind, less rig tension, more mast prebend and more rake (22'4" or 22'2" have been mooted). And if you can get one, a new mainsail is so much easier to deal with than an old one.

Upwind - Centre board fully down ( down). Jib tight in, but not so tight that the main backs (eased out a bit + dump it briefly in gusts). If you are permanently dumping the main, ease the jib to reduce backwinding in the main, then go for speed. Cunningham loose unless you are overpowered (tight). Outhaul tight enough to crease the foot of the main (tight as it will go). Kicking strap tight enough that the the telltale on the middle batten is close to collapsing. Main tight in, eased when gusts arrive (whatever it takes to stay upright). In light winds set the jib fairleads up a bit and (maybe) out a bit. For medium airs go for 'standard' settings (lower, more inboard fairleads), then as the wind increases, raise the fairleads and move them outwards again, thus opening the 'slot'. Let the strut go forward an inch or two when you're overpowered upwind, and tighten the kicker to compensate - this flattens the mainsail and makes a big difference to your boat-speed.

Helm sailing the boat, crew outstretched on the trapeze if possible, but keeping the boat balanced and level. Both are well forward in light airs, central in a blow. Helm watches the telltales on the jib and adjusts course to suit. Do not luff up in the gusts, just ease the main (and jib) and go for speed. Play the mainsheet continuously, aiming to spot the gusts as they approach and compensate as they arrive so that the boat stays flat. Do not dump the jib for more than a second at a time. Try to roll-tack in anything up to a force 3. Do not try to overtake slower boats to windward if you are behind them - the Fireball likes to go fast and gets grumpy when you pinch, so tack off instead.

2 Sail Reaching - Centre board - down ( down). Jib played by crew to keep telltales streaming. Cunningham and outhaul as per beating  - ease outhaul in F3 and below. Kicking strap eased - use telltale on centre batten as per beating. Main as far out as possible before it starts to back.

Helm and crew move back if the boat starts to plane. Bear away in the gusts, plus dump handfuls of mainsheet if necessary. Keep the boom out of the water - easing the kicker helps here.

3 Sail Reaching - Centre board - down ( down). Jib adjusted by helm occasionally to keep telltales streaming. Cunningham loose (tight), outhaul as per beating  - ease outhaul in F3 and below. Kicking strap eased. Use telltale on centre batten as per beating, or just keep it well eased if you are overpowered. Main as far out as possible before it starts to back.

Start with the pole just off the forestay. If the crew is on the wire it can stay there. If not the crew can play it - it should be in line with the boom in theory. Helm and crew move back if the boat starts to plane. Bear away in the gusts, plus dump handfuls of mainsheet. Keep playing the spinnaker - it must be eased out as you bear away. Keep the boom out of the water. Raise the pole a bit for a tight reach or in a strong wind - lower it in very light airs.

Gybing from a close reach If you are having trouble laying the mark and are pretty close to it, try a Dransfield (or Aussie) Drop. This involves crew nailing the sheet in tight and helm letting the spinnaker halyard go. The kite goes parallel with the water, and the boat goes closer to the wind & more upright. Stay well upwind of the mark or it will get caught on the kite, and re-tighten the halyard before you gybe (or after if you get really desperate). You can do a similar thing to get the kite down on a close approach, only the helm has to nail the sheet in while the crew does the rest of it. Generally you can avoid all this by aiming the boat to arrive about 30ft upwind of a mark, then turning onto a broad reach / run to get the kite down.

The Run - Centre board - down ( down). Jib well out. Cunningham loose, outhaul eased if you stand any chance of getting it tightened up again before the next beat. Kicking strap eased - aim to get the back half of the top batten parallel with the boom. Main as far out as possible. Spinnaker lowered 6" by easing the halyard.

Get the pole lower than for a reach and as far back as possible, but keep a decent curve on the foot of the spinnaker. The crew will not be on the wire and should be unhooked. Helm and crew move back if the boat starts to plane. Bear away in the gusts, movement of the rudder will balance the boat now. Keep playing the spinnaker and apply more centreboard if the boat tends to roll on a dead run.

Roll Tacking in light airs - Helm allows the boat to lean to (say) 30o to leeward, then helm and crew hike out to windward as helm puts the tiller across. Boat should be at maximum roll (water coming up the side-deck) at the moment that the jib fills on the new tack (crew - don't forget to sheet the jib in), and should then be returned to horizontal by helm and crew bounding up top, with the crew returning to his/her usual position immediately afterwards. Helm aims to ease the mainsheet as the boat is brought upright, then retighten it. The boat should be brought upright much more slowly in lighter winds, and the boom should not come over to meet the helm (past the centre line) on the new tack.

Roll Tacking in medium airs Crew stays put (unhooked) on the side of the boat for a little longer than usual while sheeting the jib across. Finish the job by bounding across with the jib sheet in one hand and go out holding on to the trapeze handle with the other. Cleat the jib and hook on.

Trapezing and the Trapeze loop The crew should set the height of this whilst on the wire, higher for ease of getting into the boat again on those yo-yo days, lower for more leverage if you can stay out for a while. Don't forget to go low when you move back on the reach.


A small note about sails

Older mainsails are worse than new ones because they are stretched in some places (like the leech), and paradoxically because they won't stretch in others. You can do something about the latter problem and it makes a big difference. The luff and maybe the foot of your mainsail contain rope (of a non-stretchy variety). Over time this rope shrinks, resulting in a sail which is miles too full and is a real bitch to control in a blow. You can unpick the stitching of the luff rope at the foot, and of the foot rope at the luff (ie unpick both at the clew). You can then pull a good chunk of sail past the end of the ropes and re-sew them. If you don't re-sew them, then don't overdo the cunningham or outhaul or you risk ripping the sail. Most sails have elastic in the foot, which means that the foot won't require unpicking. The luff rope however is a dead cert, particularly if you get creases in light airs from the clew to the trailing edge of the top batten, or if your cunningham requires both hands to apply and doesn't appear to do anything.

This sounds a bit dramatic, but top sailors regularly release and re-stitch the luff ropes in sails which are under a year old. Top sailors rarely keep sails longer than this, they sell them to you and me, but it's still a valid technique. If you find that massive outhaul and cunningham results in a sail which is still way too baggy (and if you can't make the foot crease up, it is way too baggy) for those windy days, then this may just help.