From the Experts: Snipe
by Ed Adams, illustrations by Henry Hill
Originally published in Sailing World, May 1993, reprinted with permission
If you could timewarp a Snipe sailor from 1977 to a present- day regatta it would seem only vaguely familiar to him. Most of the faces would be new to him, 20- to 30-ish in age, largely co- ed, and belonging to sailors who had sharpened their skills on the intercollegiate circuit. The racing would be tougher and tighter, with slightly smaller fleets than he remembered, but still absent of any cut-throat mentality.
As this time-traveler strolled around the parking lot he would see the easy sociability and the commitment to fun that has always been the hallmark of the Snipe Class. Chances are, the first boat he wandered by would look like the Snipe he had left behind. But as he perused the parking lot he would come across a number of new boats that would give him future shock-Snipes that, to him, would look straight out of a science fiction magazine.
In the 10 years since the "From the Experts" on the Snipe appeared in this magazine, there has been an injection of new blood and boats into the class. These newcomers have raised the already high level of competition to new standards; but the class has managed the evolution while preserving the competitiveness of the older boats.
Today the Snipe stands as the world's premier tactical two- person dingy. It has a rig as sophisticated as any Olympic class, yet without trapeze or spinnaker it can be handled by a novice. It has become the choice of the post-graduate collegiate sailor, the only forum he or she can find that emphasizes tactics and where a speed advantage is measured in inches, not boat lengths.
The Snipe is a young person's boat; or let's say a young couples boat. The harder you hike, the faster you go, and with the advent of the fitness craze and the refinement of the bendy rig, most teams in the U.S. are now co-ed, and the ideal weight has slowly dropped to about 295 pounds. Because the boat is heavy, with an all up weight of 380 pounds, the range of competitive combined crew weights is wide- 270-320 pounds. The distribution of weight between skipper and crew does not seem to matter. All that matters is that both skipper and crew can hike equally hard.
EVOLUTION OF BOAT DESIGN
The shape of a Snipe hull and the distribution of weight is tightly controlled, so it is really hard to gain a speed advantage through hull design. Rig tuning and athletic ability are the speed factors in this class.
When fiberglass arrived in 1967 so did a new boat for the Snipe Class called the Chubasco. The Chubasco eventually became the McLaughlin Snipe and, with only minor changes to improve core materials and the hull liner,has dominated the Snipe Class for 20 years.
In the early 1980's other builders like Mueller, Phoenix, and Skipper began to offer more "roll" to the side decks for added comfort. Cockpit plans were open, and floor heights were raised to increase flotation.
It wasn't until the late 1980s that the truly radical departures began. Leading he way was the Brazilian Thor Snipe, which had a very small cockpit-only a fraction of the size of the previous designs, but much deeper. The added depth meant that you stood "in" instead of "on" the boat when tacking or jibing. This improved footing and balance. Flotation lost in the lowered floor was recovered in the larger bow and stern tanks.
The 1990s have brought refinements on the breakthrough Thor Snipe. In the U.S. the most radical boat is the Jibe Tech,in Europe it is the Danish-built Persson. the Jibe Tech (see illustration) uses the same deep floor, small cockpit layout as the Thor, but the side decks are open underneath for cleaner rigging. The angle of the deck is designed so that it supports the crew's calves without cutting off circulation.
The rail under the crew is higher and squarer, to lift and protect the sailors farther outboard. Because you are sitting higher, you don't have to straight-leg hike to keep from dragging in the water. Hiking pants are de rigueur.
While the new boats offer ergonomic improvements, it should be emphasized that, when speed sailing in a straight line, all Snipes are basically created equal. Because of this, a used Snipe is an excellent way to get into the class. There were nearly 1000 boats built by Chubasco and McLaughlin during the two decades they dominated the class, and many of these boats can be purchased in the $2000-$3500 range - roughly half the cost of a new boat.
Before purchasing any used boat there are a couple of things to check. First, weigh the boat. It may have corrector weights,that can be removed to make it minimum weight. Many McLaughlins have plywood-cored cockpit floors, which can become saturated with water.
Second, study the mast. the Cobra II or Proctor Miracle are the most popular masts. Make sure the mast is straight and has no cracks at the deck or gooseneck, and then weigh it - a fully rigged mast that weighs more than the 20 pound minimum is likely to be too stiff. Finally, expect to spend about $250 on a new rudder and some rerigging. With smart shopping, you can still put together a used boat a bargain price.
Hull: I recommend taking your boat to a professional to have it faired every four years of so. After that just use soap and water to keep it clean. Fiberglass boats shrink as they age, and a fairing job is the only way to maintain the hull in top form.
The Snipe Class has a moment-of-inertia test to control the weight in the ends of the boat. The builders install corrector weights under the fore- and afterdecks, because that's the quickest way to meet the "swing" test. However, I prefer to concentrate the correctors in the one spot on the underside of the deck aft of the skipper.This will allow you to slide the boat forward on the jig, until it just passes the test. The daggerboard should be chocked so it is all the way aft in it's trunk and the mast step placed at maximum forward, which helps balance the sailplan with the boom horizontal.
Blades: Until Jibe Tech introduced its production rudder, most of the top sailors had custom-made rudders. The production rudders of the 1980s were flexible, and the wrong shape. Minimum rudder weight is 6 pounds, and a good rudder will not only be close to minimum, but also have the weight concentrated on the leading edge of the rudder head. This gives the rudder less inertia as it turns and hence, a lighter feel. Sea Sure rudder fittings, which fit stainless pintles into aluminum gudgeons, give you a better sensitivity than the standard stainless-on- stainless fittings.
The daggerboards are fairly straight forward. The trend in leading-edge shape of these flat, aluminum plates has gone from almost blunt, to radically sharp to finally settling on a compromise of a small, round parabolic tip that gradually tapers into the board.
The trailing edge will hum if its taper is too abrupt. It is important to use the full 1" width of the allowed taper to fair in the edges gradually. The bottom of the board should be tapered as well, to a chisel point.
If you sail with a crew under 140 pounds, I recommend that you cut out the head of the board to make it easier to lift downwind.
Check your board with a straight edge to make sure it's absolutely flat. Aluminum plate is rolled, so it has a slight curve. You can straighten the board by placing it across two supports and jumping on it.
Masts: Getting the rig right is the most important thing you can do for speed in a Snipe. The first step is to find a good mast. The class standard is the Cobra II, although there are close copies made in Europe, South America, and Japan. The Proctor Miracle has a different shape, but similar bend. Only the U.S. made Bryant spar takes a different approach with a stiffer section. You must realize that no two masts are alike, even from the same mast manufacturer; and as a general rule, bendier masts are better than stiff ones.
Bendy masts are good for two reasons. First, The Snipe is very sensitive to mainsheet tension. A bendy mast gives the mainsheet a lot of what I call "travel," or range of adjustment, which makes trimming less critical in medium air. It also makes it easier to prebend in light air.
The second reason has to do with how the Snipe Class measures masts. You can trick the moment of inertial test by bringing an underweight mast up to weight with an internal sleeve or web at spreader height.Hence most of the fast masts are underweight with internal correctors.
If your mast is too stiff, don't abandon it. First, look up the sail track and see if the taper at the tip deflects the sail track forward. If it does, bend it straight.
Second, cut the butt of the mast so the aft edge is 3/16" longer than the front edge. This compresses the back of the mst and forces it to bend forward.
Third, raise your shrouds to maximum height on the mast. This separates them from the headstay and also forces more bend into the spar. Fourth, make sure that your main halyard locks exactly at the maximum height. The higher the mainsail the more leverage the leech has to bend the mast.
Finally, cut out the external sail-track web that reinforces the mast below the gooseneck. This allows the mast to bend down low, and will give you the mainsheet "travel" needed for medium- air speed.
Spreader Angle and Length: this is a critical adjustment for the Snipe. It's different for every mast, boat, and crew weight. Finding your "magic" setting often requires a bit of experimentation.
To determine the proper length and angle, first you need to consider where your shrouds are positioned on the deck. This is different for every builder. The trend over the past 15 years has been to move the shroud as far forward and outboard as is legally allowed.
The Snipes of yesteryear had the shrouds anchored well behind the maximum forward positioned allowed by the rules. These Snipes were sailed with very loose rigs. Now we sail with our rigs much tighter-tight enough to induce prebend in the mast, so the shrouds must be max forward to be able to let the boom out when running. the more forward your chain plates, the more spreader angle you need; and the more outboard, the more spreader length.
Also consider both the type of mast and the weight of the crew. Bendier masts must be "powered up" with longer, less-swept spreaders. Stiffer masts are depowered by shorter spreaders with more aft sweep. Remember, masts from the same manufacturer can vary up to 7 percent in weight, so don't copy your neighbors just because he has the same model as you. The heavier, or more athletic the crew, the more power you tune into the rig with spreader length and angle.
The average-weight crew, sighting up the sail track when sailing upwind in moderate conditions, wants to see a mast that is straight sideways. A lightweight crew would be looking for about 1/4" of bend to weather at the spreaders; a heavyweight crew wants about 1/4" to leeward. This 1/2" range in side bend translates into a 1/2" difference in spreader lengths. Length is measured from the shroud through the spreader bracket pin to the mast.
To determine the correct amount of spreader angle, or sweep, take a look at how the mainsail sets in heavy air with the vang on hard. In these conditions you will get "overbend wrinkles" from excessive mast bend. these wrinkles run from the clew to the lower half of the mast. y pulling on the mast aft lever, you should be able to remove all of these wrinkles. If you still have overbend wrinkles in the spreader area, you need to increase the spreader angle.
A good deck layout emphasizes two things: ease of adjustability from a fully hiked position, and ease of maneuvers for tactical advantage.
An example of a modern Snipe, with a short, deep cockpit, pole launcher, and all controls set up for easy adjustment while fully hiked.
The cockpit layout of a modern Snipe.
Hiking Straps: The skipper and crew must have individual straps on each side of the boat for sailing upwind. the straps must overlap so the sailors can sit close together to reduce windage and pitching.
The skipper and crew should be able to relax the instep of their ankles when fully hiked. To do this the straps must be of coarse webbing (not padded) that grabs the hiking boot. The aft end of the crew strap, and the forward end of the skipper strap, must be anchored far enough outboard so the pull on the ankle is down, not inboard.
The aft ends of the skipper's strap should be sewn together and tied to a rope anchored on centerline. the goal is to be able to easily step across the boat when tacking, aft foot first, and have the heel of that foot automatically lock under the new strap. The you can leap across the boat and come out hiking on the one leg without ever sitting on the deck.
When reaching in planing conditions, the crew moves aft to the skipper's straps, and the skipper moves aft to the single, short reaching strap that is just tight enough so he or she can't be "fire hosed" out of the boat.
When running in surfing or planning conditions it is essential that the skipper have sailboard-style footstraps mounted on the floor in front of the reaching strap. Then he can lock his feet to the floor, and slide in and out to help balance the boat without tugging on the tiller of mainsheet.
Jib sheeting: The main choice in jib sheeting is whether to have the crew face forward or aft during at tack. Most boats are rigged for facing aft, with simple cleats mounted on cars that are pinned to adjustable tracks. The only advantage to facing aft is it gives you better balance when tacking in big seas, because you don't have to duck under the vang.
Facing forward during a tack is the choice of a majority of the top boats because it is much smoother in light air, when the crew is sitting in the boat and looking forward. It also eliminates the cleat and car from under the legs.
Some of the top crews trim the jib straight from ratchet block, but this is not practical for a crew under 130 pounds because the pull is too hard. Even with a ratchet, you still need some sort of cleat, accessible to both skipper and crew, for cleating the pole downwind.
A new trimming system that has become popular is to use a twing on the jib sheet to adjust the for-and-aft lead upwind. This twing is led to the crew on the weather side. The twing deflects the sheet down and slightly inboard.
Pole Launcher: The Snipe Pole launcher is an ingenious recent invention from South America. By simply pulling on a line, the jib clew is pulled to the pole end, and the inboard end of the 8 1/2 foot pole is launched to the mast.
The pole launcher shortens the time spent launching, retrieving, and storing the pole. It is especially great on marginal reaches when your want to set for a short while. However, it is not without its drawbacks. First, it adds two pounds to the boom. Using a lighter weight pole is only asking for trouble - it will catch on the forestay during a jibe and break.
Second, the pole launcher makes an effective roll jibe nearly impossible. With the traditional no-launched system, the pole is pre-jibed, cleated, then the boat is rolled. With this method, both sails are fanned as he boat is rocked down after the jibe. With the pole launcher, the pole must first be retracted, then the boat is jibed. Only after the jibe is complete is the jib reset.
I rigged my pole launcher so that the skipper can retract and reset the pole on a reverse purchase. In light air I can reset the pole in the split second before the "rock down" of the jibe, so both sails are fanned. the problem here is that the skipper has his hands full in a heavy-air jibe.
When all the pros and cons are weighed, the launcher vs. non-launcher choice is a draw. For many sailors the choice comes down to which type of boat they own. If they have a newer design with a sealed stern tank, the pole must be stored and launched from the boom. Only with the traditional open cockpit design can the pole be stored under the deck.
Control Lines: I lead the jib and main cunninghams, as well as the jib leads, to the crew on the deck. In the deck recess between the skipper and crew is the mast-aft control and traveler. This recess is useless on most of the older designs, because it s molded so far forward that the crew must sit on it in heavy air.
The jib halyard exits from the daggerboard trunk, and is angled for easy cleating from the rail. It needs to have at least 12" or more of throw, so the jib can be flown out and away from the boat on a run. Most sailors use a 15" Harken magic box, but I use a 6:1 cascade inside the trunk that works about as well with less tail to pull.
The split-mainsheet system is the class standard. A rope bridle is sewn to the after end of the mainsheet, which is then "sucked" inside the boom when the mainsheet is trimmed hard. No matter how hard you trim, the boom will remain centered until the bridle is "let down" with the traveler adjustment.
In practice, this system is only an advantage in light air and flat water, and its 1:1 purchase is unmanageable for any skipper under 140 pounds in a strong breeze. For smaller skippers or consistent heavy-air conditions, a 2:1 mainsheet makes more sense.
The mast partners should have about an 1/8" of play on each side of the mast. This makes it easy to center the mast, and allows it to stay in column as the rig stretches upwind.
Hoist the jib in the parking lot until the mast rake, as measured from the mast tip to the center of the afterdeck at the transom, is 21' 3 1/2". At this rake setting, there should be enough tension on the shrouds to produce 1" to 1 1/2' of prebend. the mast should be centered in the partners, and centered from rail to rail.
Simply adjust the shrouds to produce the desired prebend and the desired rake. Tighter shrouds increase prebend; looser shrouds reduce it.
As a final check, measure the tension with a Loos Gauge. If you have shrouds of the standard issue 3/32" 1x19" wire, the tension should read 150 to 185 pounds. With the rod or dyform 3/32" wire used on the top boats, the gauge will read about 80 pounds higher due to the greater stiffness of the wire. If the tension is too high, work on the mast to make it bendier.
After you have the mast tuned at the standard rake, put a mark on each side of the mast with corresponding marks on the partner. This is your "neutral" mast ram position.
Next mark your jib halyard at the standard rake, and at 1" less rake and 1" more. The standard rake is for all-purpose, medium-air conditions. In light air and slop the jib halyard is eased to straighten the mast. In a breeze the halyard is tightened to firm up the rig.
Most of the top sailors also tighten their shrouds in heavy air. On my boat I have multiple chainplate attachments; as the breeze builds, I move the shroud attachments outboard and aft, without touching the turnbuckles. This makes the rig tighter without causing the spreader to poke the mast to leeward. I do the converse before the start of a light-air race. Class rules prohibit adjustment of shrouds while racing.
The mast lever is a critical adjustment. In light air and flat water it is used to add prebend. In choppy conditions or when vang sheeting, the ram is used to restrict bend. In heavy air upwind, the proportion of vang tension to ram aft is varied with sea conditions. For example, in rough seas, 1/4" of added aft ram at deck level, with a corresponding ease of the vang, will give the mainsheet more power and twist for better speed.
-------------------------------Wind Strength (knots)----------------------------
0-5 6-12 13-18 19+
choppy water 21' 2 1/2" 21' 3 1/2" 21' 4 1/2" 21' 5 1/2"
flat water 21' 3 1/2"
choppy water not set 1/4" aft 1/4" aft neutral
flat water 1/2" forward not set neutral 1/4" forward
Jib Halyard 21' 2 1/2" 21' 2 1/2" 21' 3 1/2" 21' 5 1/2"
Mast Ram 1/4" aft 1/2" aft neutral 1/2" forward
Jib Halyard half eased -.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.-
Mast Ram 1/2" aft neutral 1/2" forward 1" forward
Jib Halyard fully eased -.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.---.-
Mast Ram max aft 1/2" aft neutral 1/2" forward
---------------------------Jib Lead and Sheet Tension----------------------------
Choppy Water 7' 1"
Flat Water 7' 3" 7' 2" 7' 3" 7' 3"
Trim on Splashrail
Choppy Water 2" outside 1" outside 1" outside 2" outside
Flat Water 1/2" outside at mark at mark 1"outside
Limber Mast 17 1/2"
Stiff Mast 16 3/4"
Measured from shroud through pin in bracket to mast. For boats with
chain plates positioned at the maximum outboard location sailed by an
average-weight crew. If chain plates are mounted inboard, spreader
length should be reduced accordingly. Heavy crews should add 1/4" in
spreader length, light crews should subtract 1/4".
Limber Mast 30"
Stiff Mast 28"
Measured from spreader tip to spreader tip. For boas with chain plates
at the maximum forward position sailed by an average-weight crew.
Reduce accordingly for boats with aft chain plates.
SAIL TRIM UPWIND
Mainsheet: A good starting point for medium air is to trim the main until the upper batten is parallel to the boom. Trimming one or two "clicks" harder on your mainsheet is good for occasional pinching, and a similar ease on the sheet will allow you to foot.
In very light winds, the top batten will hook to weather due to the large roach of the sail. Adding 1/2" of forward mast lever will help alleviate this. In heavy air the upper batten will naturally angle out 10 degrees from parallel.
Traveler: the traveler is an important control in medium air - reach for it fisrt to depower when the wind builds from 10 to 15 knots. With the traveler down you can still sheet the main fairly hard to maintain mast bend and headstay tension. the traveler is dropped three to four inches before it's time to rely on the vang to bend the mast.
In light air and flat water the traveler is centered. In chop, however, you can develop better footing power by dropping the traveler 1" and sheeting one "click" harder on the mainsheet.
Boomvang: In winds of 0 to 14 knots, setting the vang is simple. Just pull the mainsheet until the upper batten is parallel, then ease it out two "clicks" and take the slack out of the vang. That way, the vang will only have tension on it when the mains is eased for footing, and the essential "travel" of the mainsheet is not restricted.
By the time the wind is 15 knots, it is usually puffy and choppy. In these conditions you have to be able to play the main in and out in large amounts. To do this you need to "lock in" the mast bend with boomvang tension; otherwise the mast straightens and the main gets too full as you dump the mainsheet. You also have to "lock in" headstay sag; or the jib will balloon out to leeward and cause lee helm whenever you ease the mainsheet. This is done with the aft lever.
When the wind is in he 15- to 20-knot range, the primary power control is the boomvang. Maximum vang for fully overpowered conditions is almost, but not quite, enough to cause the mainsail to turn "inside out" form overbend wrinkles.
Jib Lead and Sheet Tension: The Snipe goes best when the jib lead seems unnaturally far forward and the sheet seem overeased. The standard jib-lead position for most jibs is about 7' 2" aft of the headstay, measured in a straight line.
Most sailmakers use a soft, lightweight 3.3-ounce, warp- oriented cloth for their jibs. This material is very stretchy on the leech, and naturally "opens up" to add twist as the breeze builds. The leads need to be moved only about 1" from the standard lead for different conditions. Because this cloth is so stretchy on the fill, it's quite sensitive to jib cunningham tension.
Now that many of the new boats have the ability to adjust the jib lead from the weather rail, sailmakers have some success experimenting with firmer cloth, especially in heavy air. A firmer jib is less sensitive to the jib cunningham, but lead adjustment is more critical.
Sheet tension is far more important than lead position. Snipe sailors measure tension by marking the foot of the jib where the vertical plane of the sail lands on the splash rail or the deck the maximum tension mark is made 16" off the centerline on each side of the mast, with the mast set in its "neutral position." Only in medium air and flat water is the jib trimmed this hard. In choppy conditions it is eased 1" or 2" outside this mark. Maximum ease is fast when it's light and sloppy.
SAILING A SNIPE
The Snipe is the most fun in a shifty breeze, because it can be tacked almost at will, with only a half boatlength (or less) of distance lost. Remember that it is a dinghy - speed is just a as dependent on weight movement and body control as it is on rig tuning.
While the number of control lines might seem over whelming to some, the transition to Snipe sailing is easiest for sailors graduating from the collegiate circuit or from a singlehanded class like the Laser or Europe. That's because these sailors focus on tactics and boathandling.
Upwind: when sailing upwind in light to medium air, the rig is in its "flexible" mode. You trim the mainsheet, the mast bends, and both sails get flatter. You ease the mainsheet and the reverse happens. Mast bend is induced in a drifter with the forward lever and restricted in a breeze with the aft lever. When the wind gets strong, you switch to the "lock in," vang-sheeting mode common to most other dinghies. Here the mast bend and headstay sag are constant and you work the main in and out on the boom vang. A majority of speed problems are caused by over trimming the jib. If you feel slow, just ease the jib and foot.
In light air, try to center the weight as deep in the boat as possible. In a hiking breeze do everything you can to get more leverage. Remember, you will always go faster if you hike harder.
In waves, use all the kinetics the rules allow. Unweight before a wave and hike hard on the crest. the goal is to keep the boat absolutely flat without rolling from side to side slide aft before hitting a big wave, and slide forward as you come into the boat in a dying breeze.
Reaching: Despite its weight, the Snipe planes easily. Because the hull has a lot of rocker, it is very sensitive to fore-and-aft weight positioning. On a planing reach, the skipper slides aft and lock his feet into the reaching strap while the crew has the whole cockpit and must use it to full advantage. The goal is to keep the boat absolutely level, both side to side and on its fore-and-aft lines. When the stern lifts as a wave or puff hits, the crew slides aft and hikes on the skipper's upwind straps to keep the bow from digging in. The bow lifts as soon as the boat is planing, so the crew slides in and forward to the front of the cockpit to keep the boat on its lines. This for-and- aft movement is not ooching if you don't stop abruptly, push, or grab the deck.
The mainsheet should be trimmed from the ratchet when planing; in other conditions it can be trimmed straight from the boom. The daggerboard is always raised to full legal height off the wind, except in displacement jib reaching, when it's set three inches lower.
The use of aft-mast ram is critical to offwind speed. he farther aft you pull the mast, the straighter and more powerful the mainsail, and the less he spreaders will obstruct the sail's shape. If you pull too hard, however, the mast will reverse and take a permanent bend. In heavy air, always have the mast set at, or forward of the neutral position, especially when reaching with the pole up.
The jib halyard is eased slightly when jib reaching, except in heavy air. When pole reaching the halyard is eased about half of it full throw. A reaching hook for the weather sheet helps keep the pole from skying on a reach.
Most sailors know enough to trim the pole back as he wind goes aft, but you also have to either ease the halyard or retract the pole launcher a few inches, or the jib will be sketched tight and won't fly properly. The reverse is true as you let the pole forward; either launch the pole or tighten the halyard.
Running: In light air, a Snipe sails like a spinnaker boat. The pole is long, the jib is light and flies well away from the boat and to keep the jib flying you have to sail fairly tight jibing angles. Tactically it's just as challenging as sailing with a spinnaker.
As you enter a lull, heel the boat onto its leeward chine, let the pole forward, and tighten the jib halyard. In a puff, shift your weight so the boat rolls onto its weather chine. This gives you the lee helm necessary to care the boat down in the puff. The pole should come back as the halyard is eased.
In moderate to heavy air, the boat is sailed level for better control. Here, working "deep" is not as important as shifting your weight to best ride the waves. Heeling to weather, pulling the mast back and easing the vang does allow you to sail deeper, but invites a capsize or mast reversal.
The Snipe Class has a lot to offer. It has an established circuit of regattas with both top competition and a tradition of after-race socials. It is the only non-Olympic doublehanded class with a true international following. It has a challenging rig that will teach you more about sail trim than any of the more restrictive one-design classes.
If you want to sit on the rail with little to do, or simply rip across the course and tack on the layline, this is not the class for you. But if you have a good set of legs, the ability to think quickly, and like to mix it up both on the water and off, you should give the Snipe a try.
In his 10 years in the Snipe class, Ed Adams has won the North American championship four times and the national championship twice. He's also an accomplished Star sailor, and won the world championship in that class in 1987. For more information, contact the