Nick Charman makes the case for all cruising yachts to change tack and install freestanding masts...
You see a yacht with a mast, or masts held up with no rigging and think: ‘What’s going on? Why does it not fall over? This must be wrong – masts are supposed to be held up by wires, yes? All sensible boats have rigging, surely?’
Some of us sailors, and many yacht designers disagree. Freestanding masts are not an experiment, but are well-established technology. So why are there not more of them?
Because few sailors have any experience of sailing them. As they are not commonly accepted, the production yacht companies, quite logically, tend not to make them.
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Designing and building yachts is a very competitive business and sales to such a small minority is unprofitable. Following on, they’re rarely reviewed in the yachting press, and, because of racing rules, are very rarely seen on racing boats. So they continue to be the preserve of the enthusiasts who love them.
Freestanding masts are much more frequently seen on dinghies, of course. The Laser, Topper, Finn and Optimist are very common sights. Yet the larger yacht market seems far more unwilling to adopt the advantages of no wires.
Why do owners love freestanding masts?
In short because freestanding masts simplify the rig and make sail handling easier for short-handed cruisers. They also improve performance and sail efficiency in a number of ways.
All things being equal, a yacht with freestanding masts will be faster off the wind than the same yacht with a genoa, and wire rigging. No rigging means that the boom/s for the sails are unrestricted in their arc of travel, allowing a greater range of angles for the sails in a relatively efficient aerofoil shape.
Since most unstayed rigs have sails that are extended with a boom (straight or wishbone), it means that better aerodynamic power of all the sails can be deployed on a wide range of courses.
In contrast the stayed Bermudian sloop’s un-boomed genoa is only a controlled aerofoil shape when close reaching/close hauled – cracking the sheets means losing control over the shape, and thus its efficiency.
On an AeroRig the whole boom, which carries both the main and jib on a single spar, rotates around the mast, and is controlled by the mainsheet.
Since part of the sail’s effort (the jib) is forward of the mast this counters the pull of the main, so the mainsheet has a very light task and is often just a two part reduction.
This also means the whole rig can be set on a close reach at best efficiency, even though the boat’s course is actually across or even downwind.
A cat rig with a wishbone boom is rather like a windsurfer sail, and can be set at very wide angles to the boat.
This means the shape of sails is always easily held under control, at the correct angle of attack to the wind.
And an article like this can’t fail to mention the much-loved Junk rig, as in the famous Jester – not a fast boat, but with a very tough, seaworthy and easily handled rig. But in addition to sail handling and performance, there are other reasons to consider freestanding masts:
Failure of a wire stay, or one of the many attachment fittings – bottle screws, split pins etc – is a common cause of losing the mast. The unstayed mast is designed to stay aloft with no supporting wires at all, or any of those many wire-end components, as long as it is securely attached to the keel and clamped at the deck. Failure of unstayed masts is obviously not impossible – but is rare.
And if you really wonder about the wisdom of the engineering of a free-standing mast, just glance at the aircraft in the sky above you – since the 1930s, wires holding the wings on aeroplanes have mostly disappeared.
Designing and engineering stiff, strong beams is well understood by modern engineers. And the chafe on sails is low where there is no rigging to rub against.
Stable, fast, easy-to-set off wind sailing – particularly with two masts and sails – all you do is just let the sheets out as you turn downwind.
The sails are already set in/on their booms, so are held out from the side of the boat; plus, on a ketch, setting them wing and wing means the sail effort is equal on both sides of the boat, thus eliminating any tendency to round-up or broach.
This is also rather easier on the crew, than the work in setting and controlling a spinnaker, or poling out a genoa. And much safer than working on-deck in a seaway.
Simplicity of hull construction and design
Any sailing hull has to be able to take the ‘wringing’ effect of a mast carrying sails. That stress can be taken quite simply in a hull which is simply strongly built around the area where the unstayed masts are ‘planted’, especially at deck and keel.
Stayed rigs involve a lot of compression and tension – in effect the rig is trying to pull the hull up around the mast, which itself is under compression. The task and expense of wire rigging maintenance disappears if you have none.
Self tacking sails
All you do is turn the wheel and she tacks – no winching – just hold the coffee mug or wine glass at the new angle. It is so easy to tack up a river or narrow passage.
Some stayed sloops too have adopted the narrow self-tacking Solent jib – so this self-tacking advantage is not particularly confined to unstayed rigs these days. But the un-poled Solent jib is nearly useless as a downwind sail.
Are freestanding masts a new idea?
The working fisherman and lifeboat crews of past centuries had a need for a design rather like the cruising sailor’s – light crew, heavy load (to get to market, as soon as possible), in any weather.
The working sailing rigs of the 19th Century were evolved for these design needs – and it is significant that you often see fore-and-aft rigs very like the modern unstayed rig in the old fishing fleet designs – in the Morbihan, in the Scottish lugger (stayed only by the halyard).
Some sailing lifeboats in the North Sea had cat-ketch rigs. The cat-boat was a favourite for fishermen in North-west America – and still is loved in that area by leisure sailors too – hence why most of the unstayed cruising boats come from the USA, where market acceptability of the rig form is much higher.
What would I say to someone who is considering an unstayed rig, but is nervous? Come and try it! I find that experienced sailors who come and see, quickly appreciate the practical advantages.
But the deeply embedded issue often remains that they prefer the ‘look’ of the traditional Bermudian sloop. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
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This feature appeared in the November 2021 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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