Peter Poland looks at the history of popular rig designs and how the different types affect boat performance
Having once asked yacht designer Andrew Wolstenholme if we could meet to discuss the evolution of modern sail boat rigs – and the continuing popularity of some older designs – we talked about boats in general and gaff rigs in particular, many of which he designs.
“The gaff still has much to recommend it. With stiffer, yet lighter carbon fibre spars, it can offer bigger benefits than it ever did in the past,” said Andrew.
His recent gaff-rigged designs like the new Cornish Crabber 24 MkV and smaller Kite 21 prove this point.
The lugsail attaches to a spar that is hoisted at an angle. So part of the spar and sail protrude ahead of the mast, and this leading edge enables a boat to sail upwind.
The evolution of the lugsail started when someone discovered that by setting a square sail at an angle – with one end of the yard pointing down towards the deck – the sail could set closer to the wind.
Some say the Chinese junk rig is also descended from square sails as used on Chinese ships before the 12th century.
The junk rig, also known as the Chinese lugsail or sampan rig, evolved with full length battens extending the sail forward of the mast, providing a leading edge to help sail upwind.
The ever-inventive Blondie Hasler designed and built a modern version of the junk rig for his modified Nordic Folkboat, Jester.
He then entered the first single-handed transatlantic race in 1960, helping to initiate the OSTAR and boosting the appeal of long-distance solo sailing in general, and the junk rig in particular.
David Tyler, Annie Hill and Roger Taylor are three leading lights of the Hasler-inspired move to modern junk rigs, and have sailed many thousands of miles between them.
A Sadler 25 was the first of five junk rig boats that David Tyler owned. He and Annie Hill were also founder members of the ever-informative Junk Rig Association.
David told me he “could not contemplate sailing under anything else than a junk rig”, and has a long history of experimenting with and making variations of the junk rig.
David Thomas designed a ply/epoxy 35ft shoal draught junk rig ocean cruiser for David Tyler.
She was launched in August 2000 and ended up in New Zealand, where she was sold – 16 years later – having sailed 85,000 miles.
“I could not possibly have done this under any other rig,” said David.
He then designed a modern cambered junk rig for his Hunter Duette 23, admitting that this “still does not compete with a big genoa to windward but is superior in all other ways – especially if you define efficiency as ‘miles sailed per unit of input of crew effort’. She had a junk rig of my own design first, then a junk rig-based wingsail.”
David concluded that a modern cambered junk rig “can encompass many features: including various sailmaking ways of building 3D camber into each panel with straight battens; or a flat sail with hinged battens; or a flat fanned sail with twist (a fiendishly cunning method found in Hong Kong junks). My favourite sail has slightly cambered panels with hinged battens. This is easier to set without diagonal creases than deeply cambered panels; and has a smoother curved foil shape than a flat sail with hinges.”
Sail boat rigs proven offshore
Annie Hill is another junk rig enthusiast who has sailed many thousands of miles and written books about her voyages.
She’s now based in New Zealand, having built the David Tyler-designed FanShi “from scratch with a small amount of amateur assistance from friends.”
“The best aspect of a junk rig for single-handed sailing is the speed and ease with which you can reef,” explained Annie. “The sail tacks automatically which helps in close quarters sailing, as does having exactly the right amount of sail for the situation. I find another great advantage is that when I’m sailing off the anchor or a mooring, I can raise three or four panels, so the boat doesn’t go charging off as I walk back to the cockpit. I can then raise the rest of the sail while leaving the anchorage. And of course, I only raise just what I need.”
Annie Hill mentions several junk rig benefits: “The junk rig is much easier to handle downwind. It’s reluctant to gybe until you are sailing well by the lee. The sail is fully squared out so that it is working efficiently. And it’s easy to change from running to reaching to beating, without having to handle guys, poles or vangs.
“In short, the junk rig is much easier to sail. The junk sail is intrinsically self-tacking, which makes beating to windward, especially in close quarters, infinitely less work. Ease of reefing – and making sail again – also means you always sail under the correct amount of canvas. This makes for faster passages and ensures the boat is properly underway in the aftermath of a gale.”
And the disadvantages? Most agree that the junk rig is less efficient when sailing to windward in light airs.
Roger Taylor came upon the junk rig when buying his first Mingming; one of around 25 factory-built junk rig Corribees.
“The conversion work was to make her more suitable for serious offshore work – unsinkable, watertight bulkheads, reduced cockpit, proper watertight hatch and so on. I bought her specifically to sail in the first Jester Challenge, and so nothing was more appropriate than a junk rig! I had, in any case, been fascinated by Jester herself for many decades.”
Mingming II came next – a standard triple keel Achilles 24 – so Roger replaced her Bermuda rig with a new junk rig.
“The main differences to the Hasler sail on Mingming were higher aspect ratio for speed in the light airs you get in the high Arctic latitudes in summer – so seven panels instead of six. And cambered panels instead of flat-cut, for better windward performance.
“The lower four panels were built separately as I didn’t have enough room in my London flat to sew the sail in one piece. It’s attached to the carbon-fibre battens with a hinge system. I named the sail the HHT – Hybrid Hinged Turbo! The unstayed mast was a cut down municipal lamp post, 8in diameter at the base, tapering to about 3in at the masthead; solid as a rock in all weathers.”
Roger added “I can reef instantaneously from the hatch and do all other sail handling from the safety and shelter of the main hatch. So I am never exposed on deck and am therefore warmer, drier, less stressed, and therefore more likely to make better decisions.”
As well as ease of handling, Roger says it is “a wonderfully relaxed and supple rig, with none of the extreme tensions of its Bermuda cousin.”
“The sensation at sea is quite different; you feel more in harmony with the elements, rather than their adversary. Few junk rig sailors I know would ever revert once they have experienced this. The rig is easy to repair at sea. If a sail panel tears you can take it out of service by lashing two battens together. If a batten breaks you can lash it to its neighbour (I did almost a whole voyage to Iceland and back like this, after breaking a batten in a Force 9 off the Dogger Bank) or fix it with a splint. With a fully battened rig, the sail is evenly supported at all points.”
A classic sail boat rig
Moving on to modern luggers, there are some recent interpretations of this classic rig.
British designer Nigel Irens is famous for his multihulls but also has an eye for the unusual, and in 1994 he came up with a couple of beautiful luggers.
His first was the Roxane, a 29ft yawl-rigged lugger loosely inspired by an old Shetland Island fishing boat.
Fitted with a carbon fibre main mast and yard, she has plenty of modern technology on board.
He followed this with the smaller 22ft Romilly, another yawl-rigged lugger for trailer sailing. Both models were later produced by CoCoBe in Holland.
The songwriter and broadcaster Sir Richard Stilgoe was “immediately beguiled” by the Roxane after sailing her in 1995, and has his own called Ruby II.
“The lightness of the carbon spars undoubtedly makes a difference to stability. The rig works and sails really nicely. But I admit that I and another owner are working with Nigel to investigate a conversion to two Bermuda masts – still unstayed – with fathead sails. I don’t expect to go faster, but I do hope to be able to raise and lower the sails more quickly and easily,” said Sir Richard.
If you fancy trying a very small lugsail boat, the famous 11ft 4in scow has much to offer.
It’s widely sailed in the UK and the best-known example is the Lymington Scow. Fleets can be found along the South Coast.
Originally built in clinker, scows are now moulded in GRP.
Rooted in the past
The spritsail is another rig evolution. It appeared on small Greek craft in the Aegean Sea many centuries ago. The Romans followed suit with spritsail-rigged merchant ships.
The rig became increasingly sophisticated until the luff of the sail sat behind the mast, while the sprit went from the base of the mast to the peak of the sail.
The luff became long and straight and the boat could sail closer to the wind, especially with leeboards to reduce sideways drift and a foresail to increase sail area: both said to be Dutch innovations.
The most famous spritsail rigged workhorses were the large, flat-bottomed leeboard Thames barges, which could lower their masts to ‘shoot’ bridges before unloading their cargo.
There aren’t many new spritsail-rigged craft around these days, apart from thousands of Optimist dinghies sailed by children as starter-boats.
The Optimist was designed in 1947 by American Clark Mills to offer low-cost sailing for young people.
He drew a simple pram that could be built from three sheets of plywood, then the design was slightly modified and introduced in Europe by Axel Damsgaard.
There are now more than 160,000 Optimists sailed in around 120 countries.
At the 2020 Olympics, at least 75% of medallist skippers were former Optimist champions: the spritsail remains a cornerstone of sailing.
Working boat designs
The gaff rig – extensively used on workboats of all sorts – was a logical progression.
The sprit was replaced by a gaff that slid up the mast so two sides of the mainsail were attached to solid spars.
The later addition of a boom improved performance, but made lowering and raising the rig trickier when shooting bridges.
Some builders solved this problem by attaching the boom gooseneck to the top of a tall tabernacle in which the mast hinged, so the lowered mast, gaff and sail could still stack on top of the boom.
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The gaff rig improved the versatility of workboats; the ability to sail to windward diluted sailors’ dread of a lee shore.
The gaff rig held sway on small to medium sized working craft and on growing numbers of leisure yachts until the Bermuda rig arrived.
Originally developed in Bermuda for smaller vessels then adapted to the larger ocean-going Bermuda sloop, this rig features a triangular mainsail hoisted to the top of the mast. Marconi’s invention of wire rigging to hold up tall radio masts soon spread to sailboats.
Performance-oriented designers borrowed Marconi’s idea and hoisted large three-sided mainsails on tall and well-supported masts.
As a result, the mainsail had a long, straight leading edge which optimised windward performance.
Crafted for speed
Predictably, yacht racing encouraged the proliferation of these ‘Marconi’ Bermuda rigs.
Metre boat and ocean racer designers were quick to forsake gaffs and go for large mainsails and smallish headsails set on tall masts.
When the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC)’s rules started influencing the post-war racing scene, masthead Bermuda rigs with smaller mainsails and larger overlapping genoas received favourable racing handicaps and therefore became the norm; masthead rigs with 150% overlapping genoas dominated the scene.
Fortuitously, self-tailing winches were invented (1974 patent) and fitted on race boats. And GRP production family cruisers followed suit.
From top-selling Beneteaus like the First 30 (1977) to cruising twin keelers like the Westerly Centaur (1969), masthead rigs and overlapping genoas became the norm.
At the same time, the shorter mast, smaller main and standard working jib saved the builder money – and a large genoa went onto the ‘extras’ list!
The Hunter 19 was an example of how the RORC rule encouraged small mains and big genoas.
The National Squib keelboat’s identical hull and keel sports a well-balanced fractional rig with a small jib and a big mainsail.
But when the Squib grew a cabin and coachroof to become a handicap race boat, the rig height and mainsail shrunk while the headsail became a 150% genoa.
And early Hunter 19s won handicap races galore.
Meanwhile, classic 1960s and 70s cruiser-racers such as the Nicholson 32, Contessa 26 and 32, Twister, Stella, Beneteaus and Jeanneaus et al clung to masthead rigs with small mainsails, working jibs and large genoas; the latter still lurking on the extras list.
The same applied to most of the British bilge- and twin-keel family cruisers.
Fractional sail boat rigs
Impressed by David Thomas’s quarter ton design, Quarto, Hunter was one of the first British builders to beat a path back to fractional rigged cruiser-racers.
Unlike most other quarter tonners at that time, Quarto featured a fractional rig.
In 1975, Hunter asked Thomas to design a GRP cruiser-racer with a similar rig. This became the Sonata, and Hunter never again built a masthead-rigged yacht.
At around the same time, the new International Offshore Rule (IOR) handicap rule – followed later by the Channel Handicap System (CHS) and International Rating Certificate (IRC) rules – treated fractional sail boat rigs more fairly.
Hunter’s twin keel cruisers also had easily handled fractional rigs, later including self-tacking jibs as standard.
As most sailors moved over to Bermuda rigs, working boats such as fishing smacks and pilot cutters stuck to their four-sided mainsails held aloft on gaffs.
As did several leisure yachts. Why? What are the advantages of these ‘four sided’ mainsails?
While gaff-rig aficionados concede that it’s less close-winded than a Bermuda rig, they reckon it scores off the wind.
Although a gaffer’s mast is shorter, ample sail can be set because the gaff puts more area at the top of a mainsail than you get beneath the diminutive headboard on a Bermuda rig mainsail.
On a reach or a run, gaff rigs provide power aplenty.
Design expert CA Marchaj also said a low aspect ratio mainsail is more efficient than a high aspect ratio equivalent when sailing off the wind.; if you want to pile on more horsepower in light airs, the space above the gaff can also be filled with a topsail.
Ideal for novices
In the 21st century, modern gaffers are still popular, and thousands of novices enjoy sailing in a ubiquitous and simple little gaffer: the Mirror dinghy.
The Mirror’s gunter-rigged gaff slides up parallel to its short mast and offers many benefits.
The mast and gaff are much shorter than a one-piece Bermuda rig mast, so are easy to handle and transport when the boat is trailed.
Yet windward performance is good, thanks to the straight luff that continues from the tack of the mainsail to its head on the ‘gunter’ gaff.
The Mirror Class later introduced a Bermuda rig option.
Designer Andrew Wolstenholme attributes much of the credit for the popularity of the gaff rig in cruising yachts to Cornish Crabbers.
These boats have sold in large numbers since Roger Dongray designed the original Cornish Crabber.
Her smaller sister, the 19ft Cornish Shrimper, sports a nicely balanced gaff rig with a sizable roller genoa tacked to a bowsprit.
Over 1,000 have been sold and she’s still in production. Wolstenholme has recently designed a new Cornish Crabber 24 MkV with a lightweight carbon mast which also simplifies trailer-sailing.
Wolstenholme’s Kite 21 is another modern gaffer to take advantage of new materials.
“My aim is to keep her light and simple… the sail plan is generous and set on lightweight carbon spars. I want her to sail well in light and moderate winds – not just in a blow. I want to tow her behind a normal 1.8 litre saloon – not some gas guzzling 4×4.”
The Old Gaffers Association aims to encourage interest in the traditional gaff rig, but also welcomes the development of the rig.
One of these exotic ‘new’ gaffers is the Simon Rogers-designed Alice III. Chris Spencer-Chapman, whose company McKillop Classic Sails was involved in the rig and sail plan, says the “combination of the light carbon spars and hydraulic lifting deep fin and bulb keel allows an enormous sail area which would not be possible with a conventional hull and spars. She is exciting in light conditions but the windage can be an issue to windward in heavy conditions. “Off the wind she is always very fast… for easy cruising, the Bermuda rig will win, but there will always be the aficionado who likes the features of traditional rigs. Unless you are a real purist, why not take advantage of modern materials?”
Stephen Akester, who co-owns Alice III, told me she “is light displacement at 7.5 tonnes. In light airs and no sea she outperforms Bermuda rigs but to windward in a blow she loses out due to windage and not being as close winded. [She has] much less weight aloft and a very different motion to a classic gaff-rigged heavy displacement vessel. We opted for a gaff rig for the fun of it. Further refinements using modern materials mean we can set the rig up for single-handed sailing with headsails and topsail on rollers and boom bags to catch main and mizzen.”
The Nigel Irens-designed 63ft Maggie B was another dramatic ‘modern gaffer’.
Builder Covey Island Boatworks called her a ‘fusion’ yacht because she fused modern materials with traditional ideas.
Her schooner rig featured short, high peaked carbon gaffs on Irens’s slippery and almost plumb stemmed shoal draught hull design.
The carbon spars are held up by Vectran fibre shrouds tensioned by special deadeyes.
Vectran costs more than wire, but the weight reduction is huge – as is the cost saving on fabrications to attach wires to the mast and on rigging screws to tension them.
The weight saving aloft meant that 600kg worth of ballast was saved down below, improving performance and righting moments.
Maggie B was succeeded by Farfarer – another Irens masterpiece featuring an unstayed rig with ‘fathead’ mainsails, with a stiff top batten doing the job of a mini gaff.
Matt Newlands of Swallow Boats also brought gaffs into the modern age; then went further.
“The gunter rig was what we offered, and still do, to customers who prefer having shorter spars making trailer-sailing easier for two reasons – less length to trail and easier to raise the mast. But in my opinion, it has been made almost obsolete by two developments. One is carbon fibre masts, and the other is fathead mainsails.
“Carbon masts on trailer-sailer sized boats are so light that it’s easy to raise a full-length mast if the base is hinged. The mast length problem is cured by using a ‘fathead’ mainsail, reducing mast length (on our boats by as much as 1m) while maintaining the same sail area and improving lift/drag ratio.
“On our popular BayRaider 20 this results in a mast that is only 1m longer than the boat. This new rig has many advantages over the gunter, chief among them being ease of reefing. I love quirky rigs, but it’s hard to beat the Bermuda mainsail setup especially with a fathead main on a carbon mast.”
All of which brings us to the Bermuda rigs on today’s production cruisers.
Many have moved on from the old RORC-inspired masthead sail plan. I asked rigging expert Nigel Theadon whether he preferred masthead or fractional sail boat rigs.
“Modern swept-back spreaders provide a ‘safer’ rig without the need for babystay or forward lowers to stabilise the mast’s middle sections… forestays are now higher up the mast than in years gone by, so the modern fractional rig is closer to a masthead than it once was,” he says.
“Fractional rigs are more attractive to look at and do not need expensive and powerful backstay adjusters. When buying a new boat, consider what you want from the rig. When buying a used boat, get a rigger to carry out a mast inspection: because hull surveyors rarely look above eye height.”
Whether you opt for a gaff- or Bermuda-rigged boat, this is sound advice.
Nigel was class champion of the X332; its well-balanced ultra-modern fractional rig works as well for a small cruising crew as it does for keen racers.
But don’t let this put you off a modern gaffer if you enjoy its quirks and character.
Our coastline would be a boring place if we all sailed the same sorts of boats.
Pros and cons of popular sail boat rig designs
Chinese junk rig
Pros: Easy to raise and reef. Easy to tack, gybe and sail single-handed. Easy to control in strong winds.
Cons: Not as close-winded as other rigs. Can be expensive and complicated to build/fit.
Pros: Shorter spars make trailing easier. Modern carbon spars are light and easier to raise/lower. Efficient on a reach or run. Easy on the eye.
Cons: Not as close-winded as modern Bermuda rigs.
Masthead Bermuda rig
Pros: Close-winded. Large genoas can be reefed with modern roller furling gear. Modern self-tailing winches make short-tacking easier. Small mainsails easier to control.
Cons: Large genoas can be hard work for cruising.
Fractional Bermuda rig
Pros: Very close-winded with tight sheeting angles. Smaller jib is easier to tack, set and trim when shorthanded A large mainsail adds extra off-wind power
Cons: Swept spreaders can chafe mainsails when dead-running.
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