The sail has some rips in it and other cruisers on fancier yachts are looking a little smug and condescending. That is until they notice that the selfsame junk-rigged boat is deftly maneuvering through a crowded anchorage under full sail. They watch in amazement as the junk rounds up, drops sail in an instant and anchors with a satisfactory splash, all in an effortless operation by one person. The observer may well ask: "What is so different?" The short answer is: Everything.
For a rig that has been around since AD300, very little has changed. For centuries the junk rig proved to be the most effective and versatile rig in the world. Unlike the old square riggers, which found going to windward difficult, the junk rig was, and still is, effective on all points of sail. The only time that the junk is not happy is in light or fluky winds, while ghosting to weather with a swell running. Off the wind, however, the junk is highly efficient in all winds and the ability to carry the sail at right angles to the boat is one of the plus factors that set it apart from a fore and aft rigged sloop.
The junk sail is designed in such a manner that each panel can be thought of as a separate sail with its own set of sheets, battens and parrels, so that the load is shared among many components. Even if a panel of sail should rip or pop a seam the rest of the panels will still be effective, so that repairs can be carried out later when it is more convenient. Because of the separate panels, the load on sheets and sailcloth is vastly reduced compared to sloop rigs. It would be very hard to imagine a sloop with a sail made of bamboo matting, yet this is what Chinese sailors used for their junk rig sails in years gone by and they happily weathered storms without damage.
The ease of handling that comes with a junk rig is one of the main safety features when at sea, particularly for a single-hander or for a sailor with a weak or tired crew. All operations on the modern junk-rigged yacht can be performed from the safety of the cockpit with no need to go onto the foredeck at all. One crew member can easily control the sail even if a squall hits, or when tacking, gybing, or making any other adjustments that are required. In an emergency, the whole sail can be dropped in an instant. As for reefing, it is merely a matter of dropping a couple of battens to lessen the sail area. When wet, a junk sail, especially the larger ones, can be heavy and a small winch is necessary just to winch out the last couple of battens.
All the rigging is of rope and the mast is un-stayed, so the costs of a junk-rigged yacht are significantly lower than a conventional sloop. The top of the mast bears the most weight, with the load being spread along its length by the battens. With a junk sail there is no flogging, something that significantly extends the life of the sails, and there is no flogging when heaving to as this simply requires the sheets to be loosened, allowing the junk sail to weathercock in a very docile manner.
All in all, a most satisfactory rig for a cruising family.
Kerry Biddle-Chadwick is a freelance writer who has been writing for Caribbean magazines and online newspapers since 2006.