Sailing Rig Configurations Explained, Mocked, & Pondered

It is fun to add to the misinformation. 

Chances are your boat has the rig it needs. If it doesn’t—buy a new boat, don’t replace the rig. Alas, there are many misconceptions about various rig configurations. Thus, I feel it might be fun to add to the misinformation. 

It’s kinda my job. 

Let’s explore some sailing rig configurations

The vast majority of modern sailboats sold today are sloops—with good reason. 

Sadly, contrarians such as myself abound. They refused to accept the most popular way as best—insisting unto death that ‘mob rule’ is stupid and that they know better. 

That said, I personally like ketch rigs. There, I blurted it out and revealed what an idiot I am. There are almost no ketches sold today. One of the primary complaints is that they are slow. 

That’s okay, my wife points out I’m a tad slow myself. But what sane sailor is in a big rush? Not I. And, once the wind pipes up, ketches really come into their own. 

Fatty loves his ketch rig, especially in a blow. Exploring sailing rig configurations
Fatty loves his ketch rig, especially in a blow

Ketches have two masts, the small one aft. To put it crudely, they are sloops with a small mainsail-type sail aft (but forward of where the rudderpost bisects the waterline). 

The advantages of a Ketch Rig are:

  1. All the sails are small and manageable
  2. The rigging and sheet loads are lower,
  3. The rigs tend to be lower in aspect and thus are more easily stayed,
  4. The mizzen acts as an air rudder and dialing in or out weather helm is as easy as tweaking its sheet,
  5. A mizzen staysail can be deployed and is easily doused. Plus, it is nearly as large as the mainsail but weighs almost nothing,
  6. The mizzen mast is a convenient place for radar, wind generator, and various other gear to be mounted and,
  7. Instead of reefing the mainsail, that difficult-to-handle sail can be completely doused for a passing squall with jib & jigger (headsail and mizzen) pulling nicely in the heavy air. 
Fatty’s first boat was a wooden double-ender sloop purchased when he was 15 years old
Fatty’s first boat was a wooden double-ender sloop purchased when he was 15 years old

Yawls are basically ketches with smaller mizzens that reside aft of where the rudderpost bisects the waterline. If you are a fan of yawls, you believe their mizzens are just the perfect size to do their job—and no more. 

Yawls tend to be faster—with bigger mainsails and lower windage in comparison to a ketch. 

Ketch fans disparage yawls as half-breeds with all the trouble, weight, and expense of a ketch—without any of the benefits. 

Yes, at various ‘wooden boat regattas for wooden boat freaks’, fists often fly between the ‘ketchers and the yawlies’—often egged on by the local schooner trash. 

Sad.

Schooners are, according to one trouble-making Downeaster in Maine, just backwards ketches. Their foremast is smaller, their aft mainmast is far taller. 

The result is a rig that was perfect for the pilot boats that used to have to stay offshore outside windy NYC in winter because their large-area mainsails hove-to so well in a gale. The negative side is that their foretriangle is low and small—killing their ability to point high while sailing to weather. 

While vessels over seventy feet are often still schooner rigged, on a thirty-foot schooner all those sails interfere with each other—to trim one sail is to be forced to trim them all. 

Are there other choices? Sure! The free standing ‘Cat Ketch’ has had a resurgence of interest recently. Ditto, the Aero rig, which perches the bowsprit on the leading edge of a rotating mast. 

Multihulls sport some interesting spars. Cool Change of New Zealand features two masts, one on each hull directly athwart ship of each other. It’s designer says they don’t blanket each other while either close reaching or broad reaching—but if he wants to instantly reduce the force on his hull, he just beam reaches and the windward sail cancels out the leeward automatically. 

Interesting!

The best is the simplicity of running ‘wing and wing’ with such a rig—full strength  with the fully exposed sails winged out, and lesser strength with the sails winged in (and partially blanketing each other). 

Are their variations of the above? Of course—hundreds. 

For instance, a sloop has a larger main than working jib. 

But if the single mast is placed further aft and the main and headsail are about the same size—then the rig is called a cutter. (Please note: Adding an inner forestay and staysail to a sloop doesn’t make it a cutter—it is a double-headsail sloop.)

Of course, since caveman days the local boat designers have attempted to expand the rig, balance that expanded rig with effective lateral resistance (keel), and minimize the superfluous hull.  

The result of that ancient design brief are the recent America’s Cup foiling catamarans—or, even better and more minimal—a foiling kite surfer. 

As long as there is wind, there will be sailors looking aloft and thinking to themselves, I can do better. With each advance in technology (carbon-fiber, canting keels, foils), new vistas of engineering opportunity open up. 

The result is boats going faster and faster—though not necessarily better or safer. 

But for every ‘extreme’ sailor, there is a traditional counterpart. I sail around and around the world on low-tech, slow vessels precisely because they are so safe, stodgy, and dependable. 

Speed costs money, and speed kills both on the road and at sea. It’s the old story of the turtle and the hare. Robin Knox Johnson won the first single-handed race around the world aboard the slowest boat on the course because he was able to keep plugging away. 

Each to his own. And that’s why every sailor in every sailor’s bar in the world looks out into the harbor at his vessel and thinks with delight … ain’t she pretty! And then glances at his fellow boater’s craft, frowns, and thinks, how stupid can you get?

Editor’s Note: Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are currently in mid Pacific—attempting to figure out what all those strings do on their 43-foot ketch Ganesh. 

 

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander and his wife Carolyn are currently on their fourth circumnavigation. Fatty is the author of numerous marine books. Visit: fattygoodlander.com for details. 

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com