By Ted Brewer

Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 4, Number 2, March/April 2001.

While economics favor the sloop, other rigs have much to offer

Sunshine, a 33-foot gaff sloop drawing

Sunshine, a 33-foot gaff sloop with a bowsprit

The history of the fore-and-aft
rig is a fascinating one. It is particularly interesting when you realize
that two of the earliest fore-and-aft rigs, the lateen sail of the
Middle East (Egyptian feluccas and Arabian dhows) and the Chinese junk,
have remained largely unchanged over the centuries and are still in
use in the areas where they began.

21-foot catboat drawing

21-foot catboat

in the West, the fore-and-aft rig has been under constant development:
from the
dipping-lug rig
based on the old square sails
to standing lugs, gaff rigs, and finally to “leg o’mutton” sails,
spritsails, and the modern Bermudan rig. And, of course, the rig
is still being developed with newer materials, fully battened sails,
vangs, in-mast reefing, sprit rigs with wishbone booms, and so forth.

will note that I use the term “Bermudan” rather
than “Marconi.” The reason is that the rig first
became more widely known in the late 1600s after reports reached
of the good performance of the small sloops of Bermuda. So I prefer
use the island name, rather than call it after a radio mast that
was not invented until 200 years after a Bermudan rig first caught

42-foot sloop drawing

Sandingo, a 42-foot sloop

Gaff vs. Bermudan

The gaff rig and the Bermudan are the two major rigs today. Each has its
advantages, but truly they operate on different planes. The racing sailor
and the average yachtsman stay with the Bermudan rig, while the gaff is
favored by a few diehards and is used, of course, for character boats and

gaff rig does feature a lower center of effort for a given
sail area and so develops less
moment. This is partly
offset by
the heavier weight of the spars, but the weight of the gaff
comes down as the sail is reefed. Furthermore, a quick “reef” can
be achieved in a squall by dropping the peak halyard to scandalize
the sail and immediately reduce the effective mainsail area
by 30 to 40 percent. The gaff sail itself is slightly more effective
offwindthan the Bermudan as it presents a flatter area to the
breeze and, in addition, the gaff can be fitted with a vang to reduce
twist. More
important to the serious cruising sailor is that the gaff rig
is simpler and cheaper to set up, less sensitive to bad tuning,
and generally
simpler to repair if something goes wrong at sea.

42-foot double-headsail sloop drawing

42-foot double-headsail sloop

The gaff rig hasn’t had
the advantage of the development that has gone into the Bermudan rig in
the past 50 years. The British designer, J. Laurent Giles, showed the gaff
rig the way over a half-century ago with the lovely 47-foot gaff cutter
Dyarchy. Her single-spreader rig supported a tall, wooden, pole mast with
an unusually large main topsail’s luff rope sliding up into a groove. Despite
Dyarchy’s success, this did not stir interest in further development unfortunately,
so the gaff rig of today is little changed from that of a century ago with
the exception of synthetic sails and, possibly, aluminum tube spars.

The contemporary, highly
developed Bermudan rig, with its lighter spars, higher-aspect-ratio sail,
inboard chainplates, close jib-sheeting angles, and so on, has much the
better windward ability. Also the development of the spinnaker and (more
importantly to the cruising sailor, the asymmetrical spinnaker) has more
than offset the gaff rig’s advantage downwind. A major feature of the Bermudan
rig, of course, is that a permanent backstay can be fitted, adding to safety
and reducing the need for running backstays.

these and other reasons, such as rating handicaps and manufacturing
economy, the
Bermudan rig is vastly in the
majority today for
cruising and racing, while new gaff-rigged craft are
few and far between.
Still, the gaff rig finds favor with those who love traditional
craft andreplicas of the working sail of yesteryear.
I’ve been fortunate to have been commissioned to design
wide range of gaff-rigged yachts,
from 25-foot catboats and Bahama sloops to 70-foot schooners,
and I know that our waters would be very dull indeed
if the gaff rig ever
vanished completely.


In the 1960s, the Royal Ocean Racing Club of Great Britain
developed a handicap rule that estimated the efficiency
of the various




Handicap (%)

sloop or cutter
Bermudan yawl
Bermudan schooner and gaff sloop
Bermudan ketch and gaff yawl
Gaff schooner
Gaff ketch


37-foot triple-headsail sloop

37-foot triple-headsail sloop

effect, the rule said that a gaff ketch rig has only 81 percent of the
efficiency of a
Bermudan sloop
or cutter
the same sail
area, but that was with other things being equal.
not always the case, and it is obvious that a gaff
ketch with a well-designed
hull and a slick bottom can sail circles around a
poorly designed Bermudan sloop with ratty sails and a rough
bottom. Also, the cruising sailor
must consider that efficiency is not necessarily
handiness or safety.
Safety in cruising is having sufficient windward
ability to claw off a lee shore in a gale, but only
if the
rig can be
by a short-handed
crew. If a sloop’s sails are too large for
the crew to change or reef under storm conditions,
then you have no safety and would be
better off with a divided rig with its smaller sails
and greater ease of handling.


the 1980s, the cat rig was limited to small character boats, usually
gaff-rigged, and designed
along the
lines of the Cape
Cod model.

29-foot sloop drawing

29-foot sloop

Now we have beamy fin keel/spade rudder
Nonsuch catboats in sizes to
36 feet, spreading over 700 square feet in one
huge sail. I know from racing against them that these
new catboats
sail well to
certainly much better than the old gaff-rigged
cats, but how
much of
that is due to the rig and how much to the modern
hull design is open to question.

Cat rigs

The cat rig is certainly suitable for coastal cruising,
with an eye on the weather, but I don’t
consider any single-masted cat rig, not even
the most modern, to be a true bluewater cruiser.
Someone will
cross an ocean on one, probably has already;
oceans have been crossed in all manner of small
craft, from rowboats to sailing canoes . . .
just not with me aboard!

Sloops and cutters

The sloop rig and the cutter are almost indistinguishable today. If the
boat sets only a single headsail, she is a sloop, of course.

46-foot cutter without bowsprit

Blue Jeans, a 46-foot cutter without a bowsprit

With or without
a bowsprit, if the mast is set well aft, abaft 40 percent of the waterline
length, and the boat carries two or more headsails, she is a cutter. Confusion
arises when a boat has her mast located forward but sets several headsails.
Many will call her a cutter but she is, in reality, a double-headsail sloop.
Even with a short bowsprit she’ll be a sloop unless the foretriangle is
larger than the mainsail.

The sloop and cutter
are the most efficient of all rigs. Indeed,
a sloop with a self-tending
jib would
be as easy
to handle
as a catboat and a better all-round performer.
The single-headsail sloop
has a slight edge over the double-headsail
as the staysail is
not an easy sail to trim for maximum performance.
Properly set
up, either rig is simple to handle, and with
modern (and very expensive) gear they are
suited to cruising
up to 50
feet or more.

An important point with
cutters and most double-headsail rigs is that running backstays are required
to properly tension the staysail stay. Often, you’ll find an intermediate
shroud fitted, running from the point where the staysail stay intersects
the mast to a chainplatejust abaft the aft lower shroud.

38-foot cutter drawing

Kaiulani, a 38-foot cutter

The angle this
shroud presents with the mast is far too small to tension the staysail stay,
so all it really does is add undesirable mast compression. On many designs
I have fitted a heavy tackle to the lower end of the intermediate shroud
so it can be left set up as an intermediate in light air and, when it breezes
up, brought aft as a runner, properly tensioning the staysail stay and reducing
mast panting at the same time. Don’t cross an ocean without one!

It should be noted that the
most efficient setup for a given sail
area is a sloop
with a large
mainsail and a
The big
150-percent masthead genoa jib beloved
of modern racers
only pays off under handicap rules that
do not penalize the extra
area of
the overlap.
In class racing where every square foot
of sail area is counted, such as the
5.5-Meter class,
the rigs
quickly settle down
to using the largest
permissible main and the smallest jib
to make up the allowed
area. Such a rig can make good sense
for the coastal cruiser also, as
it simplifies handling. The main can
be quickly
reefed when it blows,
eliminating the need for a headsail change.
Tacking with the smaller jib is much
easier on a husband/wife
than handling
a whopping
big genoa. Such rigs were once common
but are now out of style in this era of masthead


52-foot yawl drawing

Julie, a 52-foot yawl

Despite the efficiency of the single-masted
rigs, my own preference for bluewater
cruisers over
40 feet
is a divided
rig, the yawl
or ketch. A true yawl has the mizzen
set abaft the rudderpost and the
sail area
about 10 to 15 percent of the total.
It’s a useful rig wit

some of the advantages of both the
sloop and ketch. It is almost as
weatherly as a sloop and, like the ketch,
set an easily handled
mizzen staysail to increase area
in light air or jog along under jib and
mizzen in a blow. At anchor, if you
leave the mizzen set with a
reef or two, the boat points quietly
into the wind and no longer sails
around its mooring. The yawl’s mizzen
must be strongly stayed so the sail
can be set to balance the jib in
heavy weather and, in
a real gale, to keep the yacht head-to-wind
with a sea anchor off the bow. It’s
difficult to design a yawl today,
though, as the rudders on contemporary yachts
are usually so far aft that you’d
have to tow the mizzen in a dinghy
for it to be abaft the rudderpost.


44-foot ketch with small mizzen drawing

A 44-foot ketch with a small mizzen

The ketch has her mizzen forward of the rudderpost, and the sail area is
comparatively larger than that of the yawl’s mizzen, up to 20 percent or
more of the total. As a result, the ketch is slower and not as weatherly
as the yawl because the large mizzen is partially backwinded by the main
when beating to windward. The answer is to design ketch rigs with a smaller
mizzen, closer to yawl proportions. This makes a good compromise rig with
some of the advantages of both. The mizzen mast can be well stayed, and
the mizzen sail is not so large that it unduly affects performance.

the ketch and yawl can be balanced
under a wide variety of reduced
sail combinations in a
blow and,
to many cruising
thishandiness more than offsets
the loss of a
fraction of a knot to windward.
Both rigs can be built in smaller sizes,
of course. I’ve owned a
22-foot ketch and 22-foot, 25-foot,
and 30-foot yawls. Still, it is
generally considered that over
40 feet is the
proper size for the rigs,
although I would not dismiss them
in smaller sizes for extended bluewater
cruising. The versatility and handiness
of yawls and ketches can more than
make up for an extra day or two
at sea on a long voyage.

By the
way, there is no such rig as
a “cutter-ketch” but
I’ve heard a Whitby 42
called that when one is fitted
with a
bowsprit and double headsails.
The term makes about as much
sense as
calling a Maine Friendship a “cutter-sloop.” The
correct term is simply a ketch
or, if you wish to be exact,
a double-headsail

double-headsail ketch with bowsprit drawing

Miami, a double-headsail ketch with a bowsprit


The schooner rig is rarely seen today and, to my knowledge, there have been
only two schooners in production in North America, the beautiful Cherubini
44 and my own little 32-foot Lazyjack (see January 2001 issue of Good Old
Boat). The usual schooner is set up with one or more headsails, followed
by a gaff foresail set on the foremast and either a gaff or Bermudan mainsail
on the mainmast. The staysail schooner replaces the foresail with a staysail
between the masts. Nina, a famous old staysail schooner, was winning silver
from her first trans-Atlantic race in 1928 to her last Bermuda win in the
late 1960s.

A few schooners have
been built with Bermudan
sails on both
masts. My
Ingenue design
was a CCA rule-beater
this type,
a lot of silver in her day
and beating many larger yachts
when the wind
was free.
Still, although
the schooner is fast
the wind,
she is not as weatherly as
the sloop
or yawl. A schooner can be
a handy rig for cruising,

70-foot schooner drawing

Tree of Life, a 70-foot schooner

A well-designed schooner can
beat slowly
to windward in a blow with
her foresail set and is well
suited to
handling in
adverse weather
by a
short-handed cruising
Schooners have been built
as small as 20 to 22 feet, and
Murray Peterson designed
many traditional beauties
in the 30-foot
range. The rig is best suited
to larger craft, generally
40 feet
or more,
but if
you like the
rig and want a small schooner,
go for it.

When I started in this business more than 40 years ago, the waters
were dotted with schooners, ketches, yawls, cutters, and sloops of
all types, sizes, and colors. Today, unfortunately, rating rules
and the economics of modern mass production have decreed that the sloop
rig is the way to go. Over the years, the factories have turned them
out by the thousands, usually with blue trim or, like the bathtub
my home, all white with no trim at all. As sailors, we have lost
much of our heritage, and our waters are a great deal less interesting
a result.