The Benefits of a Ketch Rig
We sail a 57-foot ketch (Bowman) with cutter rig. We've crossed the Atlantic three times in three years and were so pleased with our choice of ketch rig. Our yankee is on a furler and our staysail is hanked on, so if we have a problem, we have maximized options. We experimented in local waters off Long Island for several years before embarking on blue water adventures. We hove to for lunch breaks, tried different sail combinations and trim, tested reefing options, and putup every scrap we had of sail to see what she would do. And she sails like a charm, but she does tell you what she likes and what she doesn’t. So listen to the lady. She knows how to sail. Your job is to enable her to sail her best and to get you from here to there in safety and comfort.
On our main mast, we can carry a yankee (a high cut
powerhouse of a sail that lets the seas break right through without getting
caught up in the sail), a hanked on staysail on a removable forestay, and a
gigantic main with three reef points. The yankee and staysail are a very
powerful combination; the slot between them creates lift and generates the
majority of our forward motion. We also have an asymmetrical spinnaker for
winds under 15 knots. The mizzen carries the mizzen sail with two reef points
and a mizzen staysail, basically like an asymmetrical spinnaker that stretches
between masts to fill in that space with more sail power.
A handy feature of the ketch sail plan is the
ability to use the Mizzen as an "air rudder". For example, you're
approaching a mooring under sail and need to bring the bow up to windward a
bit...just haul the mizzen boom up to windward and it will turn the bow to
windward. It is also useful for sailing off a mooring to turn the bow away from
the mooring. We recently used our mizzen
sail to back us around away from a rocky promontory in close quarters. It is a
very useful sail for safety applications when you learn to use it to its full
As cruising sailors, we have used the mizzen a crane for loading and unloading outboard motors, anchors, dinghies, kayaks, bicycles, kedging off a lee shore, additional awning supports and as a riding sail. We’ve also used it to let kids swing out and jump off the boat to peals of laughter and fun. The mizzen provides options and can be a real life saver if you have to anchor under sail. Since we do not always have the luxury of nor do we enjoy extended motoring it is good to have those extra scraps of sail for light air. And should we have a failure on the main mast, we’d still be able to make acceptable boat speed under mizzen and jury-rigged jib, not to mention communication ability with a second antenna.
Some ketch configurations can cause challenges. If the mizzen boom extends over the transom it can interfere with a windvane and other devices. The mizzen boom can also cast shadows on solar panels reducing their efficiency.
When we are out cruising and if the wind is piping, we don’t raise the main sail at all but sail "jib and jigger" and still push 6 knots. The key to sail trim is to keep the helm balanced with just a small bit of weather helm. If the wind gusts come at you hard and fast, the boat should point up automatically. That allows your vessel to sail more upright, which is more efficient and thereby prevents disrupting the galley and getting grief from the galley slave. It also helps keep the off-watch crew in their berths.
The mizzen provides that capability and balances the jib. The sail combinations make the vessel easy to single hand and will virtually self-steer based upon the sail set. We have been able to keep sailing when we had steering failure mid-Atlantic, simply by adjusting the sails. We have also hove to under jib and jigger to let storm systems pass over or to effect repairs. Nothing could be simpler. You just come about and don’t release the jib. There is no need to go forward and no need to change sails.
While we generally reduce sail by reefing the main and yankee, typically on long beats to windward, the mizzen is carried all the time and can balance the helm if properly trimmed. As weather picks-up (over 30 kts.), we might reduce the mizzen by reefing to avoid overpowering the helm. In really heavy weather, we would reduce to a storm jib and storm tri-sail, but in winds of up to 40 knots with higher gusts, we’ve had no problem continuing on with jib and jigger. We are not proponents of bare poles.
We have heard that the Choy-Lee, Soverel, and Morgan boats, with longer keel/keel-centerboards, can carry more mainsail; some might reef the mizzen first after furling the genoa down. On fin keel designs, like the Frers Cybils Ketch, the main often over-powers the helm, so the pattern is main reefed first, then the genoa, jib and mizzen last. The main gets stowed before the mizzen in this case, to keep the helm in balance. Each boat is different and handles differently depending on what’s above the water and below the water. Most people don’t realize that below the water counts as much as above the water in creating propulsion.
Most sailors find that the big genoas are too overpowering in wind strengths above 15 to 18 knots. and many have cut-down their 150% genoas to 130%. The fully battened mainsail and mizzen has been a godsend for all and many have added additional reinforcement on the leech of both main and mizzen. We ourselves had our mainsail converted to fully battened after we lost many of our main sail cars during one of our Atlantic crossings.
Of course, on those rare beautiful days when the skies are clear and winds moderate, there is nothing so thrilling as an extended reach with Yankee, Jib, full Main, Mizzen Staysail and Mizzen, flags, and even bed sheets flying. Look out world, for then Aleria takes off like a freight train and there is no stopping her until she shakes off every last cobweb.
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