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Choosing a Boat

Racing or cruising
Sail configuration
Hull configuration
New or used

The Perfect boat
Part 1
Part 2

The Ketch Rig
Why Cruisers like it
Versatile Rig
Ketch Trim


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.

Across the North Atlantic from Halifax to Ireland we had six gales and one strong storm, so we sailed jib (staysail) and jigger (mizzen) the whole way. It was so good to have a reduced sail area when the wind really piped up without having to change sails. We even hove to twice, very successfully, for ~36 hours each time, with mizzen and staysail. Worked like a charm and so easy. 

On our second crossing, from the Canaries to the Caribbean, the wind kept decreasing until we had barely zephyrs moving us along. On that crossing we put up every scrap of sail including yankee, staysail, main, mizzen and mizzen staysail, with occasional daytime use of an asymmetrical spinnaker. We kept pulling away from all the boats in our SSB net. When we lost steering temporarily for a few hours (yes it was scary), we were able to steer the boat beautifully by quickly reducing and balancing the sails and trimming to the shifts in wind. This is when we realized just how extraordinarily well balanced that vessel is and how tweaking the trim can benefit. 

On our third crossing we had very light air again, and alternated sailing and motor sailing to the Azores under a typical upwind flat configuration when the wind shifted to the N. 

We have also raced in Navigator class races and have found that our boat, contrary to popular opinion about ketches, sails almost as high as sloops, and gains 0.5 knots upwind with the mizzen sail sheeted in flat. We have often been told the mizzen doesn't do anything to help when sailing upwind, so we experimented over time to see what would work. We adjust the traveler on the main to leeward to get the best upwind performance. We've removed the mizzen traveler as it was difficult to reach (center cockpit) and didn't do much in our experience. Off-wind ketches offer the benefit of multiple sail plan options for harnessing every last bit of breeze. The mizzen again adds at least 0.5 knots of boat speed. It's very likely that every boat is somewhat different, so it pays to try out the different options. 

What we've found is that some people who advise about how to sail a ketch have never actually sailed or cruised on one themselves, so we suspect that myths are being propagated based on current thinking about racing in sloops. In fact, two of our friends who removed their mizzens and extended their mains (one ketch, one yawl) were very sorry about those decisions and one has now gone back to the yawl rig and the former ketch has been sold.

Interestingly, some of the new superyachts are adopting ketch rigs for greater versatility in sail plan. I can appreciate why. Check out the beautiful classic 55 metre Marie, the Royal Huisman Ethereal or the new 70m ketch Sybaris under construction by Perini Navi.  Gorgeous and functional.  There’s a reason why superyacht designers are going back to the ketch rig.

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 advantage. 

The mizzen can also be used like a riding sail when at anchor. Ours even has reef points, not that we’ve ever used them. Aleria does not sail at anchor so we haven’t really had to deal with that problem. We don't feel that the mizzen should be left up as a riding sail for any extended period of time. It's not particularly good for the sail with extended UV exposure and the potential for flogging. Dacron sails are generally good for about 4000 hours of UV exposure.  With most of us spending the bulk of our time at anchor while cruising, it would greatly decrease the life of the sail to routinely use the mizzen as a riding sail. If we were buying a new mizzen, the sail would be about $1400. Riding sails can be made comparatively inexpensively and would cost a small fraction of the amount of a new mizzen. But for the one off occasion in a troublesome in current driven anchorage when you don’t have a riding sail, why not?

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.

Joy of sailingCoastal Boating (Reg. in Ireland No. 443222) is a division of Knowledge Clinic Ltd.
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