What is it about a Ketch Rig that Cruisers Like?
My first personal encounter with a ketch was in the late ‘70s
on a two week cruise aboard the original Irish sail training vessel Asgard,
built in 1905 by Colin Archer. She was a 50 foot gaff rigged ketch. She was
Battling through a severe gale that coincided with a Fastnet
race that claimed several yachts was a life-altering experience. With the wind
howling around us, her skipper, Captain Eric Healy, taught me the love of a
sturdy boat and that the ketch rig allows for numerous sail combinations making
it easy to keep the sail plan balanced in almost all wind conditions. That
experience also instilled a tremendous respect for the sea in me.
A few decades later, we started to firm
up plans to go cruising. Captain Healy’s words rang in my ears. My eye also
picked out every split rigged boat in any harbour we visited. With no
experience sailing a ketch, other than on the Asgard, we purchased Aleria, a 57 foot cutter rigged ketch designed by Hollman and Pye, who went on to
design the Oyster yachts.
The first few seasons we invited sailing experts aboard at
every given opportunity. We sought and received their sage advice on the best
way to sail a boat with two sticks. After all neither of us had ever owned a
split rigged boat, and ‘they’ surely knew more than we did.
“Oh, the mizzen will always be drafted when you sail to
windward, you will have to take it down.” “The mizzen will only make the boat round
up into the wind, you will have to let it out.” And on and on it went.
Another old sage owned a beautiful classic yawl – except he
had removed the mizzen, so it had become a sloop. “Nobody ever uses the
mizzen,” he explained. We felt small and lost. Had we made a grievous error
buying a ketch?
During that time we also frequented the boat shows. The
Oyster salespeople were always particularly interested in speaking with us; we
were, after all, owners of a then 30 year old 57 foot precursor to their line-up.
At that time, their boats still bore the hallmarks of Hollman & Pye’s
design work. We asked about an Oyster ketch: something we might dream of
owning. “No, nobody wants a ketch,” was the reply. “Ketches just don’t sail
So, what is it about the ketch rig that we have learned to love and
Let us start with the end of the story. When coastal or
offshore cruising, we come across a much higher percentage of boats with two
masts, than in our local Yacht Club, where we were totally outnumbered. In fact
we learned that seasoned cruisers in all the many countries we have visited
gravitate towards a split rig – preferentially towards a ketch rig.
When sailing distant races or on Yacht Club cruises, we
started to tweak her sails, desperate to get them to work together. Lo and
behold, Aleria got faster and faster. No, we never raced her round the
buoys – that just makes us dizzy. Besides, the sails are big and it is a lot of
work for the two of us to bring her about.
We quickly learned that given sufficient wind, she will
point almost as high as any cruiser-racer. Off the wind, she heels over a bit
and passes everything in sight (except, of course the racing sleds…). When she
gets in this groove, we describe it as Aleria becoming an unstoppable
|We also learned to reef early – pretty much as soon as she
starts to heel over hard, or when there starts to be more pressure on the helm =
weather helm. First sail to be reefed is the main, not the mizzen. It is the
mainsail that produces the weather helm. With the helm balanced she does not
lose any speed. Quite on the contrary, she goes faster. When the main is double
reefed, we will furl part of the yankee – Her forward-most headsail is high
cut, and is not a genoa. Next down is the rest of the main. Now we are sailing
“Jib and Jigger”. In strong wind or gale situations, all that is left up are
the mizzen and staysail. Unless we are flying our spinnaker, we take neither of
these sails down while underway.
In lighter wind circumstances, there are, of course other
sails in ketch’s arsenal. Asymmetrical spinnakers can be flown from just the
main, or both masts. Alternatively, one can also ‘just’ deploy the one on the mizzen, which is called a mizzen staysail.
Our mizzen staysail tack is attached on the windward side of the main mast and
nicely fills the area between main and mizzen, as one can see on this shot of a
classic Frers and Cybils ketch.
Modern Mega yachts
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.
The bottom line
A split rig may indeed not be for everyone. There are many
boat owners for whom it is a chore to hoist the sails, so hoisting two sets
would of course be less desirable. Then there are the died-in-the-wool racing
sailors. Sailing well means tacking often. As we mentioned earlier, we tack as
seldom as possible, as it is a lot of work. Granted that both main and mizzen
are self-tacking, and it is just the main traveller that needs adjusting, so
this is not really a valid argument.