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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


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 beautiful.

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 well.”

So, what is it about the ketch rig that we have learned to love and respect?

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 freight train.

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.

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