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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

Sail Plan

It took us a while to "learn the ropes" in sail configuration, and even longer to determine what the optimum configuration would be for our needs.   Most people never really think past a sloop, which is the most common design today.  With a sloop or Bermudian rig, there is one mast from which flies a main sail aft of the mast and a jib (or genoa or spinnaker) forward of the mast.  If the forestay attaches to the top of the mast and the jib hoists all the way to the top, this is called a masthead rig.  In a fractional rig, the forestay attaches lower down on the mast. 

For racing, a masthead rigged sloop without roller furling allows maximum sail area and versatility for sail changes, although some one design classes encompass a fractional rig design. Roller furling cuts down on the length of foresail you can fly so that is generally omitted on dedicated racing sloops that sail with multiple crew.  For cruising or short handing, a masthead or fractional rig with roller furling at the head stay gives you ease of deployment as well as the potential ability to “roller reef” your head sail in heavier air.

When you start getting into additional issues like larger vessel size overall, short-handed distance cruising and other factors, rigs other than sloop come into consideration.  We started by learning the options and what their advantages and disadvantages might be.  We finally settled on a cutter-ketch rig for ourselves.  It offers us the maximum versatility in sail plan (as we plan to do some serious distance cruising) and cuts the size of the sails down into manageable sail area that both of us can handle on our own if needed.    It also looks pretty with all those sails flying! So let’s look at the remaining options now.

The cutter rig provides two stays forward that can fly headsails either together or separately.  One stay goes to the top of the mast, the second attaches to the mast like a fractional rig as well as to the deck aft of the forestay and is often called a baby stay.  The baby stay is usually removable to make tacking with a single headsail easier.   The sail plan forward then offers four configuration options.  The forestay can fly a jib, a yankee (cut higher on the foot than a jib or genoa), a larger genoa, or a spinnaker.  The baby stay can fly a staysail or a storm jib – both hanked on unless you have roller furling on the babystay.  You can also fly a yankee on the main forestay and a staysail on the baby stay creating a slot between the sails.  This is a very efficient sail configuration and we find that the staysail adds more than a knot to our boat speed in almost any wind conditions.  The baby stay can also serve to fly a hanked on storm sail.  Although a cutter rig is a bit more complicated to tack, we don’t find it much of a problem.  You just release the yankee and let the staysail back, forcing the yankee through the slot before allowing the staysail to tack as well. 

The ketch and the yawl both have two masts, the taller one in front as the main, and a shorter one in back as the mizzen.  The difference is that the ketch rig’s mizzen is forward of the rudder while the yawl’s mizzen is aft of the rudder post.  As a result, the mizzen of a yawl tends to be smaller so the weight of the mast so far aft remains manageable.   The mizzen sail has much smaller sail area than the main and allows a great option in heavier air – flying “jib and jigger” (jib and mizzen sail).  The vessel is wonderfully balanced and powered under this configuration without the need to reef and manage the main under stormy conditions.   It also allows you to set a small stabilizer sail at anchor.   Furthermore, the mizzen mast can carry a mizzen staysail (like an asymmetrical spinnaker but on the mizzen mast), which can make a big difference in boat speed in light air.

The schooner rig has two masts most often of equal height.  Sometimes the forward mast is a bit shorter, but essentially both masts carry equivalent sail area.  It was a highly efficient design for speed in the glorious age of sail, and is now gaining in popularity for the super maxi offshore racing vessels – Mari Cha IV which just broke a 100 year old record for transatlantic crossing is a modern schooner.  The schooner rig is not optimal for shorthanded sailing, but it does provide a lot of sail area for larger vessels without an overly huge rig.

Speaking of these large sail areas, two additional considerations come into play as the sails get larger.  Do you want a furling mainsail?  At least two options exist today – in mast furling and in boom furling.  Because the sails have to fit inside the spars, the choice of fabric is limited. In mast furling usually necessitates an unbattened mainsail.  It tends to be very tricky if your main mast has battens; the battens need to be folded into the slot or they can jam the mechanism causing the sail to be partially furled and stuck in that position.  With in mast furling, you cannot drop the sail if it gets stuck.  In boom furling is more versatile in that it allows a sail to be furled with battens and you can still drop the halyard if there is a problem.  However, the thickness of the sail is a limitation for fit inside the boom.  The main reasons for having a furling system for the main are ease of handling in putting the sail up, reefing and getting it down in a nice package.   Furling mainsails are most often accompanied by electric winches these days to make the job even easier.

If you don’t have a furling main, then you might at least choose some system to help contain your main as it comes down.  Some people prefer the Dutchman system, which flakes the main perfectly along a series of ropes passing through the sail.  It does require putting lots of reinforced holes in the sail for the rope to pass through.  We prefer to use lazy jacks on the main, a simple system that acts like a sling to collect the sail in a bundle as it comes down. 

A sloop has a single mast and a single headsail. With a fractional rig, the headsail does not extend to the top of the mast.
A Cutter rig has two headsails
A Yawl has a tall main mast and a short mizzen, whereby the mizzen mast is aft of the rudder post.
A Ketch has a tall main mast and a short mizzen, whereby the mizzen mast is foreward of the rudder post.
A Schooner has its main mast aft. The fore mast is usually shorter than the main, but can also be the same height.

Although there are other sail plans, including catboats, gaff rigs and so on, those are beyond our scope here.   

Two places to research different boats are:

And then of course, for more than you ever wanted to know or as a reference to interpreting those Napoleonic sailing yarns, check out wikipedia:

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