Skipperjeru opens his account with musings on the rig he prefers. Readers should note that he is a professional sailor and his advice is well worth heeding, should you plan to go to sea. Thanks for this:
Among N.O.’s several obsessions one of my favourites is ‘which Rig is best’. Having sailed several, I usually chime in with a comment in favour of ketches.
To our non-sailing readership, a ketch-rigged boat has two masts: the mainmast towards the front and the mizzen towards the stern. I like them for several reasons, not least when the weather turns vile you can drop the main and sail a nicely balanced boat under headsail and mizzen. A reefed mizzen works as a good steadying sail when motorsailing and at anchor.
Yawl with mast behind wheel
And it’s much easier to handle a ketch under sail alone than a sloop: we don’t like to think of engines failing, props falling off, MOBs under sail alone but they do occasionally happen and when they do you might be looking at your super speedy close-winded maxi-roach main wishing it wasn’t such a high powered handful, around your spacious cockpit and wishing the cocktail table (which cost extra) would magically transform into a mizzen mast.
Of course, rigs are horses for courses. Browsing through some old Yachting Monthlies – older than your 45 year old writer – it struck me how much mass production has funelled us into buying boat with either masthead or, if you fancy a bash round the cans, a fractional sloop rig. Adverts from the 60s show builders knocking out ketches, yawls and even the odd schooner rig for the British market.
To properly be qualified to sail a schooner, you have to think that yawl is a form of address. The lack of them in British waters is probably a form of sailing natural selection at work: those that were used in our tempestuous coastal waters are probably now only remembered on charts with the wreck sign. Would I like to cream up the North Yorkshire coast on something like Bluenose, gunnels awash, schooning (yes it’s a verb) past Beneteaus and Bavarias, oh Poseidon yes I would. But I would also like to be able to dump my main fast and cope with a squall.
It happened not a mile from where I’m writing: we were at anchor on a 70 foot steel ketch. We pulled the hook and set sail in a force 3: full main, no 2 yankee cut headsail and full mizzen. We were on passage for Whitby and didn’t want to drive her. Minutes later we were absolutely clobbered with a 7 gusting 8. The guest crew were clipped on, told to hang on while the heavy boat heeled over and took off like she’d been fired from a cannon.
It wasn’t survival sailing: she’s ridden out far worse, we had a good hand on the helm and an experienced group of sea staff aboard, three of them yachtmasters with lots of experience of big ketches and these waters. We indulged ourselves for a while (always with a mate ready to ease the mainsheet), grinning while the boat tore around Kettleness headland and Whitby came into view but while we were enjoying ourselves the paying crew weren’t.
The boss instructed us to drop the main. Quick and dirty. You could wrap your average 32 footer in this main so quick is a relative term especially when the boat is horsing through short, steep waves on the sunny side of 10 knots. It always helps to have a psycho bosun with a suspected steroid habit in these situations, and soon I was on the down haul bringing a mass of heavy sail down while, bedecked with sail ties like some fashion item gone wrong, he tamed the wind-flogged sail cloth. We lashed it to the boom in a stow that could best be described as ugly, and the world calmed down.
The headlong rush diminished, I took the helm and under just the headsail and mizzen we sailed sweetly, the wheel needing only the lightest of touches so well did she balance. Delivering a 32 foot Westerly ketch from Dover to Hartlepool in similar conditions the owner soon came to be glad of the day he sold his sporty racer for this solid Brit built boat with its easy to handle, versatile ketch rig.
So what am I currently lusting after? Schooner like this? A ketch? No. A gaff cutter: a pilot cutter to be exact. Those boats were built to race out from ports to inbound ships to deliver a pilot. First come first served. These were the British coastal flyers of their day and the men, the Westernmen who sailed these things, sometimes singlehanded, must have known a thing or two. A schooner under full sail is a fine sight, but so is a gaff cutter with topsail set and jibs flying.
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