September 12, 2010

Gaff vs. Bermudian rigs

(Come back every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

NOT MANY SAILBOATS sport gaff-rigged sails these days despite the fact that the gaff rig still offers many advantages for long-distance cruisers. Not the least of those advantages is the sturdiness of a gaff-rigged mast, which, being shorter, can be stayed much more effectively. If you’re going to be capsized in a storm, your chances of being dismasted increase as your mast grows longer.

In the early part of the last century, every right-minded cruising yacht bore a gaff rig. It’s fascinating to read what Francis B. Cooke had to say about the subject. He was a prolific British author of sailing books, and this is an extract from his Single-Handed Cruising (London, Edward Arnold & Co., 1924) in the days when the number of yachts listed with Lloyd’s Register was 4,000 or so.

“A rig that is now very fashionable for small racing yachts is the Bermudian, which, by the way is often erroneously termed the ‘Maconi’ (sic) rig, and it is possible that it may be introduced for cruising purposes in the future.

“I have never yet seen it in a cruising boat, but it has proved so successful in racing craft that it is sure to be tried for cruising sooner or later.

“In this rig, the mainsail is very similar to a gunter lug, but the feature of the Bermudian rig is that no yard is employed on the sail. The mainsail is triangular and set upon a very long mast, a single halyard being used to hoist the head of the sail to the masthead.

“It is claimed that by dispensing with a yard a certain saving in weight and windage is effected, and experience has proved that it is the fastest rig that has yet been tried in small racing boats ... Having but one halyard on the mainsail, it is delightfully simple rig and very convenient for reefing, particularly when a roller reefing gear is employed.

“It would seem, therefore, a very suitable one for singlehanded work, but I am inclined to think that in practice it would not be found altogether free from disadvantage. Although the absence of a yard or gaff may save a certain amount of weight and windage aloft in light weather when whole sail can be carried, I doubt whether that would be the case in strong winds when the mainsail was reefed. The enormously long masthead would in such circumstances be a disadvantage rather than a benefit, as it would hold a great deal of wind and the weight would not be conducive to comfort in a rough sea.

“The frequency with which these Bermudian masts have been carried away in racing yachts would suggest that they are far from reliable, probably on account of the difficulty of staying such a long spar effectively. Now, the man who sails alone cannot afford the risk of being dismasted at sea, and until the Bermudian rig has earned a better name for reliability, I think the singlehanded cruiser will be well advised to let it alone.”

And did anyone listen? Of course not. The distinguishing mark of a yachtsman is that he never, ever, accepts advice from another yachtsman. He has to learn for himself the hard way, by bitter experience, again and again. I think it’s probably Nature’s way of keeping the numbers down, so that the anchorages don’t get too crowded.

Today’s Thought
What we call “Progress” is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.
— Havelock Ellis, Impressions and Comments

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #93
Gale frequency. Yachts circumnavigating the globe in a westerly direction through the tradewind belts, in the most favorable seasons, report an average of two sailing days in 100 in ocean gales of Force 8 (34 knots) or higher.

Mary had a little car
She drove in manner deft.
But every time she signaled right
The stupid car turned left.


Nikolay said...

I like the Gaff rig. Even better, I like a gaff and topsail schooner.
The little skiff I'm starting to build - a Marisol (by Kiwi Gifford Jackson), is a gunter rig. I've no experience with a gunter but lots with our bermudan sloop.
I hope it turns out o.k. But if there's any advise or recommendations to be had - I'm all ears!

Aaron Headly said...

I own a gaffer (34' sharpie ketch Centennial, designed by Ted Brewer, built by Nick Vaitses, inspired a little by Herreshoff's (larger) Meadowlark. Sails by the legendary Nathaniel Wilson).

Before anyone gets too excited by the gaff rig, be very aware of one disadvantage of the design (relative to a Bermuda rig): it really doesn't point up very well. A gaff-vang will help, but getting within 50º of the wind is considered quite an accomplishment with a gaff sail. 55º is more like what I've managed. (I'll get better — eventually.) I couldn't care less, myself, but this is a deal-breaker for many.


Aaron Headly said...


That said, (almost) everything else about the gaff sail is, I feel, better than the Bermuda rig. In addition to the things Mr. Cooke mentions in the quoted material, the gaff sail offers a lower heeling moment. Meaning: for a given amount of thrust, your boat heels less because the center of force is lower down on the mast — which gives it less leverage. And when a gust hits, the resulting extra heel spills a lot of the force. (On a Bermuda rig, the top of the sail remains quite effective even as the rail goes under.)

Some folks complain that having two halyards is nothing but an unwelcome nuisance, but the tuning possibilities offered by having the separate peak halyard are, I find, pleasantly rewarding. Not to mention the lack of any required winches. It is a little annoying to end up with 200 feet of halyard around your ankles after every hoist, but I'll live.

Oh, yeah: no battens needed (the gaff itself is a sort of huge batten). Cooke doesn't mention that, either.

And who wouldn't rather kill a little time messing around with a topsail in light air as opposed to just sitting there and cursing the wind (or hoisting the iron Genny). (And if that starts to bore me, I can dig out the mizzen staysail.)

Finally: people in the Tupperware© fleet seem a little jealous of gaffers. Even the dirtiest tub looks 'shippier' when gaff-rigged.

But, yeah, you're gonna get killed on the upwind leg in the club races, so you better not get a gaffer if winning club races is your goal in buying a boat.

Ken said...

Just a point not to be missed...

A gaff, and all that goes with it certainly adds some time to the maintenance schedule.

John Vigor said...

Nikolay, the gunter rig has a lot going for it. I have sailed a gunter-rigged dinghy for years. In fact, the biggest wooden, one-design racing class in the world, The International Mirror Class, with more than 70,000 boats (mostly built from kits) is gunter-rigged, which allows all three spars to be stowed in the length of the boat.
The lovely thing about the gunter rig, as with all gaff rigs, is that when you want the sail to come down, it comes down without hesitation, even on the run.
The only piece of advice I can think to offer is to keep the gaff well peaked up, as vertical as you can get it, and use a non-stretch halyard to help it stay there.

John V.

Nikolay said...

Thanks Aaron and John for your advice.

I will keep it mind as I continue on the project.

I have no fear of traditional rigs and a great fascination in marlinespike seamanship, so a classic little wooden boat with a traditional rig is very much inline with that.

Aaron Headly said...

It is fair to bring up maintenance as an issue vis-à-vis gaff v. Bermuda, especially considering the larger number of pieces of kit involved in the gaff rig.

My experience, though, is that the simplicity of the gaff allows me to fix most problems with either a little rope or a little grease. Or, in a real pinch, with a hammer and a few nails.

The absence of a sail track and winches seems to reduce my maintenance load more than having a gaff, an extra halyard, and a few blocks adds.

Here's an assortment of pictures, some of them demonstrating the simplicity of the gear, in case you're curious.

Ken said...

Aaron, I won't argue the simplicity and beauty of the gaff rig on a small boat. There is extra maintenance and also the fact that there is more to build and set up.
I was the machinist helping build a 50' Herreshoff Bald Headed schooner MARY HARRIGAN built by Jeff Foggman in New Hampshire. All custom poured castings of bronze were "prettied up" machined and fitted by me. From a builders point of view on that size vessel anyway the extra cost was considerable.