CRUISING SAILBOAT RIGS: Ketches, Yawls, and Schooners

Yawl quarter shot

I like to use the term “split rig” to refer to any sailplan on a boat where sail area is divided between two (or more) masts, rather than crowded all on to one mast, as with a sloop or cutter. On ketches and yawls, as I’m sure you know, the taller mainmast is forward and the shorter mizzenmast is aft. What distinguishes a yawl from a ketch is more a matter of debate, but I’m firmly in the camp that believes that a yawl has her mizzenmast abaft her rudder. Mizzens on yawls also tend be rather short. On a ketch the mizzen is forward of the rudder and is usually significantly taller. In a classic schooner rig, the taller mainmast is aft and the shorter foremast is forward. On some schooners, however, the masts may be the same height.

For many years it was axiomatic that a split rig must be best for a cruising boat, as it divides the sail plan into smaller, more easily managed components. This was certainly true on older, more traditional boats in the days before modern winches, most particularly on gaff-rigged boats, where the added weight of a heavy gaff and the extra peak halyard made hoisting sails that much harder. For some reason, however, this conceit survived much longer than it should have. As late as the 1970s, and even into the early 1980s, many believed a ketch rig was best for cruising and such rigs were sometimes seen on boats as small as 30 feet. As late as the early 1990s, ketch rigs were also favored on large maxi ocean racers.


Peter Blake’s Steinlager 2, which won the Whitbread Race in 1990

These days split rigs are much less popular, particularly on boats less than about 50 feet in length, for a number of reasons. First, any rig with two masts is heavier, more complex, and more expensive to create and maintain. Second, split rigs are generally not as closewinded as sloop rigs, primarily because turbulent “dirty” air flowing off the back of the forward sail decreases the efficiency of the aft sail. Third, innovations such as self-tailing winches, power winches, and roller-furling gear have made handling large sails in a sloop rig much easier. Fourth, modern hull and deck designs tend not to favor mizzenmasts. Rudders are now usually positioned right aft, so it is not possible to put the mizzen behind the helm, as on a yawl, and many boat buyers now favor open cockpit spaces and don’t like having a mizzenmast just forward of the helm, as on most ketches.

Split rigs do, however, have some important advantages and still have a few adherents. Ketches are certainly the most popular. A ketch sails very well on a reach, as at this wind angle it is possible to spread maximum canvas on both masts. A key strength here is the mizzen staysail, a loose-luffed midship reaching sail hoisted on the mizzenmast, tacked down somewhere just abaft the mainmast, and sheeted to the leeward rail aft or to the end of the mizzenboom. A mizzen staysail adds a lot of power to a rig and is a great cruising sail. You can usually launch and recover it right from the cockpit and can sometimes fly it with the wind a bit forward of the beam. Large ketches also sometimes fly full mizzen spinnakers, which add loads of power to a sailplan. The masts in this case need some distance between them, which also improves windward performance since the mizzensail then flies in cleaner air.

Mizzen staysail

A cruising ketch flying a mizzen staysail. These of course can also be flown on yawls


Steve Dashew’s 78-foot ketch Beowulf, a large modern cruising ketch designed to be handled by a couple. Note the separation between the masts. Steve often flew an asymmetric mizzen spinnaker when sailing off the wind

Another advantage to having two masts is that if you lose one, you still have another one to keep sailing with. Some conservative bluewater sailors always favor ketches for just this reason. For this to work the rig must not have a triatic stay, which is a length of the standing rigging running between the tops of the masts. A triatic stay supports the mizzenmast in normal circumstances, but brings it down if the mainmast falls, and vice versa. A ketch’s mizzenmast is also a fine place to mount radomes, wind generators, and other paraphernalia favored by cruisers, although a mizzenboom also hampers (though does not prohibit) the use of a self-steering windvane installed on the stern of a boat.

Sponberg ketch

Another example of a modern cruising ketch, drawn by designer Eric Sponberg. Note the triatic stay between the masts

Yawls, meanwhile, are increasingly rare these days. They were very popular for a time under the old CCA racing rule, because the rule didn’t count the extra sail area in a yawl’s mizzensail and mizzen staysail. Designers have pretty much ignored the rig since then, though it is still seen on some older boats and a few small daysailers. Personally, the yawl is my favorite split rig, both because I think it is very attractive, but also because it does have some nice practical advantages.

Alberg 37 sailplan

Profile drawing of an Alberg 37 with a yawl rig. Call me crazy, but I think that’s a really good-looking sailplan!

Most particularly, the mainsail on a yawl is often not any smaller than it would be on a sloop of similar size. Handling the main is therefore not any easier, but there is also no real decrease in windward sailing ability. The mizzen is normally small enough that its receiving foul air from the main is not significant, and the main meanwhile is large enough to drive the boat well on its own. Indeed, you often see yawls beating smartly to weather with their mizzens furled. On most ketches, by comparison, the mizzen is much larger and the main proportionately smaller, so that power is lost driving to windward unless the masts are well separated. On any reach the yawl’s mizzen and mizzen staysail again add power to the rig, though not as much proportionately as on a ketch.

One nice thing about a yawl’s mizzen is that it is far enough aft to really push the stern around. The mizzen can be used, in effect, as an air rudder to balance and even steer a boat while sailing. In close quarters, you can back a yawl’s mizzen at strategic moments to help turn a boat quickly or slow it down. It makes a great riding sail and can be used to keep a boat from sailing around on its anchor or mooring. It is also easy to balance against a headsail, so you can sail a boat in strong winds under “jib and jigger alone,” as the expression goes, with the mainsail furled.

Crazy Horse

This is my old Alberg 35 yawl Crazy Horse at anchor in the Cape Verdes with her mizzen up to keep her from sailing around on her rode

The third child in this family of rigs, the venerable schooner, is certainly now the most neglected by modern yacht designers. During their heyday in the 19th century schooners were used primarily as cargo and fishing boats and were closewinded compared to square-rigged vessels. By today’s standards, however, they are ungainly on the wind. As we discussed in an earlier post on the history of yacht design, they did briefly dominate ocean racing in the early 20th century, but were soon eclipsed by more closewinded sloops and yawls and are now entirely anachronistic. Their major drawback, aside from poor windward performance, is that their mainsails are often quite large and can be difficult to handle.

Traditional gaff schooner

A traditional gaff-rigged working schooner under full working sail. That’s a lot of canvas to play with!

Yet the schooner is not extinct and probably never will be. There is an active cult of schooner aficionados who maintain gaff-rigged 19th-century working schooners and early 20th-century schooner yachts as though they were holy relics. Every once in a while, too, a brand-new schooner gets built. Most of these mimic traditional designs, though there are also much more contemporary examples.

Modern schooner

An example of a contemporary cruising schooner. Here the mainsail is much reduced in size, which makes it easier to handle. All the other sails–the main staysail between the mast, the forestaysail, and the genoa–are on roller-furlers

Schooner profile

Profile drawing of a more traditional schooner rig. This example has a Marconi mainsail, but a gaff-rigged foresail. Note also the fisherman sail hoisted above the foresail

Personally I’ve always believed the best schooner rig is that of a staysail schooner, so named because the working sail flown between the masts is a jib-shaped staysail bent onto a diagonal stay that runs from the foot of the foremast to an elevated spot on the mainmast. Normally this is called the main staysail, assuming there is another forestaysail forward of the foremast. Staysail schooners tend to be a bit more closewinded than straight schooners with foresails on their foremasts, as the main staysail can easily be trimmed to create a nice slot for the mainsail behind it. It’s also very easy to improvise with. As I discovered many years ago when crossing the Atlantic on an old staysail schooner with decrepit sails, it is possible to fly used headsails from other boats as staysails. Also, staysails can easily be fitted with modern roller-furlers.

Staysail schooner

Staysail schooner sailing to windward with a fisherman up


This staysail schooner is sailing on a broad reach with a gollywobbler hoisted in place of her main staysail. Judging from the huge hole she’s dug in the water, she must be moving at hull speed plus

Schooners of all types are extremely powerful when sailing on a reach since there is so much extra area between the masts in which large quadrilateral midship sails can be flown. The smaller member of this species, the fisherman, is often flown as a working sail and is seen on both regular and staysail schooners. The much larger and more powerful gollywobbler (probably the best name ever for a sail, IMHO) is normally flown only on staysail schooners (which is another reason to favor this version of the rig).

Speaking as an old schooner hand, I can tell you it’s always a very fine day on the water when you can get a gollywobbler flying!

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1 Response
  1. Spencer

    That’s a nice roundup–and nice pictures! I think even with modern technology ketches deserve a look-in for larger boats. It’s much easier to drop a sail than reef it and a ketch will do very well with just main and mizzen (which most yawls won’t). My former ketch was a pleasure to sail with its big nylon drifter/jib and huge mizzen staysail–the two biggest sails on the boat. No main, no mizzen, no booms to crash about, just two light sails, easy to set and easy to stow.

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