CRUISING SAILBOAT RIGS: Sloops, Cutters, and Solent Rigs

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Big sloop

In our previous episode in this series we discussed what I like to call split rigs–ketches, yawls, and schooners–where a sailplan is divided among two or more masts. Cruising sailors once upon a time preferred such rigs, at least on larger cruising boats, because each separate sail requiring handling was smaller and thus more manageable. These days, however, by far the most popular rig for both racing and cruising sailboats is the simple sloop rig. This has a single mast supporting a single Marconi mainsail with a single headsail supported by a single headstay flying forward of it.

Its advantages are manifest: there are only two sails for the crew to handle, each of which can be hoisted with a single halyard and trimmed with a single sheet. While sailing, there are normally only two lines–the jib sheet and mainsheet–that need to be controlled at any given moment. And because there is but one headsail flying forward of the main, tacking a sloop is easy, since the headsail, even if it is a large overlapping genoa, can pass easily through the open foretriangle.

Sloop rigs are highly efficient to windward, thanks to the so-called “slot effect” created by the interaction of the mainsail and headsail. How this actually works is a matter of some debate. The traditional theory is that airflow in the narrow slot between the sails is accelerated, which decreases air pressure on the leeward side of the mainsail, thus increasing the lift the sail generates.

The revisionist theory is that air deflected from the headsail actually works to decrease airflow in the slot, increasing pressure on the windward side of the headsail, thus increasing the lift it generates. Since increasing the lift generated by one sail seems to necessarily decrease that generated by the other, others believe a single Marconi sail must be just as aerodynamic, if not more so, than two sails. This last proposition, however, is contradicted by real-world experience, as no one has yet created a single-sail rig that is as fast and closewinded as a double-sail sloop rig.

Slot in action

The almighty slot in action. Its effects are salubrious, but no one can really explain why

The primary disadvantage of a sloop rig is that the sails must be relatively large. They are therefore harder to handle in that they are heavier (making them harder to hoist) and generate larger loads when flying. Much of this difficulty, however, is obviated by modern winches and roller-furling gear, which is why sloop rigs are now so popular, and deservedly so. In light to moderate sailing conditions, which is what most sailors normally encounter, a sloop is by far the fastest, most easily handled rig currently available.

In heavier conditions sloops do present some challenges. To reduce sail area forward of the mast, if the headsail is hanked on to the headstay, which was the traditional practice, you must change the sail for a smaller one. This requires crew to work for extended periods on the bow of the boat, where conditions can get wild and wet. If the headsail is on a modern roller-furler, the sail can be easily roller-reefed from the cockpit, but past a certain point a roller-reefed headsail’s shape becomes inefficient. You either must live with this or unroll the sail and change it for another smaller one. The stronger the wind gets, the more distorted the roller-reefed sail becomes, and the more important it is to change it. Changing a sail on a furler in a strong wind, however, is an awful chore. The very first thing you must do (unroll the sail) greatly increases sail area right when you most want to decrease it. Then you must somehow control a large headsail as it comes off a furling rod with its luff unrestrained in strong wind.

Coastal cruisers are never likely to sail in strong conditions for very long. On the few brief occasions their boats are pressed hard they are normally willing to limp along on an ugly scrap of roller-reefed genoa. They are also more likely to have to short-tack their boats in confined areas, thus the ease of tacking a sloop makes it the rig of choice on coastal boats. Bluewater cruisers, on the other hand, may sail in strong weather for days on end, so there are advantages to cutting up the sail area in the foretriangle into smaller more manageable pieces. Bluewater cruisers traditionally therefore often prefer a cutter rig, which has a single mast and a headstay like a sloop, but also an inner forestay behind the headstay from which a smaller intermediate staysail can be flown.

Staysail alone

Modern cutter-rigged cruiser sailing under a staysail and a reefed mainsail

The big advantage of a cutter rig is that in a big blow the jib on the headstay can come right off (or be rolled up) and the smaller staysail can carry on alone, more inboard and lower in the rig, where it balances better against the reduced area of a deeply reefed mainsail. Cutters are also efficient to windward, though some claim they are not as efficient as sloops. Personally, I’ve found cutters are sometimes actually more closewinded than sloops, at least in moderate to strong winds, as the sheeting angles on a pair of smaller, flatter headsails can be narrower than the angle on one larger, more full-bodied sail. In very heavy conditions, with just a staysail and reefed mainsail deployed, I believe a cutter is almost always more efficient to windward than a sloop.

On anything from a beam reach to a tight closehauled angle, a cutter can also fly both its headsails unobstructed. Sailing on a broad reach, however, the staysail blocks air from reaching the jib, reducing the rig’s effective sail area just when the decrease in apparent wind speed caused by the wind blowing from behind the boat demands that sail area instead be increased. Another problem is that a cutter requires extra standing rigging–not only the inner forestay, but also, very often, either an extra set of swept-back aft shrouds or a pair of running backstays to help support the inner forestay from behind. This adds complexity and increases rig weight well above the deck.

The biggest disadvantage of a cutter rig is that there are two headsails to tack (or jibe) across the boat instead of just one. There is an extra set of sheets to handle, plus the jib quarrels with the inner forestay every time it comes across the foretriangle. This is less of a problem if the jib is small and high-cut (these are called yankee jibs) so that it slips more easily through the narrow gap between the inner forestay and headstay. When flying a large genoa, however, crew must often go forward to help horse the sail around the inner forestay. If you don’t have enough crew for this, you may have to roll up part of the genoa (assuming it’s on a roller-furler) before tacking or jibing and unroll it again afterward, which is a bother. Also, if the wind grows strong again, but not so strong that you can sail on the staysail alone, you either have to change your genoa for a smaller sail or roller-reef it into an inefficient shape, which is (theoretically) precisely the conundrum that drove you to favor a cutter rig in the first place.

On a true cutter specifically designed to accommodate a staysail, the mast is usually farther aft than it would be on a sloop and/or there is a bowsprit to enlarge the foretriangle. This allows for a larger, more useful staysail and should enlarge the gap between the headstay and inner forestay so a jib can tack through more easily. A larger foretriangle also allows the jib to be larger without overlapping the mainsail, but a big overlapping genoa will still present problems when tacking or jibing.

True cutter w/yankee

A “true” cutter under sail. With the mast aft the foretriangle is bigger, which allows for a bigger, more useful staysail. As on this boat, a true cutter often flies a high-cut yankee jib forward of the staysail

The staysail can also be made club-footed with its own boom. Such a spar, known as a jib-boom, can be controlled by a single sheet that need not be adjusted when tacking. When short-tacking in enough breeze for the boat to sail under main and staysail alone this is the height of convenience. You can shift the helm back and forth without ever touching a line. A jib-boom, however, unless sheeted tight, will flail about the foredeck whenever its sail is luffing while being hoisted, doused, or reefed. It may harm crew on the foredeck during an accidental jibe, as it can sweep suddenly across the boat with some force unless restrained by a preventer.

Club-foot staysail

A cutter-rigged cruiser with a club-footed staysail

Bear in mind, too, that enlarging the foretriangle, particularly on a boat without a bowsprit, usually means mainsail area must be reduced commensurately. In many cases the mainsail is then too small and/or too far aft for the boat to sail and maneuver under main alone. When attempting to dock, anchor, or moor under sail this can be a significant disadvantage. (Note, however, that many sloops are also often unable to maneuver under mainsail alone.)

One variation increasingly popular with bluewater cruisers is a sloop/cutter hybrid, sometimes called a slutter rig, where a removeable inner forestay is installed on what would otherwise be a straight sloop rig. The removable stay normally has some sort of quick-release mechanism at deck level that makes it easy to set up and tension the stay and to loosen and remove it. When stowed, the removeable stay is brought aft to the mast and secured.

Removable inner forestay

Example of an inner forestay with a retro-fitted inner forestay with a quick-release fitting that allows the stay to be moved out of the way when desired

To a large extent, the slutter rig does offer the best of both worlds. In light to moderate winds you can stow the inner forestay and sail the boat as a straight sloop with one large genoa passing through an open foretriangle. In heavy conditions, you can set up the inner forestay, hank on a staysail, roll up or douse the large genoa, and sail the boat under main and staysail alone. Since setting up an inner forestay and hanking on a staysail is normally less taxing than stripping a large genoa off a furling rod and hoisting a smaller working jib and/or storm sail in its place, this is a viable practice.

Sometimes you see true cutters that have been converted to slutters. Here the foretriangle is normally large enough to fly two headsails simultaneously if desired, which is often not possible on a converted sloop. The downside to this arrangement is that making the inner forestay removable makes it impossible to install either a roller-furling staysail (currently a popular arrangement on cutter rigs) or a club-footed staysail.

Another variation that has appeared more recently is the so-called solent rig, where a solent stay is installed directly behind a boat’s headstay. The headstay carries a big genoa (usually on a roller-furler) that is flown in light to moderate wind, and the solent stay carries what is effectively a smaller working jib (or a “blade jib,” as some like to call them now) to fly in stronger conditions. The solent jib (which is normally larger than a staysail) can be rigged permanently on its own roller-furler, or it can be on a removable stay, as is seen on slutters and some cutter rigs.

The huge problem with a permanent solent rig is that the genoa forward on the headstay is normally so close to the solent stay that it cannot be pulled through the gap between the stays, but must be entirely rolled up and unfurled again every time the boat is tacked. In some cases the solent stay actually isn’t terribly close to the headstay, but still the top of the stay is always very close to the top of the headstay and tacking is thus always problematic. For this reason, personally, I strongly favor removable solent stays.

Solent w/close stays

Typical solent rig with the two stays quite close together

Solent w/not so close stays

On this example, the two stays are farther apart, until you get up to the masthead

One recent innovation that has made the handling of removable sails much easier are sails with torque-rope luffs that are mounted on continuous-line furlers. These were developed first on shorthanded ocean-racing boats, but are now leaking on to cruising boats with increasing frequency. For these to work the sail must usually be a lighter laminated sail rather than straight Dacron. A length of high-modulus rope especially designed to resist twisting, a torque rope so called, is sewn into the luff of the sail, which is then mounted on a removable lightweight continuous-line furling drum. Once the sail is hoisted with its torque rope tensioned it can be furled up on its own luff. It can also be taken down and stowed in a bag this way, all rolled up on itself. And it can be hoisted again while still rolled up. Handling the sail is thus very easy, as the only time it is unrolled and flying free is when you are actually flying it.

The great flexibility of a torque-rope sail actually gives you two different options if you are trying to create a solent rig. The smaller solent sail can be made a removable torque-rope sail, in which case you will be setting and flying it inside the headstay. Or you can keep a small working jib on your headstay and set up a larger removable genoa-size torque-rope sail forward of it. Sails like this have all sorts of names–Code Zero sails, screechers, gennakers, etc. The most important thing, if you are ordering one, is not what you call it, but rather that it is cut flat enough to sail efficiently to windward. Also, when flying such a sail you’ll need some sort of bowsprit forward of your headstay to carry it, and the sprit must be strong enough to carry the rig’s full headstay load when the sail flying.

Lunacy rig

The headsail arrangement on my cutter-rigged boat Lunacy. A triple-headsail sloop you might call it. The headstay and the inner forestay are permanently rigged. The screecher, as I call it, flies on its own luff forward of the headstay and is controlled with a removable continuous-line furler. The bowsprit and the plate under it were added to carry the big load the sail generates. When the screecher is flying the headstay goes slack and the screecher’s torque rope is what’s holding up the front of the mast

Open 60 staysail

An IMOCA Open 60 flying a staysail on a continuous-line furler

Furler removed

A continuous-line furler up close and personal, removed from the rig with sail furled

Yet another option is to make the staysail in a cutter rig a removable torque-rope sail. I have seen these on shorthanded racing boats, but never on a cruising boat. I wonder sometimes if I should try it on my boat. If anyone has tried it on their boat, I do wish they would get in touch!

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2 Responses
  1. Spencer

    My last two boats–a Bristol 39 and a Warwick 47–have been sloops with inner forestays. The present Warwick has a r/f forstaysail so it’/s more or less permanent. This is a great heavy weather and offshore rig–perfect for the ocean and he Caribbean, the Med not so much. The forestayail is pretty small so it takes a considerable blow to make it the right choice.

  2. Joe Cooper

    Go easy on the torque rope idea unless a) the mast is beefed up for it b) the winches, lead blocks and the deck under the winch base on which the halyard lays are beefed up. You need to plan on having a halyard lock for the top of the torque rope AND a robust purchase to load the bottom end. THIS is how the race boats are set up Coop

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