Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Best Rig For A Sailing Cruiser? (2)

Gaff Rigged Sailing 

Thinking the other day about Gunter rig, set off a whole train of thought about alternatives to the Bermudan rig and whether any of them might be more appropriate to my needs. There is a part of me which says that all these old rigs, gaff, lug, or gunter had a purpose. There would have been reason behind a decision to rig a boat this way or that and maybe we’re missing out on something by simply accepting that a Bermudan sloop is the only rig for a modern cruising vessel.

The older rigs were generally developed for working vessels and it would suit owners to develop rigs powerful enough to drive the vessel with a minimal wages bill for paid crew. One way to do this would be to divide the sail area into manageable sizes of canvass. So a gaff cutter, for example, would have a mainsail, topsail, and two small foresails; lots of canvass, but no individual sail which could not be handled by a single man or boy.  Obviously, in the UK with its changeable but predominantly westerly winds, there would be local variations but it’s also worth remembering that these old guys worked with the elements not against them. Deadlines were less specific and the notion of thrashing up a channel against wind and tide would seem idiotic to them. No, they’d take the obvious and easy solution drop anchor and wait. It was more sensible to them to have a vessel which could take advantage of favourable conditions than build something designed to fight the elements.  In terms of resources they were ‘time rich, cash poor’ and the rigs they developed reflected this – Now, does it strike you that there are some parallels here? I’m in the fortunate position to have plenty of time but few resources ‘Simple Sailing, Low Cost Cruising’ isn’t that what I’m trying to achieve?

So gaff, has to be an obvious consideration, when all is said and done it isn’t too dissimilar to a Gunter. The main difference I guess is that the sail is more square, (having four sides rather than three) and the additional spar stands away from the mast rather than being an extension of it. Not so good to windward as a Bermudan, but faster on a reach and at least as fast on a run. Unlike the Gunter rig It is possible to have backstays to support the mast but they have to be ‘running backstays’, i.e., you unfasten one and tie the other whenever you gibe, otherwise they foul the gaff as it comes across. At sea, on a steady course, this wouldn’t be much of a chore but in confined waters where you are gibing frequently it could become a bit of a pain.  In light airs, you raise a top-sail on its own spar above the main, and in heavier winds, you reduce the area of canvass by removing it. When you bring the top-sail down the spar comes with it so, as with the gunter rig, reefing effectively reduces the height of your mast and lowers the centre of gravity, making for a stiffer vessel.

The interesting thing about gaff from my point of view though is that it is relatively inexpensive. There isn’t a great deal of science to sail design for a gaffer, and (so I’m told) you could make your own sails.
The downside? Well, obviously a gaffer won’t point so high to windward, and unlike a gunter rigged vessel the mast may not be so easy to raise and lower. There are a lot more ‘ropes’  with a gaff-rigged boat than with a Bermudan, but then, more ropes means more fun – nobody should go sailing if they don’t like hauling on rope!