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atavist 01-22-2007 11:38 AM

Gaff Rigging
This is actually two questions. 1) Why aren't more ships gaff rigged? From all that I have read it has nothing but benifits. 2) What would it take to convert a ship to gaff rigging?


atavist 01-23-2007 02:41 AM

Wow... is it really that dumb of a question?

XTR 01-23-2007 03:33 AM

I'm no expert but I'll toss out an observation or two. I've got no experience with a gaff rig whatsoever so I can't comment on the perforamnce characteristics but, more running rigging, more spars, more attachemtns for spars allowing more places for failure. Less ease of handling especially short handed.

And looking at the raceing rigs today I'm betting that a bit of research will prove that they're not as efficient.

Spike_dawg 01-23-2007 04:30 AM

It's more a question of how many have ever sailed a gaff rigged boat. Like me, most probably haven't.

I will talk about the sloop rig and it's advantage to me. Ease of single handing. One main halyard, roller furled jib. I can reef in seconds, tack the boat and make it look like I have crew on board and can't remember ever being out sailed by a gaff rigged boat. I never have to leave the cockpit...a big deal when you are single handing and in heavy seas. Wind changes direction or speed...2 lines are probably all that is necessary to adjust the sail pattern. I have lazyjacks and a sailbag...the main is stowed in a few minutes. Cost...single main, single jib, 3 halyards (includes spinnaker), a few blocks, 4 winches to run the entire boat.

Would you like to list the advantages to the sailor (not the designer) of the gaff rigged vessel? How much effort do I have to expend to be sailing? How many people are required to sail the boat effectively? How long to reef? Do I have to go on deck? Wind changes speed or much effort to adjust the sails? Costs...sails, multiple halyards, blocks, winches, etc? Please list the benefits...I've never owned a gaff rigged boat and uncertain as to what advantages it offers.

atavist 01-23-2007 06:04 AM

I have no sailing experience so I certainly can't argue with what you guys are saying. As for the advantages of a gaff rig all I know is what I read in this article, which makes a pretty convincing arguement to a no-nothing like me.

Auzzee 01-23-2007 06:59 AM

I think Spike has put it well. In addition I would say I also have never sailed on a craft with a gaff rig. I guess that if gaffers were the best we would all still be sailing them...much the same as if horses were better than cars we would all still own a set of spurs.

There can be no doubt however, that gaffers look wonderful and evoke sailing romance of times when all things were simpler, tomatoes still tasted like tomatoes, there was no need to lock the front door and people stayed married forever.

Piotrek 01-23-2007 07:36 AM


I've sailed both gaff and bermuda rigs. (btw. sloop refferes to number/position of masts and sails, not to the type of sail. Ther can be a gaff sloop.)

The reason why most of modern boats have marconi/bermuda riggs is:

- easiness of opperation (esspecially hoisting sail and reefing, when you use only one halyard instead of two for gaff)

- racing rules designed for triangle sails

- gaff rig is more complicated

- strong materials allow to build high masts

- aerodynamic efficiency (most of lift force is generated near the leading eadge of the sail, thus high aspect-ratio sail produce more power from the same area)

Czelaw Marchaj suggests in his book "Aerodynamics of Sails", that bermuda rig performs better because more work was done on its development. He showed, that basic bermuda rig (without traveler nad boom vang) performs worse than many other, traditional rigs, including gaff. It is possible, that gaff rig is neglected, and could be improved, but it hasn't happened so far.

Bermuda rig requires higher mast for the same sail area; thats why it wasn't popular in the past, in pre-aluminium era. It is also inferior to the other lower-aspects sails when running or in broad reach, but invention of spinnaker sail has solved this problem.

In my opinion gaff ketch or schooner is the most beatiful sail arrangement, and I'd be happy to sail such boat, but it is just my personal feeling.

Hope this will help.

atavist 01-23-2007 11:22 AM

thanks for the great replies.

Piotrek- From the site I posted ( I think improving on the gaff rig is just what Mr.Kasten was trying to do. He repeatedly talks about a short gaff and reduced halyards. Which sounds like it would get rid of all the negative points of the gaff rig.

Unfortunately I doubt I will ever be able to afford one of his custom boats... But it's still interesting.

Piotrek 01-23-2007 01:20 PM

Yes, you're right about shorter gaff and single halyard, but then we get close to fully battened bermuda sail, what is noted in the article. Why you need gaff then?

In my eyes the point of gaff rig is to put very large sail area on short mast. If used with tops'l gaff acts as a boom for this very high "bermuda" sail.

If you make short gaff, you loose sail area, and if you agree on smaller sail area, why not use fully battened bermuda? If you have short gaff you need higher mast for the same sail area, so main benefit of gaff rig goes to waste.

Simillar project to Mr.Kasten you can see on

Talking about sail handling, my experience is, that while hoisted, gaff sail works the same as bermuda, but if you want to lower it, reef or set you must work with heavy peace of wood flying hight over your head. Just the risk of droping it on the deck if halyard breaks or slip out of your hands is worth considering. Imagine having second boom 5 or 10m over your head.

On ketch I sailed, the distance between masts was shorter then gaff length, so if you lowered main gaff you couldn't move sail from one side of the mizen mast to the other. On the other hand it's easier to secure the sail if it's pressed down by the gaff. It can't fly free in the blow like bermudas like to do.

But again, if I had the boat I'd enjoy sailing gaff ketch.


atavist 01-24-2007 10:51 AM

great article... very informative. Thanks

vanboke 01-24-2007 02:02 PM

This is an interesting topic to me, as I own a gaff rigged ketch.

The gaff rig is no harder to handle than a Bermuda rig. At least that is my opinion. It completely depends on how the halyards are run, just like a Bermuda rig. You can control it all from the cockpit, with no real hassle.

You are all correct. The gaff rig has two halyards. That is one more than the Bermuda rig, but it really poses no issues, even for a single hander. The weight of the gaff boom is not an issue either. That is what block an tackles are for. Tacking is not an issue, any more than it is with a Bermuda rig.

I have done a lot of experimentation and I have been able to adjust the rigging so that I can point to windward surprisingly well. Much better people expect I can. Maybe not as well as some Bermuda rigs, but it is hard to judge. I sail a 30' Tahiti Ketch, and the shape of the hull and keel might very well play a factor as well.

I think one point that is grossly overlooked in the gaff rig is the technology of the sails and the materials used to create modern sails. When gaff rigs were popular, canvas was the popular sail fabric. Now with the much better sail fabrics of today, I think that alone makes a huge difference in the performance of the gaff rig.

Now I have already said that my boat may not beat to windward as well as a Bermuda rig, but she reaches and runs very well. In fact I can just about reach top speed in a run, without even trying. I have been able to keep up with, and even overtake, boats that are 10', 15', maybe even 20' longer at the waterline than my Tahiti. I have been on the same tack, with the same wind as much larger boats, and have overtaken them in a run.

That is a pretty incredible feeling.

I have plans for some simple changes to my rig for this season. I look forward to seeing what these simple changes will do for her windward performance.

So I guess I am saying don't discount the gaff rig. In my opinion it is far better than people give it credit for. Plus it is beautiful, and creates a very classic look that appeals to all but the most snobby of sailors.

Spike_dawg 01-24-2007 07:27 PM

Van...nice post. How do you equate cost (blocks, lines, clutches, winches, etc.) between the two? If you change direction, not necessarily to tack but needing to adjust sails, how much effort is involved? How many sails are you adjusting? Can you buy sails through a warehouse or are they custom made?

vanboke 01-24-2007 10:56 PM

These are good questions.

Does it cost more? Yes. It costs as much as three blocks, and one extra halyard does. What those costs are depends on your own setup of course. Oh, I guess you could add the cost of the gaff boom in there. But my boat is wooden, so I would look at it as no added expense. The cost of the wood for my gaff boom would easily come from the savings of not needing a higher main mast.

Adjusting sails is just like trimming a Bermuda rig. When I raise the main sail, I get the gaff boom to pull on the sail nice a tight. Then I never touch those halyards, unless I am lowering the sail or reefing. To adjusting the trim of the sail you just use a single sheet, just like a Bermuda rig. I find no need to adjust the gaff boom once I get it raised and tight.

For me, since I have a ketch, I need to adjust three sails: my jib(or genoa), main, and mizzen. In reality, I rarely trim the mizzen. A mizzen sail is mostly a stabilizing sail, and it rarely needs to be trimmed. Just like a sloop I spend most of my time trimming the jib and main. The main is also the only gaff I have on the boat. The mizzen is a Bermuda rig.

I also don't have top sails. Haven't really needed them yet, but I have seen where they would be useful. In light winds, where the wind is higher off the water a top sail would be helpful. The idea of the gaff rig is that you can increase your sail area without having a tall rig. So my ketch, which is 30', has the highest point of the rig (the main mast, at about 31' off the water. That is not tall at all, so any higher winds I miss completely. But because the rig is shorter it is far stronger, naturally, that the typical Bermuda rig. No need for spreaders in the standing rig. Also, most of the time she heals only 15 degrees or so, sometime 20. She will heal more in high winds, but boats such as mine rarely have the rails in the water.

Cost of sails. This is one that I really can't answer. My boat is a Tahiti Ketch. They were never production boats. Each one is custom built, and they have been built by hundreds of different boatyards since the plans were creates in the 1920s. Due to that fact, these sails are custom ordered. Nobody stocks Tahiti Ketch sails, because each Tahiti is just a little bit different, and sails are typically made from the sail plans, but with adjustments for the specific boat they are built for.

I hope this helps answer your questions. Let me know if any of you have any more questions.

Charlie Jones 01-25-2007 04:09 AM

Couple of points to inject here-

Ever heard of the Carr's? On board Curlew? She's an over 100 year old gaff cutter with no engine. They sail her in the high latitudes. In fact, they were basing on South Georgia at one time. So there's gotta be SOMETHING workable about gaffers.

I crewed for a while aboard a friends 50 foot, 50,000 pound gaff schooner. We never felt we gave anything away with that rig, other than the natural lack of windward ability that comes with the schooner rig anyway. But off the wind? We'd eat you up!

Also- a few years ago I was sailing our 25 foot mast head sloop in company with a friend aboard his Windjammer 21, a Gaff sloop. We were jammed up hard on the wind rounding a point and during the time we were sailing close hauled, we were slowly moving away from him. As SOON as we rounded and were able to start sheets, that big ole gaff main started to breathe and they just walked on past us. And I think that is one of the beauties of the gaffer- off the wind they sail fast, with just the standard suit of sails- they don't have to mess with huge genoas, etc to get off the wind speed like some of the modern marconis with very high aspect ratio mains that have no power off the wind. Our sloop is an older boat with a bigger main, but still.

I suspect the real reason gaffers fell out of favor was triangle racing that put such huge emphsis on windward ability. And since that was what was important to the racing fleet, it became super important to the rest of the sailing world. I personally don't think really super windward performace is all that needed in a pure cruising boat. Good ability certainly, but no need to be able to point with a 12 meter. So if you like the gaff rig, get one. Learn to handle it, how to adjust sails, etc, and enjoy.

Personally I'd never turn down a gaff cutter or double headsail sloop, JUST because it was gaff rigged.

Hey - this is supposed to be enjoyment right? It isn't a job.

Piotrek 01-26-2007 06:32 AM

There is interesting article. Comparison between different sail types.

Gaff is doing pretty good.

vanboke 01-26-2007 02:12 PM


Great article. Thank you for posting it.

I had never seen that one. Frankly I am not surprised by the results. One item I don't have on my Tahiti is a boom vang. Given the results they had while using one, I think it will give it a try.

That combined with the few other rigging changes I am looking at making for this coming season (none of which are to the gaff) I will be curious to see how much better she points to windward.

Thanks again for the post.

Tom Hunter 01-28-2007 01:14 AM

I have a 31' ten ton gaff rigged sloop. Main is 548 sqr feet, jib is 171. I also have crew experience on J-30s, J-22s an Advance 36 and years ago on the schooner Spirit of Massachusetts and the Adventure

By way of (hopefully useful) comparison I am looking at Spike_dawg since he was good enough to describe is boat.

I have two main halyards, my jib is on a club, everything leads back to the cockpit. No winches, just blocks, lots and lots of blocks. They run about $100 each but last for decades, replacing them all would run $2-3k, this year I am thinking about buying 1. Sails have to be custom made. I can single hand her and I am taking a cue from Spike and adding lazy jacks which will make putting her away a lot easier. That said 548 sqr feet is a lot of sail and you have to be pretty fit to solo this boat.

The boat is an Eastport Pinky, which is a workboat from way down East. Seats 10 in the cockpit, sleeps 4 if two are freindly, 6'6" standing headroom in the cabin. She will hit 7 knots if the breeze is hitting 18 or so. Over all she is neither a very fast or very slow boat.

What do a like about the rig:

Its easy to handle, it drives the boat really well and I don't have to think about reefing for a long time. Low aspect means she does not stand on her ear the way the race boats I crew on do. This makes sailing with less experienced freinds more relaxed.

I am really certain that marconi rig is more popular because of round the bouys racing. Boats and rigs tend to be designed for a certain purpose. For example mine was built to move tons of herring from a fishwier to the canning plant. It happens that is does a great job of moving tons of people on a really nice sail too. The big Gloucester fishing schooners were built to take advantage of the prevailing winds in the area they fished. French and English fisherman favored Ketch rig for the same job in different wind conditions. I'll make a guess that if you built a modern fishing boat to be powered by sail in New England waters you might still go for a gaff schooner because of the huge power the rig generates for the run home, which you are making with a hold full of fish.

A marconi boat will go round the bouys better, I know because I have raced them. Because it is higher aspect its likely to heel more and be a bit less comfortable, but that depends a lot on other design factors.

I don't find gaff any more difficult to handle than Marconi. All the racing boats I have been on were marconi and every one of them had more sheets, vangs, outhauls ect to handle than my boat does. That is because they were designed for crews of more than one, and my boat was designed to be handled solo. Likewise you want one guy driving your U-haul truck but you want a suppport team for your NASCAR racer.

Personally I am inclined to race marconi for all the reasons mentioned and cruise gaff because I don't HAVE to beat to windward if I am out for fun.

The gaff rig is more efficient off the wind and provides a more comfortable sail.

As an aside there are a lot of people who want the world to believe their opinion is the only correct one, and argue that way. Karsten is taking a strong pro-gaff position partly to respond to similar pro-marconi positions. For your own boat I suggest you learn (and learn by sailing) as much as you can and then choose the rig that you think suites you best. And don't forget Lug, Junk, and other rigs, there is a lot to choose from.

Auzzee 01-28-2007 08:01 AM

Good post Tom, welcome aboard.


atavist 02-18-2009 12:42 AM



I'm waking up a very old threat I started over two years ago... a lot has changed in my world since then... I actually took the leap and went to sea... strapped on about 15K miles and got my RYA/MCA YachtMaster Ocean....

But I still have a LOT to learn...

for one thing while I am still enamored of gaffers I have still yet to sail on one.... this however won't stop me.... I'm about to buy a boat, an old ketch... and I intend to re-rig her for a gaff main... so now... instead of debating which is better I'm simply going to ask.... What do I need to know... a few knowledgable folks say tacking a gaffer isn't any harder than a bermuda.... how so? I would think dealing with running backstays would add at least a bit more complexity..... if not tacking how about a controlled jibe?? ...

All advice, tips, hints, and heckles greatly appreciated.


redbopeep 02-18-2009 03:03 AM

We have a schooner with gaff fore and bermuda main. I love gaff rigged boats. But, I have to ask "why?" are you doing this??? If you really love gaff rigged boats--and are in the USA or UK--you should easily be able to find an older gaffer suitable for cruising. Getting the rig right is very important.

Some questions:

What is the sail layout of your ketch? e.g. square footage of main vs mizzen and head sails? Aspect of the main?

What is the material and shape of your main mast? Does it happen to be round and does it have a straight section between the boom and a point high enough on the mast to have a reasonable? What is the aspect of the overall rig (is it tall?) and do you have single spreaders or multiple spreaders on the main mast? Are you considering new spars to enable you to make this change to a gaff rig?

Pick up a copy of these books if you haven't already:

The Gaff Rig Handbook by John Leather

Hand Reef and Steer by Tom Cunliffe

Both are great for learning about gaff rigged boats and using them.

Looking forward to learning more about your project.>/smile.gif

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