Choosing a Blue Water Yacht – Rig Configuration


Over the last few weeks, Grabau International has taken you through a variety of subjects which encompass choosing the right yacht for blue water adventures. This guide is not written to dictate what to choose, or to supply a comprehensive encyclopedia of every option and variable, but simply a basic explanation of the main options and some guidance on what to look out for. Finding a yacht will always be a battle of your head over your heart, so the purpose of this guide is to give your head some questions to ask in the hope that an amicable compromise can be made with your heart. Part 6 of this guide looks at the question of rig configurations.

Rig Configuration

The type of rig fitted to a yacht is often predetermined by a number of factors including hull shape, yacht size, intended use, preferred cockpit layout, sail-handling constraints, cost and current fashion. A yacht designed to cross oceans with a short-handed crew will require a very different rig configuration to a yacht designed to sail around the can with a cast of thousands working the winches. Even once the basics are settled (one mast or two, masthead or fractional, one or two foresails…) there are still a multitude of options for the yacht builder to pick upon to ensure that they provide the optimum rig configuration for their target market.

Choosing a Blue Water Yacht - Rig Configurations

An aluminium keel-stepped fractional sloop rig fitted to an Italia Yachts 15.98

Rig Types

Sloop Rigs

Very much the standard rig set up for yachts – mainsail plus a foresail arrangement. Older yachts tend to have a smaller mainsail with most of the drive created by a large overlapping genoa. Many more modern and lighter displacement yachts (which also tend to have finer bows and broader stern profiles) will come with a lager mainsail, often fully-battened and perhaps a self-tacking jib. The later will perform well to windward, but off the wind, the wind-shadow cast by the sizeable mainsail may reduce the effectiveness of the jib. For sailors reluctant to rely on spinnakers and cruising chutes, a larger genoa will allow for a more powerful ‘white sails’ configuration to be adopted for downwind sailing.

In terms of the mast itself, many dedicated cruising yachts will have a masthead rig where the forestay fitting extends right to the masthead, whereas more performance orientated yachts may opt for a fractional rig which can leave the forestay anything from just below the masthead to considerably further down.

Spreader configurations are also very important for blue water sailors. Modern yachts have often have swept-back spreaders which help to create a simple and well-supported rig. The downside is that when sailing deep downwind angles, the mainsail is often pressed up against the spreaders and the shrouds which can amplify wear to the mainsail fabric, battens and rigging components. It is very common to see yacht owners covering their spreaders in foam pipe lagging prior to embarking on a trans-Atlantic crossing. Inline spreaders mitigate this issue, but in exchange they often require running backstays to be rigged to give the rig support in heavier airs and sea conditions. This in itself is no bad thing as it adds a further physical connection between the rig and the deck.

The mast itself may be either deck-stepped or keel-stepped. A keel-stepped mast arguably presents a better ‘mechanical’ solution in terms of a direct transfer of rigging loads to the keel matrix beneath, but the downsides are the need to preserve a watertight seal around the deck head and also the expectation that rain water will run down the mast through the multitude of fittings entries and find its way to the bilge sump. An automatic bilge pump is a must if the yacht is to be left for any lengthy period. A deck-stepped mast avoids these issues and allows for less intrusion within the interior of the yacht (as the compression post is usually a much smaller diameter than the mast section) and the possibility of a completely dry bilge, but of course there is reliance upon the designer and the manufacturer to ensure there are no compression issues between the mast foot, the laminate structure and the compression post inside the yacht.

Modern Racing Sloops

A pair of modern racing sloops

Cutter Rigs

Taking the concept of the inner forestay one step further, the cutter rig features a pair of permanently rigged forestays, allowing a staysail to be set on the inner forestay and either a conventional genoa or a high-cut yankee to be set on the outer. On certain points of sail, using both in tandem may improve performance, and on a dead run, a very stable and safe rig setup can be achieved by taking down the mainsail and goose-winging the two foresails with the aid of a spinnaker or whisker pole. Another evolution of this concept and perhaps best demonstrated by the popular Discovery 55 is the positioning of two forestays, one immediately behind the other. On the basis that a genoa must perform equally well upwind as well as down, a genoa is to a certain degree a ‘jack of all trades, and master of none’. The tandem forestay setup allows for a flatter upwind-orientated sail to be set on the inner (which uses a self-tacking track) and a large downwind sail to be set on an outer. Goose-winging these two sails is also extremely effective.

Saturn 48 with a cutter rig

Saturn Yachts 48CC with a full-time cutter rig including twin furling forestays

Ketch / Yawl / Schooners

Much less common on production yachts, having more than one mast can present distinct advantages. In the quest to create a balanced sail plan, the ability to spread the sail area across two (or more) rigs allows for more options. The centre of effort is also generally a little lower if the sail area is spread across multiple rigs rather than having one very tall mast. In generic terms, a ketch or yawl has a taller main mast than the mizzen (aft mast), whereas a schooner typically has a shorter main mast. A yawl differs from the virtually identical ketch by having a mizzen mast aft of the rudder post. Hard to windward, the mizzen rig is often fairly redundant (on a ketch or yawl), but really comes into its own as the wind swings round aft of the beam. The downsides are cost, weight, complication, and to some eyes, aesthetics, although the stunning Amel 64 shown below does show how it can be done very effectively indeed.

Amel 64 Ketch

The Amel 64 with ketch rig

Foresails Options

Inner forestays

For those looking to embark upon any form of blue water or heavy-airs sailing, it would be worth giving consideration to the fitment of some form of supplementary inner forestay. In heavy airs, the effect of half-furling the genoa can raise and shift forward the centre of effort of the sail which will affect the sailing characteristics of the yacht. The ability to set a smaller sail closer to the yacht’s centre of effort (ie. the mast foot) will allow for the same balance as a fully-rigged sail plan, but with less sail area. This will also match a reefed mainsail, which also brings the sail area downwards towards the centre of effort. Inner forestays can usually be rigged so that they can fasten adjacent to the mast or to one side when not in use. An inner forestay will also usually necessitate running backstays to counteract the forward pull on the rig at the point where the inner forestay attaches to the mast, although in some instances jumper-struts are adopted which are a small forward-pointing tripod spreaders positioned in the area of the forestay mast attachment which neatly circumvent the need to set up running backstays.

Saturn 48CC inner forestay

The inner forestay arrangement on the Saturn Yachts 48CC


The very best way to give added ‘oomph’ once the wind is aft of the beam. Often very daunting to the inexperienced sailor, spinnakers, whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, can be set up to provide a very stable source of power. The symmetrical spinnaker relies upon setting a height and angle adjustable pole and using guys and sheets. This type of spinnaker is the most traditional and is still the optimum solution for sailing the deepest downwind angles.

The asymmetric spinnaker (also referred to as a cruising chute, gennaker, multi-purpose genoa, multi-purpose spinnaker or code zero, depending on the cut) removes the need for an adjustable pole (although a pole may still be used to stand the sail clear of the pulpit and the stemhead fittings) and is extremely easy to handle as it acts just like a very large lightweight genoa. An added advantage of the asymmetric spinnaker is the ability to set it on a soft-furler rather than using a snuffer or bag. This allows the sail to be quickly furled away and yet still left aloft should the need arise. In all instances, care must be given to the wind conditions, as serious damage can be caused to both the sail and the yacht if the sail is flown in a squall or dramatic wind shift. Because of this, it is usually a good idea to reduce to white sails from dusk until dawn once sailing in the potentially-squally trade winds.


Italia Yachts 15.98 sailing under asymmetric spinnaker

The Parasailor is a relatively recent innovation which bases itself upon a symmetrical spinnaker, but can be flown without a pole, across a very broad range of angles and offering a stable source of power. Extremely popular with the trans-Atlantic fraternity, the Parasailor is great for short-handed crews and works well when the autopilot is in use.


The Parasailor spinnaker

Sail Handling Options

Slab reefing

The original mainsail configuration, relying upon fixed reefing points (usually 3) and securing the mainsail at the forward and aft ends when reducing the sail area. The slab reefing system fell somewhat out of favour amongst the cruising fraternity with the arrival of reliable in-mast furling options, but modern innovations such as single (or twin) line furling, lazyjacks, stackpack bags and low-friction battencars and sliders, now allow for a powerful mainsail to be easily controlled by a small crew. The downside is that there are may be more bits of string in the cockpit, but the increased control over the sail shape and relative simplicity and safety of the system does make for a fairly compelling option.

Italia Yachts 10.98 with slab reefing main

Italia Yachts 10.98 with fully-battend mainsail, single-line reefing, battencars, lazyjacks and stackpack

In-mast Furling

Relying on an internal spindle within the mast to furl the mainsail, the in-mast system is massively popular amongst the cruising fraternity. With fewer stings to pull, less clutter, and infinite reefing potential, the positives normally outweigh the negatives. In terms of the negatives, there is the question of added weight aloft, smaller sail area (an in-mast furling mainsail without vertical battens may have considerably less sail area for a given mast height than a fully-battened conventional mainsail) and of course the thorny subject of jamming. In truth, most jamming issues are caused by incorrect technique (caused by inexperience or circumstance), poor sail condition or a combination of both. A level-headed approach and a decent amount of sea-room (both in good supply mid-ocean) will usually allow any problems to be quickly dealt with. Lighter rig materials can also help to overcome the added weight, and vertical batten systems will build some controlled shape and additional area to the sail.  Another consideration is that many larger cruising yachts are designed with in-mast furling in mind, so consideration should always be given before switching between configurations.

Saturn Yachts 48 with in-boom furling

Saturn Yachts 48CC with in-mast furling

In-boom Furling

Turning the concept of in-mast furling through 90 degrees and placing the furling within the boom removes most of the pitfalls of the in-mast system, whilst retaining many of the positives. In practice, reefing should be restricted to lining up a batten to the boom (so in effect you have as many reefing points as you have battens) and the angle of the boom relative to the mast is critical, as is the point of sail.

In-boom furling

Offshore Spars furling boom system

Furling Foresails

Almost ubiquitous amongst cruising yachts for the primary foresail. There are still some that prefer the simplicity of using a hanked-on foresail, the reliability and simplicity of a genoa furler is hard to ignore. The ability to unfurl, reef or furl a foresail from the security of the cockpit is an important consideration when in the middle of the ocean. Most furling forestay arrangements utilise a twin-groove foil which allow for a second foresail to rigged on the forestay (provided the yacht is equipped with a spare genoa halyard) for goose-winging in trade wind conditions. For those yachts with inner forestays or cutter rigs, larger yachts will tend to adopt a second furler, whereas some smaller yachts may rely upon a hanked-on sail which can be easily removed or changed and left bagged on the foredeck until needed. Furlers can be manual, electric or hydraulic. Racing yachts will usually rely upon a sail fed directly into an aerodynamic luff foil (which may in turn have a removable furling drum for when the yacht is pressed into short-handed or cruising mode), although many short-handed offshore racers will simply use furlers for safety and simplicity

Italia 13.98 genoa furler

Through-deck genoa furler fitted to Italia Yachts 13.98

Gybe Preventers

An essential piece of kit for any trade wind adventures and can include anything from a simple strop attached to the end of the boom, running forward to the bow, to a dedicated and permanently attached preventer system set up midway along the boom above the coachroof. In all instances, one simple piece of logic should prevail. The preventer must always have a lesser breaking strain than the boom! The preventer buys you time to correct an accidental course deviation without causing an accidental gybe, but if the course is left unchecked, and the preventer resolutely refuses to fail, the boom surely will.

Rig Materials

Aluminium Spars

The most common spar material on production yachts. Aluminium spars are made from extrusions created by pulling the material through a die which dictates the size of the section and the wall thickness. Aluminium spars sections are usually made in set sizes, so a yacht designer will choose the one which fits best with the planned rigging loads (usually erring on the size of caution). Aluminium spars are relatively cheap but also quite heavy. Care should also be taken when painting aluminium spars as if the paint system is breached (through common wear and tear), the paint can bubble and blister. Painted rigs are extremely attractive and nice to have, but the standard anodised finished is more of a ‘fit and forget’ option (and cheaper).

Italia 13.98 rigging

Aluminium rig on an Italia Yachts 13.98

Carbon Spars

Carbon spars are becoming more common amongst higher-end cruising yachts and are no longer exclusively the preserve of high-tech racing yachts. The masts are engineered specifically for each yacht which allows an exact match to the projected rig loads. Combined with the inherent properties of carbon, carbon spars will almost always be substantially lighter and stiffer than their aluminium counterparts. With every kilogram saved aloft equating to 5-7kgs saved at the bottom of the keel, the benefits are clear. The only elephant in the room is the high cost of carbon spars, although costs are coming down all the time.

carbon rig

A full carbon rig fitted to the Wally W143 ‘Esense’

Wooden Spars

Not really a material that is likely to be found on anything other than a traditional wooden yacht (many of which now carry aluminium rigs).

Standing Rigging

The most common type of standing rigging found in production cruising yachts is stainless steel wire rigging which is strong, cheap to replace and relatively easy to monitor. Larger or more performance orietetated yachts will often have stainless steel rod rigging. This is much more expensive than wire and more difficult to assess for condition, but far stronger. A more recent innovation is fibre standing rigging which uses PBO (polybenzoxazole) which is some 50% stronger than the equivalent wire or rod and most crucially, 70-80% lighter. Combined with a carbon mast, the amount of weight saved aloft can allow a fair chunk of weight to be taken out of the keel which in turn will reduce pitching and slamming motion in a head sea. As with carbon spars, high cost is a major factor for use in cruising applications, along with a shorter lifespan against stainless steel standing rigging and the reliance upon a protective jacket to prevent UV degradation and chafing of the fibres.


Rod standing rigging fitted to an X-Yachts X-46
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