View Full Version : Gaff or Bermuda?

Jeff Fuchs
02-05-2001, 04:11 PM
I'm toying with the idea of building a boat, but I'm torn between Gaff and Bermuda rigs. The gaff cutter is a rig of undeniable beauty, but it seems very complex. I'm used to the Bermuda rig. It's a very simple rig that serves its function well. Also, the swept-back shrouds of the gaff rig make me wonder about its downwind abilities.

In my marina, there's not a single gaff rig, and I don't know anyone who sails one. I could take that as a hint, but I'd like to get other opinions.

Alan D. Hyde
02-05-2001, 04:32 PM

Depending on the boat, a sprit or a gunter or some other rig might make sense.

Time to go out on some other people's boats and get some experience in a variety of wind and sea conditions, so that you're able to make a good choice.

My guess is that you could set up some rides with participants in this forum, whose boats cover a wide range of possible rigs.


Frank Wentzel
02-05-2001, 05:03 PM
I've heard it said that we have fixated on the bermuda rig because that is rig on which all the racing rules are based. The perception is that a bermuda rig is more close-winded than any other - I've also seen others argue with that assumption. In any case if you are not racing - is it important to be 3 degrees closer to the wind? I don't like sailing hard to the wind any more than necessary and I don't want to sacrifice offwind performance to get windward ability. The bermuda rig is not worth a d*** down-wind, between fighting with a spinnaker and watching out for jibes because it yawls so badly. The best behaved rig off the wind IMHO is the chinese-lug, preferably a ketch. The gaff rig is also good off the wind. That said, the majority will use the bermuda rig because that is what everyone else uses. But don't think that it is a simpler rig - what with vangs, preventers, whisker-poles, other miscellaneous "go-fast" gadgets and a forepeak full of sails - I think it is the most complicated rig available. The high-aspect ratio of the bermuda rig also yields more hull stress, greater heeling moment, and requires more complex standing rigging.

Of course that is just my opinion (as I step off the soap-box).

02-05-2001, 05:16 PM
wellllll....for my two cents........I like the rig on the old freedoms...in cat ketch or cat schooner. Minimum hardware and utter simplicity and it works.......that said, I drive a bermudan cutter because it goes with the boat.

Mike Field
02-05-2001, 07:33 PM
Frank, you took the words right out of my mouth.

Scott Widmier
02-05-2001, 11:37 PM
I started sailing on a bermuda rigged 16' Wayfarer. I recently built a gaff rigged boat and have had no problems in switching. The gaff does have an additional line in the peak halyard which adjusts the peak of the gaff sail. For cruising you generally will set this line up and not touch it again. The gaff is a low stress rig with a lower center of effort all of which means less complicated stays and an ability to use simple solid wooden mast and spars. A big advantage when building a boat. The kicker for me is the look and the romance of the gaff rig. Heads tend to turn as you go by and a lot of boats come by for a look.

This is my little gaff-rig.


Scott Widmier
02-05-2001, 11:40 PM
I forgot to add another advantage. The sails in the picture are made out of flat sheets of polytarp. The same stuff you use to cover the woodpile. Having camber is not as important with gaff rigs since the sail is held on three sides and the shape can be adjusted. For $40 I can make a new set of sail with higher or lower peak...etc. Really allows for some experimentation. I will probably get nicer sails when I decide on the perfect shape.

Bruce Hooke
02-06-2001, 09:13 AM
Since I don't have any direct experience with gaff rigs I will stay out of the direct debate on this subject. What I will suggest is that you get your hands on a copy of Bolger's book "103 Sailing Rigs". Mr. Bolger's opinions not infrequently run cross-wise to the conventional thinking in the wooden boat world but his ideas are generally well reasoned, based on a lot of experience, and therefore worthy of serious consideration. I have the predecessor to this book (101 Small Boat Rigs) and I have found it to be most interesting and informative.

- Bruce

02-06-2001, 12:17 PM
Bruce, I also have Bolgers 101 Rigs book. I am curious as to what the two new rigs are.

Frank Hagan
02-06-2001, 12:38 PM
Another consideration is the gaff rig has a lower center of effort (something like that), so it exerts less force up high. If the design you're building is originally for a gaff, sprit or lug sailplan, converting it to a bermuda rig can be risky. One of the builders of the little sailboat I'm building converted to a bermudan rig and found the boat squirrely. He was told one way to convert would be to down size the bermudan rig, rather than going with the same square footage of sail, but I haven't been able to find that confirmed in a formula. So I'd check with the designer if he hasn't given your desired sail plan in the drawings.

There is a way to use a single halyard on a gaffer, as Michael Kasten does on his modern designs at http://www.kastendesign.com which are great looking boats, but alas, in evil materials such as aluminum and steel! I have some details on his rigging of it on my The Gaff Rig Pages also at http://users2.ev1.net/~fshagan/gaffrig.htm

I was going to interview him for a club magazine before I resigned from the club. His design is based on some of the pilot cutters early in the last century that utilized tall, narrow gaff sails with a small gaff and single halyard.

I like the looks of the gaff rig, but I'm a novice at all of this.

John B
02-06-2001, 03:08 PM
Did I happen to mention that we won our race in the Auckland Anniversary regatta last weekend.har har...... I think we were the only gaff rig, certainly the only jackyard topsail. Several boats with kites up couldn't catch us and we beat boats up to 10 ft longer home. Don't worry about the shrouds.... they won't affect your downwind performance.
The only new words you need to know about gaff rig is " reef early".

[This message has been edited by John B (edited 02-06-2001).]

Ian McColgin
02-06-2001, 03:48 PM
Down there in coonass James Lee Burke country, aye?

I'd not worry about whether gaff or triangular so much as finding a boat suitable for the conditions.

How big you thinking? Daysailing? Beach cruising? Cruising?

What kinds of wind? Sea state? Depth?

I'm betting on something Cmdr Monroe style.


02-06-2001, 06:22 PM
Jeff, keep an open mind on various rigs - they all have good points.
Check out Emma's site for pics of gaffers:-
and on the smack site:-
for lots of pics and info on gaffers that in many peoples view had reached perfection in gaff design after a few hundred years development.

Todd Bradshaw
02-07-2001, 03:10 AM
It's true that raising sail on a gaff cutter would be a bit more involved than on a marconi sloop, but I wouldn't let it scare you off if that's the type of boat that you are interested in. By the end of the first season (if not sooner) you should have a good handle on sailing the boat. In some ways, you may even find it easier to sail since so much of the total sailpower is concentrated in the mainsail.

If your crew is inexperienced or less interested in the finer points of sail trimming, a gaff cutter with a self-tending club-footed staysail might be a good choice.

As far as the marina goes, the fact that there are no other gaffers alone would be enough to make me want one. Reminds me of a comment that I read from a guy who sold his fiberglass sloop and bought a traditional boat because he got tired of walking up and down the docks, reading the names on the transoms, trying to figure out which one was his...

Keith Wilson
02-07-2001, 11:29 AM
One point to consider is that not all rigs with triangular sails have enormous jibs (with six different sizes taking up the forepeak)and a little main with a short boom. There are a lot of very nice sloops from the 20s and 30s, before rating rules distorted things (or maybe just designed to a different rating rule) with a small easily-handled jib (just one) and a large main which works reasonably well downwind.

Boom vangs and preventers are just as useful with gaff rig as with bermudan. Herreshoff the elder used to equip gaff-rigged boats with a removable compression strut to hold the boom down; same effect as a modern vang. The complexity of some modern rigs is not inherent in triangular sails; it's a result of trying to squeeze the last .001 knot out of restricted sail area. Racing rigs, whether gaff or bermudan(or imitiation racing rigs, as found on a lot of producion boats), are complicated, expensive, and not useful for most purposes (except racing).