Gaff rig: past, present and future

In this article, first published in Water Craft Magazine, November/December 2015, designer Andrew Wolstenholme suggests there's more to modern gaffers than 'nostalgia-lite'.

The gaff rig is viewed by most modern sailors as a throwback to a bygone era, aesthetically pleasing in a traditional way but less efficient and more complicated than the predominant Bermudan rig.


Smack 'Bertha', 1968

Whilst there are some grounds for this view, there remains a degree of misunderstanding and gaff has much more to offer today’s sailor than a pretty face.

The evolution of all man-made artefacts is driven by the needs and ingenuity of those around at the time along with the materials and technology available to them. When sail and oar were the only means of propelling boats, development and refinement of the sailing rig was intense, but with limited means of communication, ideas took time to spread. All around the world boatbuilders developed craft and rigs to meet the needs of local fishermen and traders, some of whom may have travelled no more than a few miles up and down the coast in their entire lifetime. Where the ongoing development of today's rigs is driven by sales to the leisure sailor, the early gaff rigs were developed for commercial purposes and had to meet the utilitarian needs of impecunious boatmen.

The predecessor of gaff rig, the square rig, was a crude fabric sail simply hung from a horizontal yard. In the fore-and-aft gaff rig the yard is swung to one side having one end resting against the mast. The sail remains simply supported by the yard, now called the gaff. Masts, usually a simple wooden pole, didn't need to be overlong to support a given amount of sail. The gaff could double up as a derrick for lifting cargo and equipment on or off the boat. In summary, the gaff was simple and robust, practical and seamanlike, and crucially, cost effective.

In contrast the Bermudan rig evolved at the behest of the leisure sailor and was only feasible due to new innovations in material technology, allowing tall lightweight spars, high strength rigging and fittings with improved sailcloths. In this high tech age, gaff still has much to commend it. The Bermudan rig is undeniably more efficient to windward but gaff's reputation for poor windward ability is largely down to the hull on which the rig is set. A well set up gaff rig on an efficient modern hull will put up a very creditable performance against Bermudan rigged opposition. Downwind, the low aspect ratio gaff main is more efficient than the high aspect ratio Bermudan which has to resort to the use of a spinnaker. ‘Alice III' is a case in point with her Simon Rogers' designed race bred hull topped by a powerful carbon sparred gaff topsail rig, a veritable wolf in sheep's clothing! Nigel Irens' gaff schooner ‘Maggie B' raised the bar with her clean hull and weight-saving carbon rig, resulting in a step change in performance.

A gaffer will outsail some Bermudan boats


Norfolk wherry 'Bramble'

The old working boats had heavy, solid timber spars and chunky fittings. They had no alternative. Today there is no need to carry so much weight aloft. Weight high up must be counterbalanced by even more weight on the bottom of the boat if she is to be powerful enough to carry sufficient sail. Reduce the top weight and the all up weight of the boat can be cut down to give improved performance or the ability to carry yet more sail.

For those who need to fold their mast down easily like th Broads yachts, Dutch boats and trailer sailers, then the lighter and shorter the rig can be made the easier life will be. Hollow timber spars are lighter than solid ones, and extruded aluminium ones are generally lighter again, but the greatest advances are to be made by using carbon fibre. Bermudan spars are elliptical in cross section as they need greater stiffness fore and aft than they do athwartships, because of the way that they are stayed. This makes for an expensive carbon spar. Gaff spars on the other hand are generally round, ideally suited to cost effective cylindrical carbon tubes making them a viable proposition. In addition to this the tall Bermudan mast requires complex staying and the narrow shroud base relative to the height of the mast plus the need for good headsail luff tension leads to high rigging loads. Conversely the shorter gaff mast is simpler to support and less highly loaded.

By using carbon spars on my own little trailer sailer ‘Kite' I was able to keep the weight of the rig down which in turn meant that I could minimise the weight of the ballast, keeping her all up weight to just 3/4ton/750kgs, making her easily trailed behind a 2litre car. Her short tabernacle stepped mast is only 17ft long and weighs just 15lbs so raising and lowering it is simplicity itself and once down it fits within the length of the boat.

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'Kite', English Raid, 2012

Her light hull powered by a fine set of McNamara sails, results in a boat which is fast on all points of sail. When I started sketching out ideas for ‘Kite’ I had an open mind on the rig, and it was not my intention to go for gaff, but as my ideas evolved it became clear that gaff was the simplest and most practical rig for the boat. 

Probably the first boat with carbon spars and a traditional-looking rig was Nigel Irens’ modern take on the Shetland lugger, ‘Roxanne’. Nigel adapted the technology familiar to him, working as a leading multihull designer, to create this innovative and elegant, 'spirit of tradition' design. I think it no coincidence that the French are probably the most forward thinking in their development of gaff rig with a cross fertilisation of ideas from the multihull builders and designers of northwest France into the local monohull daysailers. The Dutch too have moved gaff forward with numerous one design half-deckers sporting hollow timber spars with bolt rope tracks and carefully designed lightweight fittings, and others with simple aluminium sparred and carbon fibre rigs.

In the UK we have tended to take a more traditionalist approach to gaff

In the UK we have tended to take a more traditionalist approach to gaff, favouring the preservation of the old boats with their rigs and methods, although we have seen more open-minded development in recent years. The new plastic gaffers which appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s targeted the nostalgia market. They largely stayed with very traditional rigs and hull forms.

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Hull design by Simon Rogers

The Dutch have long favoured curved gaffs on their traditional rigs but in a recent interesting development, the late Ted Spears of North Quay Marine took this a step further with the rig on his Spitfire 19. Here he used a longer curved gaff, combined with a full roach to mimic the efficient elliptical WW2 Spitfire fighter’s wing shape for the main, to maximize both upwind and downwind efficiency.

Roger Dongray’s Cornish Shrimper has probably been the most commercially successful of the genre and with good reason. Her builders, Cornish Crabbers  were originally the racing dinghy specialists, Westerly Boats. The Shrimper incorporated modern fittings for efficient sail handling, a square section timber bowsprit, boom, and gaff to keep build costs down.


Cornish Crabbers 'Demelza'

She retained the appeal of timber spars whilst setting an efficient high aspect ratio gaff rig. This proved to be a winning combination of the old and the new. The new Shrimper 21 sticks pretty much to the same formula but with a little more space and minor but important refinements.

A gaff mainsail can be simply depowered by scandalising the main (dropping the peak), and when reefed it doesn't have lots of now redundant mast left high above the deck as is the case with Bermudan. A Bermudan mainsail with a modern jiffy reefing system is likely to be viewed as easier to reef than a traditional long footed gaff mainsail but a modern gaff main with a shorter foot and a carefully thought out reefing system will be similarly easy to reef. Windage of the mast and rigging is an important issue for performance, and the Bermudan rig has an advantage here, so every effort must be taken when designing a gaff rig to minimize clutter and keep it as simple and clean as possible.

Over the last few years we have seen the emergence of the ‘fathead’ main on Bermudan rigs. The narrow triangular head of a conventional Bermudan mainsail works inefficiently due to the disturbed airflow aft of the mast, but new developments in sailcloth technology have made it possible to clip off the top of the mast and sail and create a wide mainsail head which is not dissimilar to a very high aspect ratio gaff main and topsail. Weight is saved high above the deck by reducing the mast length, windage reduced and mainsail efficiency is improved. This innovation narrows the gap between gaff and Bermudan and it will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve.

Our fondness for gaff rig was born through the old working boats, and long may they continue to be loved and sailed, but maybe the time is right for a true re-birth of gaff. The first steps in this latest stage of the rig's evolution have been taken and I believe that the future for gaff is bright, but it is up to designers, builders and most importantly the customers, to encourage its continued development.

Browse the OGA gallery of some modern gaffers.

© Andrew Wolstenholme
first published in Water Craft Magazine, November/December 2015

Water Craft Magazine

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'Mary Hay' off Plymouth