The boat we chartered had one rig design feature that has become almost ubiquitous these days—swept back spreaders. Heavily swept spreaders in fact, with massive cap shrouds to keep the central panel of the rig from pumping, as there were no forward lowers or even a babystay to do that job. The backstays were far smaller diameter, and in effect, simply controIled the top of the rig. And this was on masthead rigged boat—in fact, it was almost a Begstrom rig, where there are no backstays at all (and it won’t be long before…).
Swept spreaders have been around for years, but they really only took off on this side of the Atlantic in the late seventies when they started appearing on cruiser-racers (like Sigma’s, for example) where they enabled a simple fractional rig to be used without recourse to running backstays and multiple spreaders. It was only after a while that many owners found that they were still better off with runners, but that’s by the by.
But What About For Cruising?
Now what’s OK for charging around the cans is one thing; few fractional boats run in races, preferring to gybe downwind whenever possible, and their sails don’t tend to last long enough for chafe to be a big issue. But we who tend to be short handed and stick to white sails (except in light airs) will happily run before favourable winds, wing and wing. And to do that in safety, you need to be able to square the main away as much as possible, to avoid an accidental gybe—I know a preventer is essential, but first you have to get the main as much as is practically possible at right angles to the centreline of the boat with the wind dead over the stern. Otherwise, you’ve got to sort out some form of twin jib arrangement, and dispense with the main—at more cost and complexity.
But it seemed to me that with the rig we had chafe would be a problem over anything but short distances. I know you can pad the spreaders, put reinforcing patches on the main, strap the vang down tight to stop the boom from rising and falling constantly, but for a long downwind passage in the trade winds (say), chafe must take its toll. We found that the main was already on the spreaders when the wind over the stern was at 150º, limiting us to broad reaching, realistically.
And that makes reefing downwind a real pain, too. The boat we sailed had a nicely made fully battened main, and the normal routine of trimming the main in a little before reefing to get the sail off the spreaders simply wasn’t enough, because as soon as the halyard was eased the main sagged onto the spreaders again, and the battens caught. I’m sure that with practice improvements could be made, but I doubt they could assist short handed cruising crews, where one person tends to put in a reef on their own. Maybe they’re most suited to be used with roller furling mainsails, themselves a subject for much debate.
So Why Are They Becoming The Norm?
Some say they can make for closer sheeting angles for headsails, but there are other ways of achieving that such as sheeting inside shrouds. OK, without forward lowers or a babystay there’s less windage and weight aloft. And in some cases it may be possible to use a smaller section mast, I’ve heard it claimed.
But the over-riding factor seems to me to be cost. It must be far less expensive for a yard to install one oversized set of chainplates taking all of the rigging loads into a suitably reinforced matrix in the hull than the traditional way of installing several chainplates, plus their attachments below deck, reinforcing the hull over a larger area and then concealing them with joinery. The latter is far more labour intensive, and labour costs money—lots of it. And as you can also do away with the cost of the lowers, mast attachments, bottlescrews and the like, it may be understandable why that would be an attractive option for builders, especially in the current climate. Boatbuilidng has always been a financially precarious business, and cost cutting exercises that don’t on the face of it harm the ‘product’ (i.e. the rig still stays up), but help the bottom line, must be hard to ignore.
Some of the earlier boats that have one big ‘cluster’ chainplate are now a good few years old, and there have been reports of failures of these units, usually on GRP boats where the stainless chainplate has suffered from unseen crevice corrosion below deck level. These units are, in effect, massive single points of failure, and should (at least) be checked regularly for any signs of corrosion—although that’s often easier said than done as they tend to be built in, and hard to get at. Because if the chainplate fails, there’s little or no chance that you can save the rig, unlike a traditional fore and aft lower set up, where one stay failing might not be catastrophic.
But Are They What We Need?
The move away from traditional cruising rigs with their multi-point support at the lower level has been going on for some time now, although there are still yards building dedicated cruising boats that will not compromise on what has been battle-tested. There may be adherents for swept spreaders, and in some circumstances (such as racing), maybe they make sense. And on a boat designed for charter where keeping build cost down is critical, and durability and ease of handling might be considered less important, then the wholesale change towards them is understandable. But as to whether they belong on a dedicated cruising boat, I’d have my doubts. And if, as I suspect, the move towards them in the area of cruising boat design is largely a cost saving exercise, then surely it could be argued that it’s a classic case of ‘spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar’. But I could be wrong, so if anyone can come up with any reason why swept back spreaders offer a real benefit for an offshore cruising boat—I’d love to hear of it.