The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

12 Reasons The Cutter Is A Great Offshore Voyaging Rig

Also see DH0001.

OK, before a war starts, if you prefer a ketch, a sloop, or a some variant of a cutter, like a solent rig, that’s just fine and I’m sure that your preferred rig is great for you.

Having got that out of the way, do read on because there is no question that a properly set up true cutter rig is insanely great for short-handed offshore cruising. Also, many ketches and sloops can, with a little effort and expense, be converted to gain at least some of the benefits of a true cutter.

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More Articles From Online Book: Sail Handling and Rigging Made Easy:

  1. Six Reasons To Leave The Cockpit Often
  2. Don’t Forget About The Sails
  3. Your Mainsail Is Your Friend
  4. Hoisting the Mainsail Made Easy—Simplicity in Action
  5. Reefs: How Many and How Deep
  6. Reefing Made Easy
  7. Reefing From The Cockpit 2.0—Thinking Things Through
  8. Reefing Questions and Answers
  9. A Dangerous Myth about Reefing
  10. Mainsail Handling Made Easy with Lazyjacks
  11. Topping Lift Tips and a Hack
  12. 12 Reasons The Cutter Is A Great Offshore Voyaging Rig
  13. Cutter Rig—Should You Buy or Convert?
  14. Cutter Rig—Optimizing and/or Converting
  15. Cruising Rigs—Sloop, Cutter, or Solent?
  16. Sailboat Deck Layouts
  17. The Case For Roller-Furling Headsails
  18. UV Protection For Roller Furling Sails
  19. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing—Convenience and Reliability
  20. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing —Performance, Cost and Safety
  21. The Case For Hank On Headsails
  22. Making Life Easier—Roller Reefing/Furling
  23. Making Life Easier—Storm Jib
  24. Gennaker Furlers Come Of Age
  25. Swept-Back Spreaders—We Just Don’t Get It!
  26. Q&A: Staysail Stay: Roller Furling And Fixed Vs Hanks And Removable
  27. Rigid Vangs
  28. Rigging a Proper Preventer, Part 1
  29. Rigging a Proper Preventer—Part 2
  30. Amidships “Preventers”—A Bad Idea That Can Kill
  31. Keeping The Boom Under Control—Boom Brakes
  32. Downwind Sailing, Tips and Tricks
  33. Downwind Sailing—Poling Out The Jib
  34. Setting and Striking a Spinnaker Made Easy and Safe
  35. Ten Tips To Fix Weather Helm
  36. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 1
  37. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 2
  38. Two Dangerous Rigging Mistakes
  39. Rig Tuning, Part 1—Preparation
  40. Rig Tuning, Part 2—Understanding Rake and Bend
  41. Rig Tuning, Part 3—6 Steps to a Great Tune
  42. Rig Tuning, Part 4—Mast Blocking, Stay Tension, and Spreaders
  43. Rig Tuning, Part 5—Sailing Tune
  44. 12 Great Rigging Hacks
  45. 9 Tips To Make Unstepping a Sailboat Mast Easier
  46. Cruising Sailboat Spar Inspection
  47. Cruising Sailboat Standing Rigging Inspection
  48. Cruising Sailboat Running Rigging Inspection
  49. Cruising Sailboat Rig Wiring and Lighting Inspection
  50. Cruising Sailboat Roller Furler and Track Inspection
  51. Download Cruising Sailboat Rig Checklist
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Marc Dacey

Very timely article as I just resumed sailing our (yes…) cutter this week. While our forestay is on a short bowsprit, and our staysail is large, our setup is very much in the cutter mould, and I agree with your points.

The barber-hauling a Yankee jib top idea, however, is intriguing. I also hope to hear your thoughts on poled-out “twins” as an alternative to an assymmetrical/cruising spinnaker.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Is it ok to be sitting, smugly smiling, but only in the privacy of Alchemy’s cabin?
Having lived for 13+ years on a true cutter, I enjoyed reading through your 12 points saying “Yes, he got that one”, and “Yes, well put”.
I will be interested in the response to your points. In casual conversations and occasional serious consults with some on rig design, I have mentioned these numerous points and most times those who I am talking with just seem to not get it. Aside from my skills as an explainer, I wonder to what degree you need to actually experience these attributes over time and in varied conditions to appreciate their worth.
A couple of spin-off thoughts:
I really hate using the phrase “true cutter” although I understand why you do so do and feel compelled to do so as well. I would vastly prefer cutter to be used fitting your definition and double headsail sloops used to describe those boats that are not able to fly 2 headsails going to wind (either because their J/slot is too small or their jib is deck-sweeping and large etc.)
I really do not like the shape of a reefed roller furled sail or what happens to the sail cloth/shape when reefed. So I really like that I do far far less roller-reefing with my rig, a true cutter rig. The time when I really “need” to is when I need punch upwind into seas. Off wind or reaching the forces on the sail are less and reefing the jib topsail is not so distasteful. I feel like my jib top will last a lot longer as it does not get mangled reefing so often.
You mentioned heaving-to with the staysail. It is a pleasure to be able to go so without second thought. Those of us with protuberances (radar, reflecotrs etc.) on the face of the mast might need to reef the staysail a bit to clear these items when hove-to. If I forget, the leach rubs against the radar. I do not carry a storm staysail and have not ever come close to wishing for one (and hope I never will).
Question: I have read that roller furling manufacturers have a caveat that says that their furlers should not have a sail reefed more than 75-80% or so. The argument is that the they like the stresses (tack and clew move up as you reef) as close to the strength of the furler- the 2 drums- and that the more reef the more strain on the joints in the furler. Do you know anything about this: either as a safety measure for the furling system or as it pertains to the manufacturers?
Thanks for a nice article.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

pat synge

A thing you didn’t mention, John, is the need for running backstays. I would agree that they’re not much of a problem (and even less so nowadays with Dyneema) and it could be validly argued that they add to the security of the mast.

Our rig is not a “true cutter” inasmuch as the inner stay goes close to the mast head (thus obviating the need for running backstays) but it is set well back from the forestay (1m back on a 12.5m boat) allowing us to set both headsail at the same time.

We sail with a yankee and wishbone staysail. The two seem to work quite happily together despite the converging stays with the head of the staysail about 3m below the top of the stay. Tacking and oling it out couldn’t be easier!

I would be interested in knowing if any of you have experience with Dyneema sails? Not laminate but woven Dyneema cloth stitched with Tenara PTFE thread. Our sailmaker is trying to convince me that this is the way to go, particularly for furling headsails, and his price is not so unreasonable. He reckons that the sail will be lighter, just about immune from stretch and and can be furled and used in winds that would distort a polyester (dacron) sail permanently.

The cloth feels amazingly tough and the Tenara thread is said to be immune from UV degradation. I’m very tempted.

Stein Varjord

Hi Pat.
Your boat seems to have a nice rig.
I have no experience with the cloth and thread combo you mention, but my initial thought is that is sounds good. Should be possible to get some comments from sailors that have tries some years though?

In -93 I was sailing in the Formula multihull classes in Europe. Very extreme boats. We used some Spectra/Mylar headsails, mostly a code zero one season. Bright green shiny stuff… Laminated, not woven. Quite different from what you mention, but Dyneema is mostly another brand of the same as Spectra, I think.

We noticed that the threads would slowly “creep” or stretch some. That would not be a problem for sail shape as it was even and we of course would trim the sails non stop, but after some races the sails did not look good. It seemed that the Mylar didn’t cope too well with the creep.

I’m pretty sure what your sailmaker suggest is materials that behave quite differently, and more than 20 years of development makes a change. However, it would be interesting to hear what your sailmaker thinks of this creep issue in this type fibre.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I would add another way of looking at (and adding up) much of your list: cutters can be much safer boats. Especially when one notices your added excellent distinction, “insanely great for short-handed offshore cruising” (bold added).

Short handed means you have no reservoir of bodies to do the work necessary to keep the boat running well. Day sailing (and by that I include coastal cruising which is largely day sailing) this hardly matters: you will be resting in a snug anchorage/marina at end of day and you will have 2 bodies to do the work. Offshore most couples are largely single-handing and sleep/rest is harder to come by. A boat easy to sail will sail fast and its crew will be less likely to be fatigued and make errors.
Another plus is an easy boat to sail may feel it less likely to “need” extra crew for longer passages. Yes, invite crew for social reasons or to spread the work, but I have met many cruisers who felt compelled to have crew for longer passages. I usually only knew this because they would grumble about what a hassle it was: finding crew, meeting deadlines, personality quirks etc.
“Short handed” and “offshore” add a whole element to boat design and use which are far less important for boats used largely as day sailors. Again, one may need to have had the experience of fatigue, seas sickness, work load and general interminable-ness of a difficult passage to fully appreciate the impact. I know I needed the reality as my imagination was in no way up to the task (this underlines your suggestion for prospective offshore skippers to find a way to crew on a passage ahead of time).
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi Pat,
Check out HydraNet radial sailcloth. It may be what your sailmaker is suggesting. We have 3 sails with this cloth now for 2 seasons and have been very happy. Others on AAC have made positive comments on HydraNet radial in the past which I suspect you could find by a search.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

pat synge

Thanks, Dick.
The cloth he showed me is not a mixed fibre laminate like HydraNet Radial but 100% woven Dyneema.
Good to hear that you are happy with HydraNet.
Do you know what it is stitched with? In my experience it’s often the stitching that gives way first.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Pat,
I know we went over the stitching, but I forget the details (I could find out). Not being an expert in this area, I ask many questions, but when I get the feel that the sailmaker has things (and my interests) well in hand, I let go of the details. I know we discussed using the “best” thread (Goretex? Teflon? something familiar like that) but he felt the thread was far too abrasive for his particular needles/machines to tolerate. In any case, I always request overlaps sufficient to put an extra row of stitching which I tend to have done prophylactically after a few years (3-5) of use.
My best, Dick

Eric Klem

Hi John,

As someone who has a pretty even distribution of sailing on sloops, cutters, ketches and schooners, I would agree with your overall conclusion that a cutter rig generally makes the most sense for shorthanded offshore sailing. For boats at the smaller end of the scale, I think that a sloop with a removable solent stay/inner forestay or a double headsail rig can make a lot of sense. Also, for people who spend a lot of time sailing coastal and go offshore occasionally, I think that these rigs can make a lot of sense although they are not quite as ideal as a cutter once offshore. An intriguing setup to me is substituting jumper shrouds for running backstacks to support the inner forestay loads. My biggest complaint with cutters that don’t use massively strong mast sections is the running backstays and they have been the source of some of my scariest moments while sailing.

I think that a lot of your reasoning can be applied beyond the cutter rig. For example, your point about the shape of the jib applies beyond cutters. We have hank-on sails and our favorite one (ie the windspeed we hope for) is our 100% working jib with a high cut clew as we can see really well under it and we don’t need to move the jib car when changing points of sail. In general, I think that a lot of people put huge overlapping decksweeping genoas on boats in an effort to make them sail well at really low wind speeds but don’t realize how much they hurt the performance once the wind comes up.

One slightly off the subject thought is that I am increasingly thinking that jib car tracks may not be the best way to control the jib sheet lead. I have seen setups where people have a single permanently mounted block slightly aft of the furthest aft sheet lead position ever needed and then 2 twings mounted much further forward, one inboard and one outboard that pull down and either inboard or outboard. These twings give you the ability to raise and lower the effective lead and also move it inboard and outboard. My limited experience with a single twing is that you can adjust them by hand even under fairly high sheet load so it could make adjustments much easier and safer. The downside is that you have created an obstruction on the side deck (I also wonder about banging in light airs) but you eliminate the track with its potential to really hurt toes and lead to annoying leaks. Hopefully this isn’t too off topic but it has been on my mind and may be a solution to many of the sail trim problems for people with low cut genoas. If I ever finish my other project lists, I might just have to try it.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

You are right that a lot of my experience with runners has been on boats where they will lose the rig if you make even a momentary mistake. This has been a combination of large gaff rigged vessels and fractional rigs where you always have to have one runner fully on. I actually came reasonably close to losing a hand several years ago when I slipped while releasing a runner. While I find the runners on cutters to be much easier, I have realized more than once that a crewmember was winching in a runner that had wrapped a spreader which could potentially cause a rig failure too.

If anyone has tried eliminating the jib track and just going to twings, I would love to hear the results. On our boat, the biggest obstacle to this will likely be how to organize the control lines back at the cockpit.


Roger Harris

It’s certainly true that running backstays are critical on some boats to provide adequate fore-and-aft support for the mast whenever a load is applied to the inner forestay. However, many cutters use runners only to maintain tension on the inner forestay and prevent sagging in the luff of the staysail; as this function is not critical (especially when sailing off the wind), scary moments should not typically arise. I guess what I am trying to say is that people should not necessarily be put off by running backstays, it depends upon the individual design.

“Like you, I don’t believe a cutter always makes sense”: John, the absence of absolutist dogma is what makes your articles valuable.

Stedem Wood


Some Of the benefits you describe can be added to boats born as sloops.

I was able to add a removable inner forstay and running-backs to my 44 foot sloop. My thinking surrounded accommodating a hanked-on storm jib. Offshore I often left the stay attached, and used it and the running-backs to stiffen the mast. The jib would tack through without too much hassle.

That extra rigging kept the mast up when, right at midnight watch change I heard a bang that sounded like a shotgun had gone off. My crew asked if we’d hit something.

I said, “I hope so.”

The stainless tang attaching the head stay to the boat had sheered. The head stay, with the furler and sail had snapped through the forward stanchion and was dangling as a big heap back near the cockpit. It was a bit of a fire drill to sort things out and get moving again. All it took was an anchor shackle to get the forstay re-attached. If you can call it lucky, I was fortunate that the failed hardware was at deck level.

Without the inner forstay attached, there wouldn’t have been anything standing to jury rig and I would have been in deep yogurt in the middle of the Pacific.

Stedem Wood

Stein Varjord

I hope I’m not too annoying when I add yet another comment. 🙂
I also agree that the cutter rig is a great rig, for all the reasons given in the text, and then one more important one: The compound foil effect, which I’ll try to explain here, as kind of a supporting elaboration of Johns #12 Cutters are faster.

As described by John, the smaller and better organized sails can more easily be trimmed well. That means the slots between the sails are also aligned better. This point is more important than it might seem. If you look at the wings of passenger airplanes at takeoff and landing, they extend the wing area by sliding the rear end further back to get more area and curve it down to get a bigger pressure. But also they get a slot in front of the flaps. They get compound foil wings.

This is because they have much lower speed but need the same lift as at cruising speed. That they get by pointing the nose very high and getting a much higher angle of attack. Without the slot opened in the wing, that angle would mean the wings would get a turbulent flow and the plane would drop like a brick.

Any rig, no matter what configuration and no matter how many sails, has a single flow / pressure system around it. It can be seen as one single wing. Each sail collects some energy from the wind and changes the speed and direction of the flow reaching the next sail. This means that on very tight angles, going max upwind, the rig that creates the biggest forward power for a given area, is a single foil rig. Just one sail. The “cat rig”. At that point, the efficiency difference to normal rigs is big, because the first sail makes it impossible to get much forward power from the following sails. There’s just not enough available angle.

If we point lower, the advantage drops quickly. When we reach, the single sail rig is less efficient than a rig with several sails because the combination of sails and slots makes it possible to alter the flow direction more, getting more power, without stalling the sails. If you sheet in a sail too much, as you all know, it will create less power. An “array” of sails cooperating can get past this, just as the planes do. The forward sail is trimmed to give max. Then the next, but it will be sheeted in more because of the altered flow from the first sail. The third even more. Seen together, they act as different elements of one single wing. This is very powerful.

The slots between the sails create an accelerated flow speed that will add energy to the total flow and make the flow at the leeward side of the rig keep its direction without collapsing even at extreme angles of attack. Quantifying the effect needs specific boats and rigs, but as a very rough guide, a three element wing (cutter) may accept (much) more than twice the total angle of attack than a single element foil (cat). A two element foil, (sloop) will be in between. The higher angle translates directly into almost the same increase in power, but the power vector is of course angled more sideways. Still the resultant gain in forward drive is considerable.

There is even one more positive effect of a compound foil rig. The center of effort will be much lower than on a cat type rig of the same area. That means the boat can handle the power better and translate it in into speed. The Volvo Ocean Race boats are sloops, but most of the time they reach and they have at least three element rigs, sometimes four, for this exact reason. The Americas Cup foiling 72-foot catamarans with full wings, also use slots when going downwind, at a steady 40-knot boat speed…

If you think this is interesting, and can tolerate some mathematical formulas on every page, (you don’t HAVE to understand them to understand the topics) you could read the book: ”Aero- Hydrodynamics of Sailing” by Professor C A Marchaj. That’s a big book, very nerdy and quite old now, but will take you deep into understanding this topic and much more. This is the “Bible”.

Colin Palmer

Agree with all you say about the practicality of a cutter rig. On a techie note about the performance, what you have is “cascade” of airfoils, which area for area can generate more lift (technically a higher lift coefficient) – like the flaps that aircraft deploy when landing and taking off. But there is a drag penalty to go with it. When very close hauled in flat water in lightish winds (when the apparent wind is as far forward as it will go), this drag matters (technically what matters is to maximise the lift to drag ratio under these conditions, which does not coincide with the point of maximum lift.) Under these conditions a single 100% headsail will likely be best, as seen on many fast yachts, and in the extreme on the latest breed of America’s Cup cats. As soon as the going gets tougher and you sail more slowly relative to the wind speed, the apparent wind comes around a bit, and you then also maybe sail off a few degrees to power through the waves, the cutter rig comes into its own. The angle of the forces (I can draw diagrams if anyone is interested) now start to favour the high lift, high drag cutter cascade of sails. Free off a bit more and the advantage starts to really show. So not only a practical rig, but under most cruising conditions an aerodynamically efficient one too. Just because most production yachts are sloops with a lot of genoa overlap does not mean it is the most aerodynamically efficient rig, just the one that most folk think is best since it is what they have seen on racing yachts for many years, but these boats are designed to race within rules, which is not necessarily the same thing as being the most efficient in terms of total sail area. It also happens to be a low cost option, so a perfect solution for production boat builders.

Colin Palmer

Stein Varjord

Hi Colin.
We were apparently typing our posts simultaneously. We talk about mostly the same interesting property, but with slightly different angles. Hopefully to the effect that it’s easier to grasp. I support all you say completely, of course.

Stein Varjord

Ha ha. Thank’s John. That made me look for the “Like” button under your post. 🙂

I just remembered a picture from Team Brunel rounding the Cape Horn in the last edition of the Volvo Ocean race. It illustrates the impressive power of a rig with many cooperating sails. I’m a multihull fanatic, but I love the heading picture in the article I link to below. This level of pushing a boat to the limits makes me really long for getting out there! Beautiful!

Bob Miller


Definitely agree with your observations on cutters. Over the 24 years we’ve been sailing our Mason 44, we’ve varied between sailing as a sloop and sailing as a cutter (the original design of the rig). Several years ago, we upgraded our mast to a Hall CF spar along with some other modifications. After the rig change, we had the 130 genoa and main built. After a season sailing as a sloop, we had the Yankee and Staysail built…after our experience sailing again as a cutter, the genoa is living in the basement. The boat is just as fast, seems to point a bit better and the sail combinations when reducing sail work well since we’re not sailing with a furled up headsail. Tacking in light wind can be a bit of work, but we’re adjusting and enjoying all aspects.
Will look forward to your tips and techniques.

Thanks for the insights.

Bob Miller

Conor Smith

John and other cutter savvy readers,

Thank you for the very valuable cutter evaluation and description. I learned a lot about my own boat from this. We have a Brewer 44, with a cutter rig.

Do you have any cutter-specific tips for dealing with weather helm using the cutter rig? From a casual comparison, MC and the Brewer seem to share a similar hull form, with large stout keel and skeg hung rudder, and the rig proportions seem similar as well. Therefore I would anticipate the two vessels would behave similarly in similar conditions, and have similar responses to excessive heel, and such.

The previous owner bent a genoa on the foil, but it has a pretty high clue, as our sheets lead to almost the cockpit. The staysail has a low clue, so I think she comes pretty close to the “cutter rig” you described. When we get loaded up with a fresh breeze over twenty knots, the helm starts getting pretty gnarly and recently we even broke the steering cable in the gulf stream when a front came early and brought 20 knots from forward of the beam.

The previous owner tightened down the backstay pretty good, and I suspect it was to flatten the sails and reduce power to combat the helm. When we start getting helm, we ease the main and depower the vang to twist off the top of the leach, but still struggle to balance her.

Any cutter-centric tips to get her nose a bit more windward-phobic would be great! Thanks in advance!


Marc Dacey

Good point. I had my Yankee restitched last year and the improvement was immediate. I would also note that stay tension is rarely optimal in most cruisers (unless they come from a racing background and obsess over such things), but is critical to getting the most out of the cutter rig.

Marc Dacey

It was both, actually…I took the opportunity offered by an untimely tear to have it trimmed as well as repaired. I’m lucky to have an understanding sailmaker!

Conor Smith

Thanks John and Marc,

John, the sails are in pretty decent condition I would say. I am going to hazard a guess and say 65% life in the dacron left. We have not had to restitch any structural seams yet(we have re-covered with sacrificial sunbrella on headsails) and there is no visible deterioration or problems.

That said, they are all atleast 10 years old(we have had the boat for 7), and it is a Florida boat, so maybe they are more worn out than I realize. They dont have that many miles on it, so I would be shocked to find out that they have been pushed really hard and stretched.

Maybe this is a question for your next chapter, but lets say one of the two sails are stretched out and has excessive belly to it, thereby decreasing the lift to drag ratio, would the jib or main be contributing to weather helm?

Obviously, in normal circumstances, depowering the main reduces weather helm, but after reading some of Steve Dashew’s books, they counter-intuitively found that their high roach mains, although generated more power, reduced weather helm because they were more efficient and therefore had less drag.

thank you so much in advance! Best, Conor

Robert Tigwell

Hello John:

I have a question, not a comment. What is your opinion in utility between a club footed staysail, and a lose footed staysail. I have seen a slab reefed club footed staysail once and thought it a novel idea as it kept the reduced sail lower (slab reefed onto the club foot). I suspect you could do a similar rig using a wishbone foot as well.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Marc Dacey

A comment: My staysail is hank-on and is loose-footed, and I carry a smaller staysail in heavier cloth for heavier weather. I have considiered, however, a line of reef points in the larger staysail as an alternative to the “storm staysail”. It’s not a common modification, however I think it offers some advantages.

Marc Dacey

I suspect our situations are somewhat different in that I have a rapidly growing third crew (a teenaged boy) and the staysail stay terminates in an anchor well, providing considerable shelter even in a lively sea. If I got to field-test a free furler (which I now consider essential for the Yankee jib…what a nightmare that would be to access were it hank-on) on the staysail stay, I would consider it, but to date, simple works.

Now, in light of your heaving-to piece, we do have to pay attention to sail area, and a full drop and a reefed down main might be necessary to do so. We’ve recently changed mains and can’t get off the dock until I complete the battery system, so I lack heavy weather data points, but I agree that experiementation and attention to details such as available sail area forward vs. rudder aft come into play. I could heave to my Viking 33 light-ish fin keeler with little problem…it just took practice and clearly marked shock cord. One improvement I can see worth paying for is adjustable staysail sheet leads, which at sea goes beyond “nice to have” to “essential” when you are trying to heave to between swells. We already have triple-blocked mainsheet tackle, vang and a really sturdy Garhauer triple-blocked traveller that is (finally) going in this summer. But the old pin stop tracks may have to go in favour of what you are advocating.

Dan Berkey

Hi John,

I’m new to the site but learning a lot from your great posts, especially this one. I am a full time cruiser with my wife Nancy. We sail an Island Packet 420: 42 LOD, 45LOA. She is cutter rigged with a Hoyt staysail boom. From your article it is clear to me that I need to replace the head and staysail. The stay because it needs it and the head because it is a 130% geneoa. I have a couple of questions before I replace those sails:

1. Your posts about stay sails usually reference a sheet track on the cabin top. What are your thoughts on the Hoyt staysail boom? Does the Hoyt serve the same purpose and does it function better or worse than a track.

2. When I replace these sails I plan to go with a jib top sail as you recommend. Do I need to be concerned with cut? Should I go with a straight cut or should I consider one of the radial cuts? We currently cruise the eastern Pacific and Mexico, but plan to transit the canal to the Caribbean for few years and then back through the canal for passage to the South Pacific.

Thanks so much for your help and your efforts to share your knowledge and experience with the sailing community.


Hi John,
…”To tack Morgan’s Cloud double- or even single-handed, we simply ignore the staysail and let it back on the new tack until we have tacked the jib-top, which slides through amazingly easily along the staysail and its stay. Once we have the jib all squared away, it’s a simple matter to tack the staysail”…Any reason you wouldn’t want a self-tacking rail on your staysail (other than the little bit of extra work, admittedly possibly in difficult conditions, required to secure the clew backed upwind in order to heave to in heavy weather)? Seems like it would nullify one of the very few (!) drawbacks to a cutter rig!


Thanks John, food for thought, very useful points should I ever look at buying another cutter and consider modifying it!

Neil McCubbin

Agree 1000% with John and others comments on the advantages of cutter rig for cruising
We have one with same sail configuration at John’s photo, but hank on staysail
Of the rare occasions that we do not bother to set it, we regret it half of them
If it blows up, staysail and triple reef main go well. If winds are light then the jib is harder to tack without the staysail to hold aback


Hi John,
A number of times you reference your dual roller furlers as significant in your choice of jib top sizing and in why the cutter rig is your choice for shorthanded offshore.
What would be your suggestion if someone was going to use hank-on sails? I assume you’d still recommend the cutter? What sizes of jib-tops would you choose if you could only have 2 for a voyage?

Richard Cordovano

Hi John,

I apologize if I you have already spoken somewhere about what I am about to ask and I have missed it…

1. Does your solution of poling out your jib-top serve as your complete solution for downwind sailing, or do you use some flavor of spinnaker in lighter air?
2. Does the combined area of your fully unfurled jib-top and staysail, about that of a 140% genoa, serve as your complete solution for light air upwind sailing?

To give some context to my questions, my wife and I are sailing a 1979 Shannon 38 “cutter-ketch” (has a staysail) on ever more wide-ranging passages, but are currently in the camp of those with a boat “fitted with a low-cut jib that is used alone in light to medium winds and then when the wind further increases it’s rolled up and the staysail is set.” I have had a strong desire to ditch our 135% genoa in favor of yankee and staysail flying together even before reading this chapter, but I have been fretting about light air and how much we prefer to avoid motoring and therefore thinking about supplementary Code Zero sails and asymmetrical spinnakers. However, the cost and complexity and storage demands of adding such things to our older boat are not at all appealing, and, in a way, frankly don’t “feel right.”

We do have one moderate angle reaching light air sail – an ancient mizzen staysail. We have recently started using it. Thanks in advance for any light (a bit of a pun intended) you can shed on our situation.

Richard Cordovano

Hi John,

As we near the end of the New England sailing season, I wanted to take a few moments to report back on our outcome…

We stashed our deck sweeper 135% genoa below and put a 110% “yankee cut” genoa on the forestay roller furler. I simply refer to the new sail as the “yankee” and we now routinely sail with yankee and staysail. We also replaced the original spinnaker pole with a modern whisker pole fixed to the mainmast that my wife and I, both aging cruisers, can manage more safely and efficiently (we judged the increased windage tradeoff to be worth it) and added an asymmetrical spinnaker to our inventory.

I am ecstatic about the results! We moved home base back to Buzzards Bay from Salem this year and the coronavirus pandemic caused us to restrict our wandering to coastal cruising in the Bay and Islands (Elizabeth Islands, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket; hoping plans to sail to Bermuda or Nova Scotia can be rekindled next year or the year after), so we have had far fewer light wind days in our old stomping grounds and more ability to be picky about having a good breeze to sail in and perhaps my report needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, we are almost ridiculously happy sailing our Shannon 38 with yankee and staysail and have no complaints about our ability to keep the boat moving despite her short ketch rig and somewhat cutaway full keel.

Tom Service

We are ten years into a five year circumnavigation on TIGER LILLY’S second time around, and (typically) spend a lot of time sailing with the wind well aft of the beam. (I HAD to tell her it would only take five years, because I would never have gotten her out here if I told her the more realistic twelve…)
TIGER LILLY is a CSY44 true cutter with a miter-cut yankee (on a PROFURL), a stays’l (also on a PROFURL), and a full-battened high-roach main (short rig, so we needed more power in light conditions). The inner-forestay is opposed by permanently rigged intermediate shrouds. On ocean passages we steer with wind vane self-steering gear.
When running or broad-reaching we sail wing-on-wing with the yankee on a fixed pole to windward, and the main vanged-down with a preventer lead to the bow. We also set the stays’l, reefed and double-sheeted to the centerline – flat a a piece of tin. The flat stays’l accomplishes two important tasks:
A) It dramatically dampens the roll by adding a fore and aft element to the rig.
B) It helps keep the head down when it wants to come up on the wind in a puffer – significantly easing the job of the WVSS gear. (We use the stays’l as a wind rudder forward…)
The CL flat stays’l does not effect boat speed one way or the other, but it makes a very positive contribution to comfort and steering while on passage down wind – both important advantages to a short-handed, over-the-hill cruising couple.
(LILLY sez: “over-the-hill”? Speak for yourself Hot Shot!)
We are weathering-through the CV19 pandemic, self-isolating in the beautiful Ilha Grande Archipelago of Brazil; we hope to spend Christmas in Buenos Aires, and then continue down to Patagonia in the New Year.
We regularly recommend AAC to new sailors interested in bluewater sailing. Thanks for continuing to teach an old dog new tricks.
Warm regards,
Tom & Lilly
S/V Tiger Lilly
Abraao Village, Ilha Grande, Brazil ??

Richard Lichau

Hi John, thanks for your excellent articles on safe sailing techniques and methods. I greatly appreciate the expert advice.
I have a CSY 44 cutter rigged with a self-tending “club foot” stays’l. What advice/tips do you have for a self-tending stays’l re: upwind, reaching, and downwind performance? Reefing and heaving to? Any other advice?
Thanks Wind Gypsy Rick

Shaen Tarter


We just installed our new “Yankee” cut 100% jib on our 1997 Island Packet 40. It replaced a 135% Genoa with all the unhelpful features your article described. I wanted a sail more appropriately sized for our typical conditions in Hawaii and did a lot of research, including reading your material, before having this sail made.

We sailed her yesterday in 10 to 20 kts apparent off Waikiki. The difference was stunning. No more flogging with boat roll, way less sheet tension, no need to adjust sheet car position with different points of sail, and we easily tacked without needing to reef and use the stays’l as a funnel. And, best of all, it works WITH the stays’l on a close haul or reach, not AGAINST it. I’ve never been able to achieve tell tails flying back with all three sails up; now all three sails happily draw in concert. Anyway, I just wanted to offer another example of what is possible with a different style of headsail.

Oh, and my wife really likes the reduced heel 🙂

Shaen Tarter
SV Arctic Tern

Shaen Tarter

One more thing. I removed my Hoyt boom a long time ago. The stays’l work better without, and especially now.

Martin Ledger

I suppose admitting ignorance is a FORM of intelligence…
I own (and love) a Carter 39 rigged as a cutter, even though most (all I found) were sloops. Great boat, great ride, but it was a serious racer in her day, and is much more complicated than the boats I’ve sailed to this point. I can sail her reasonably efficiently, but know I’m getting nowhere near her actual potential.
I am on Lake Ontario, and would like to hire someone or at least correspond with someone with experience with this rig from an operational/design standpoint. Suggestions?

P D Squire

The arguments here against low-footed, large-overlap genoas seem pretty convincing, as is the proposed solution: convert to a cutter. However, In my “Roller Furling” comment* I give a case where a cutter conversion and roller furlers mightn’t be practical, and where a big genoa may be the only option. So I’m very interested in any work-arounds that might minimise the downsides listed here such as hosing the main with foul air etc.

I appreciate that AAC and its followers are likely to favour the cutter (for good reasons), and that there might be other cruising forums where large genoas are accepted. However, most forums aren’t as good as AAC so I thought it worth asking the question here.


Jesse Falsone

I’m considering the purchase of a performance cruising boat that is setup as a true cutter. The sails are very old so if I go through with the purchase I will be looking to buy a new sails soon. While I have offshore voyaging in mind, that won’t be a reality until I retire (and that’s the better part of 10 years away). Most of my cruising will be coastal until then. My sailmaker said that “I find that most people are not going with a true yankee these days even on a cutter rig. They are going with a high enough clew for visibility, but low enough to be able to sail upwind on Genoa alone.” Given my use case, would such a sail plan make more sense until I truly head offshore?

Jesse Falsone

Thanks you John for your thoughts on this. This particular boat is designed to sail as either a sloop or cutter, and among the limited production run (about 20 hulls), I see that the split seems to be 50/50, with those folks sailing inshore favoring the sloop with overlapping genoa and those headed offshore going with a true cutter configuration. My plan is to eventually develop this boat into a true dual purpose cruiser/racer so that I can do some short-handed ocean racing (Newport Bermuda is my ultimate goal). While it has the cutter rig, it doesn’t seem to be optimized as such based on what I’m seeing. The inner stay seems to be only 25% of the way back from the forestay (no bow sprit), and the staysail tracks are in line with the genoa/Yankee tracks, just further forward. So, it doesn’t seem “optimized” as a cutter rig as you have specified. I also wonder how much upwind performance I’m giving up with the Yankee. Sailing to weather is important to me and I do so quite often. Those are the issues that make me think I may be better off with a genoa for inshore/coastal sailing until such time that I start heading offshore. I have zero experience with a cutter rig. I guess the prudent thing to do is try it both ways if I buy the boat. The sails are old but it does also come with a genoa. Thanks again. Very helpful.

Jesse Falsone

Examining the sailplan on Morgan’s Cloud, it doesn’t seem to me that there is much difference with the boat I’m considering. Perhaps the inner stay is a bit further forward. Do these pics give you any inclination of whether it is rigged properly as a cutter? Note the staysail lead on the side deck rather than further inboard.

Jesse Falsone

Another one…

Eric Klem

Hi Jesse,

A few random thoughts from someone who has significantly changed the sailplan on a few boats. By the way, while I have no personal experience with them, the Cambria looks like a nice boat.

Not knowing if you have been through this sort of boat ownership before, one thing that stands out to me is that usually your idea of how you want to set up a boat before sailing it and how you find is actually best are very different. This is a strong argument for doing a season playing with the existing sails as long as they are safe and figuring out what you think works best for the boat and for you. The sailplan looks like it is proportioned to work well both as a cutter and sloop so you have some flexibility and may want to do one thing for coastal and another for offshore. Then I would make sure to buy the offshore voyaging set of sails a season before you head out so that you have time to work all the bugs out.

What is best is going to be very dependent on you. You mentioned that you like sailing upwind. Upwind in flat water with a boat that isn’t covered in gear is going to favor something like a blade jib and then maybe a code sail off the wind. Some people love the performance while others are too lazy and would just like a genoa. Location is also going to matter and I am not sure where you are. On the Chesapeake you will want to maximize sail area for much of the year whereas in San Francisco, the options of a yankee and staysail might be perfect if the boat is not super stiff. I think that cutters are great fun but you have to be someone who puts in the effort to make them sail well. I do get what your sailmaker is saying, there are quite a few cutters around us that never fly their staysail but to me the problem is that they have the wrong rig for their performance/effort/comfort point.

If you don’t have previous coastal cruising experience, visibility is a big deal. Deck sweeping genoas may be fast but I personally really dislike constantly running back and forth to look around them and find them downright dangerous in reduced visibility or with a lot of fishing gear to steer around. Cutters fill in most of the gap but without hurting visibility too much.

Good luck.


Jesse Falsone

Thanks Eric. I am 4 yeas into a total refit of a Tartan 37 and have cruised it extensively for three summers in New England and the Chesapeake. I’m selling that boat now rather than put another $30K into re-coring the deck, opting to spend that cash on the forever boat. Most of my sailing experience is with racing in various boats, dinghies, and windsurfers. I came into cruising only recently. I generally push the performance envelope pretty hard but I’m learning to throttle back some. I have learned how important visibility is in cruising with limited eyeballs, and if I decided on a genoa it would be higher cut like my current Tartan genoas. I appreciate the thoughtful response.