Cutter Rig—Should You Buy or Convert?

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In the last chapter I covered why a true cutter is a great rig for short-handed offshore voyaging.

And since I have infinite confidence in my powers of persuasion, I'm assuming that you are all now chomping at the bit to convert your sloops and ketches to the cutter rig.

But before we get into the how of adding cutter capabilities, let's look at a bigger question: When does a cutter make sense, both when buying a new boat and considering a conversion?

  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

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for 25 years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 20 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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Gabriel

What are views on making the staysail self-tacking? I have been considering installing one for short-handed and leisurely sailing when close quarters are involved. Would this impact performance? Complicate the setup?

Many thanks for your insightful articles! As a fairly new sailor they have been a great resource and motivation!

Steve and Pauline

Hi John
Pauline and I are really looking forward to the coming cutter articles. We are considering fitting an inner forestay to our ketch and are interested in your experience. Especially the mast fitting for the running backstays, inner forestay and halyard.
Cheers
Steve

Cheers
Steve and Pauline

Jay

This decision tree makes sense. Does the intent of the designer come into play? Our Pacific SeaCraft Dana 24 is set up as a sloop. However I understand that she was designed as a cutter. Many owners insist that the pleasure and performance of converting to a cutter rig is worth it.

Thanks,

Jay

Richard Dykiel

I have a Dana 24 that came with a removable stay. The first season I sailed her with a 80% yankee and staysail but found light air performance wanting (summer on east coast has plenty of light airs in my area). I now sail her as a sloop with a 130% genoa, and use the staysail only in strong winds. I have had a luff flattener installed on the Genoa to improve partially furled shape. Genoa is less convenient than high clew jib but I like the performance it gives me, compared to staysail+yankee.

Think that you must install running backstays if you plan on sailing her as a cutter. Also join the Dana 24 yahoo group you will find people with more experience than I and very helpful.

Regards.

Richard Dykiel

yes I thought of that but I’m still merely using the set of sails that came with the boat. With the combination you’re suggesting I might need to add a light air sail (e.g. drifter). In my experience (mostly inshore) the genoa is good in light -> moderate airs whereas the staysail + furled genoa is good in strong winds (esp. going upwind).

richard s. (s/v lakota)

my experience with cutter rigs is close to non-existent although i recognize their superiority as so capably described above…so my question concerns tacking the genoa around the inner stay…how is the best way to do that ? furl in the genoa enough to clear the inner stay and then unfurl the genoa once the maneuver is complete ? thanks mucho

richard in tampa bay (but counting down til late nov return to virgin gorda and beyond)

Dick Stevenson

Hi Richard, Going to wind you have both staysail and jib topsail in use. Just tack leaving the ss in place. The jib will slide along the ss easily and you can sheet it in. Then tack the now backwinded ss which usually just takes snubbing it in and a few moments with a winch handle. Done.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

I agree with Dick here and would only add that the triangular “cracker” shape of the Yankee-cut jib topsail (feel free to Google if my meaning is unclear) wil actually get blown *into* the slot by sliding (lightly) over the surface of the as-yet untacked staysail. In other words, not only is leaving the staysail sheeted in while tacking the jib easier and more leisurely for the crew, it actually aids the process, in our experience, of encouraging the jib to smartly transit that slot between the forestay and the staysail stay.

Boyd Goldie

You have two choices when tacking the headsail/yankee on a cutter. One is indeed to have the staysail deployed, then sheet it it before tacking the yankee. However in stronger winds you may not have the staysail unfurled and may not want to increase sail area. In that situation, I take in a few rolls on the Yankee before tacking and then unfurl again once on the new tack.

Bill Attwood

Kinsa (Rustler 36) is rigged as a sloop, but has an inner forestay which can be quickly fitted (Highfield lever) to 2 positions on the foredeck: one about 15″ back from the forestay, the other about 45″ back. The fwd position is for running up a hanked on genoa 2, to match the genoa 2 on the furling forestay. The inner position is for mounting the storm jib. In the outer position the inner forestay is parallel to the roller furling forestay. Its position on the mast is about 30 ” below the masthead, and there are no running backstays. Can anyone tell me who the appropriate specialist would be to discuss a possible conversion to cutter rig – sailmaker, rigger, designer etc? Both genoa 2’s have a high cut foot, and the genoa 1 is also cut fairly high, so that the foot clears the guardrails. Maybe I already have a cutter and don’t know it? Any advice would be very welcome.
Yours aye,
Bill

Marc Dacey

Sounds like a cutter to me! I was wondering when the term “Highfield lever” would come into play; I’ve only ever seen one on old race boats still common here on Lake Ontario. You should definitely consult a rigger, but with no running backstays, your first job in my view is to check the backing plates and any tie-rods or straps beneath the Highfield lever’s deck padeyes. The forces on that stay, irrespective of its position, are impressive and it is essential that those loads are spread and, if possible, tied into the hull strongly. I speak as someone who had a genoa track tear through the deck at a mere 28 knots AWS and learned a) they don’t make that type of track anymore, and b) recoring and putting backing plates along part of the length of a side deck can be labour- and time-intensive. Of course, it’s easy to adjust the Highfield apparatus to get a nice and desirably taut stay, but that immediattely puts a great upward force on the deck. Throw in the pumping on the mast and even the flexing of the hull in heavy stuff, and you really want that foredeck to be strongly backed and tied firmly into the hull.

Bill Attwood

Hi Marc.
Good point! The after position is attached to a large underdeck backing plate, L-shaped with a knee, which is bolted through the bulkhead to the anchor locker. This is as originally fitted by Rustler. The forward position I fitted myself, and that has an equally large stainless backing plate, this one attached with a rigging screw to an eyebolt which passes through the tang of the stem fitting. This rigging screw is in a straight line under deck with the angle of the stay. The tang bolt is one of 4 M12 bolts and the tang is 6 x 50 mm cross-section stainless. I subscribe to the rule “nothing too strong ever broke”.
The rigging screw is pretensioned so that on tensioning the inner forestay the load is carried by the stem fitting rather than the deck. No question that the wire would part before the fitting gave way. Now there’s an uncomfortable thought!
Yours aye
Bill

Marc Dacey

Bill, your description is so reassuring I have no doubts that the execution is fit for purpose. The rigging screw idea is great, and I’ve seen it in “owner modifications”, but very rarely in production boats. I could deal, with difficulty, a parted stay, but a torn up deck would spoil my sail. Fair winds.

David

In an effort to have our cake and eat it too with removable staysail and furling, we had our staysail built on a dyneema luff and use a continuous line furler, flying the sail without a stay, so we can lower the rolled up sail and stow it in a locker when we need to do lots of tacking with the jib. The halyard is doubled up through a block at the head of the sail to get sufficient tension. This setup works well on our 50ft, 50,000lb boat, but truth be told, we don’t actually lower it very often, usually leaving it up for ease of deployment and redundancy peace of mind should the forestay fail.
David
svTigress

Marc Dacey

That’s an interesting idea, but is there a cover on that Dyneema line? I know of all the similar types of synthetic rigging, it’s at or near the top in this regard, but I believe when used as lifelines, it’s got a five-year lifespan in full sun.

David

Hi Marc,
Yes, the luff rope is inside the luff of the sail, so protected by the fabric, and the sail has a sunbrella sun shield like a typical roller furling jib, so the sail itself is protected too. But for longer periods of disuse, we store it in a locker to avoid any exposure.

David

Good points. I wouldn’t recommend this approach as a replacement for those who already have a stay, only as an option for those thinking to add a staysail. To set a storm jib, we lower and stow the rolled-up staysail, and hoist a rolled-up storm jib, unfurling it using the same furler, which is easy to move from one sail to another. But my hunch is that in that situation, a stay with hanks would be easier to work with, as you wouldn’t be hoisting anything until it was securely hanked on, and you’d have that stay to hold onto during the mayhem.

Onno ten Brinke

We rigged our 1984 Baltic 38DP with a removable aramid stay to fly a small jib with soft hanks. For a 38 footer she is light (only 7 tonnes), so the staysail is 17m2 (compared to our 58 m2 genoa which reefs down to 33m2), but we’ve added a traditional slab reef at the bottom to reef down to 10m2. With this set-up we feel very comfortable that we can deal with 9 – 10 BF. On our first big crossing over Biscay after restoring the boat we had gusts up to 45 knots true and we were very, very happy with our stay. It all performed flawlessly. The stay is very light and because it is well-coated aramid, it does not slam or make a noise when not in use. It was expensive, though!

As an aside, I am deeply indebted to sites like this which allow an inexperienced ocean sailor to prepare himself properly – provided they take the time to understand the advice offered properly. We took about 2 years of research before setting off and it turned out we were very well prepared. The new sail plan was based on some input from North Sails, but mostly based on my own ideas which were all theoretical. It was very satisfying to see it work so well in tough conditions. So thanks again, we love this site!

Patrick Genovese

At the risk of going a bit off topic, I would be interested to hear views on the rationale behind the Boreal” style approach (vs true cutter) where although there is a staysail it is not intended to be sailed as a cutter.

Regards
Patrick

Rob Gill

Hi Patrick,
I have long admired cutter rigs, but we bought a sloop with a second removable inner as described by Onno above, tensioned with a Highfield lever as described by Bill, and hoisted conventionally. The inner forestay attaches just below the masthead so no runners needed. We hoped this would provide us with the best aspects of both rigs, but in reality – not so.
Without runners, we could never get the staysail luff tensioned properly, even though our back stay has a tensioning ram. With a small gap between the two forward stays, the rolled genoa disturbed the flow over the staysail. Further, unless we un-hanked the staysail and removed the inner stay, we couldn’t tack the genoa without furling it first.
Interestingly, our 12 tonne, 15 metre boat did not meet John’s criteria for meriting a cutter conversion (our offshore use being less than our coastal), and in any case we did not want the added complexity of runners. We did however want to get rid of our 130% overlapping genoa for short handing.

Our solution was to replace both genoa and staysail with a 100% (non-over-lapping) jib on the roller forestay (moderately swept back spreaders are helpful here so the leach can be straight). The new jib sheets inside, and forward of the side stays on the forward track, so is quick to tack by hand for all but the last few inches. Better still, it allows us to sail about 5-7 degrees closer to the wind with significantly less heel and same speed as before in 12+ knots of wind. The new jib has vertical battens in the leach to aid longevity whilst still rolling and reefing neatly. I am installing an outboard track on our rail for eased sheets as we have easy access for through bolting.
Our only hesitation was light wind performance, but our sail maker advised replacing the old asymmetric chute with a new Code 0 on a furler. This allows us to point almost as high upwind as with the old genoa in up to 12 knots of breeze, with noticeably more boat speed (off the wind it also outperforms our old chute). The removable inner-forestay remains for setting the storm jib and as a backup offshore.

Whilst possibly not as flexible as a true cutter rig at sea, we are pleased with our “zloop” rig – the code zero really is a game-changer.
Rob

Herb Bradley

Hello, this is my first posting as I have just subscribed to this site. Congrats on a wonderfully informative and well designed forum.
I have recently purchased an 87 Goderich 37 that is set up for use as a cutter but at presently sloop rigged. I have purchased this boat fully intending to sail her to all points possible and am in the planning stages of a refit.
I need to replace all the sails and I am likely to rig it as a cutter.
In your and opinion would there be much benefit to increase sail area with the addition of a bowsprit to accommodate larger sails?
Thank you for any comments

Herb Bradley

What an excellent idea speaking to the designer.
Thank you for your thoughts.

Marc Dacey

You might want to find out first if Brewer actually drew the 37. His partner at the time, Bob Wallstrom, drew the Goderich 40 for Huromic Metals, the builder of the Goderich line (35, 37 and 40), and may have done the 37. Ted drew the 35. Bob Wallstrom was still kicking four years ago. https://books.google.ca/books?id=D6-vOYPKOvcC&pg=RA3-PA204&lpg=RA3-PA204&dq=goderich+40+huromic&source=bl&ots=6N2ITwVhpj&sig=l-0kpFlgf1Bz9Bx3sq5Bt-ZoKQM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjX7ZTSkJHKAhVEJh4KHYMcDsgQ6AEIQDAG#v=onepage&q=goderich%2040%20huromic&f=false

Ernest

Hi John,
do you have any intentions to discuss ketch and ketch cutter for small crews as well? Would be interesting to read your (and others) thoughts.

P D Squire

It is often light at sea, sometimes light wind and a leftover sea. What is easier to keep set and driving in these conditions: Genoa or Jib-top & stays’l?