What’s in a Rig? The Gaff Rig

By: Sailboat Rigs, Sailboats

What’s in a Rig Series #6 – Gaff Rig

What’s a gaff rig? Well, first… what’s a gaff? A gaff is a spar, or a strong pole. A gaff rig employs a spar on the top of the sail and typically other sails can be set in conjunction with that mainsail with the gaff. Often, on the smaller, non tall ship, gaff rigs, there will be a small triangular sail that fits between the main and the mast like a puzzle piece – this is the topsail.

The gaff rig was the standard manner of rigging a sailboat a century ago and before. The thinking at that time had to do primarily with the ability to manage sail area. The sails weren’t made of the lightweight synthetics of today and there was solid logic involved in dividing the sail plan into pieces for the purposes of balancing and reefing in strong winds. Like today, sailors wanted horsepower via sail area and fractioned rigs allowed skippers to also manage it more easily.

These rigs weren’t so wonderful upwind, so when the bermuda rig was introduced, with their efficiency and simplicity, the gaff rig fell out of favor. Modern sloops dominated the scene and continue to do so, but during the 1960s, folks began to say, “actually gaff rigs are kind of cool,” and there was something of a resurgence based on a love for history and the beauty of the rig.

Today, gaff rigs are still around, sailed by sailors who love what they represent and some that swear by their sailing capabilities. Like the ketch rig, gaff rig lovers will say that the configuration produces less heel, a more comfortable sail, better balance and more choices for reefing in heavier winds. They might also speak of the practicality of being out at sea and having the ability to make repairs to a a part of the rig with plenty of rig still intact and operational.

However, the gaff rig’s greatest pull is probably its classic appearance. There is something so undeniably dignified and stalwart about a fully rigged, gaff-rigged sailboat making its way. They are living reminders of where technology was and the importance of solid craftsmanship that existed at that time. They exude beauty and carry with them a spirit that is unique and distinct.

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