Why A Ketch Is The Best Offshore Sailboat

In a cruising world dominated by catamarans and light-displacement boats the ketch rig seems almost antiquated among the YouTube generation. But if you’re serious about off-shore sailing, the ketch rig has proven its worth time and time again, even by today’s standards.

For balance, performance, handling and comfort, a ketch is difficult to beat.

Out here in the cruising world, ketches are a popular alternative to other rigs because those smaller sails are easier to manage. This makes it easier for couples, liveaboards and older sailors. For short-handed sailing across long distances while facing rough waters and heavier winds, the small sails on a ketch are easy to handle. Ketches are also a good set-up for families because you can sail a larger boat without having to handle considerably larger sails.

KETCH 101
A ketch has two masts: a traditional mainmast, just like a sloop, and a second mast at the rear of the boat, called a mizzen mast. For it to be a ketch, the mizzen is mounted forward of the rudder-post. If it’s mounted behind, it’s called a yawl.

SAILS
The main sails used on a ketch are the headsail, the mainsail and the mizzen sail, so one more than a sloop. But of course any number of additional sails may be used. Esper has a stay sail, which makes her a cutter-rigged ketch. Light-wind sails may also be used.

  1. Yankee
    Starting at the head, ketches are most likely to have a yankee. This is a high-cut headsail and is normally 100% (the clew only comes back as far as the mast). The two main advantages of this are that it may be used in heavier weather without reefing, thus keeping the sail shape, and the high foot allows the seas to break without it dragging through the water.
  2. Staysail
    If the ketch is rigged with a staysail, this is mounted on the inner forestay and creates a slot between the headsail and the mainsail to provide extra lift. This is known as a cutter rig (both ketches and sloops can be cutter rigged).
  3. Mainsail
    The main mast will be shorter than a traditional sloop but it’s normally stepped in the same location, which is why boat manufacturers can offer both sail plans from the same mold.
  4. Mizzen
    The sail that makes the difference. A smaller version of the mainmast which provides a whole host of advantages (see below).
  5. Mizzen Staysail
    A light-wind sail that is taken from the top of the mizzen and down to the centre of the boat, forward of the cockpit. Paired with a cruising chute or other light-wind sails at the front of the boat, it provides extra speed and stability in light airs.

NOT ALWAYS MORE SAIL AREA
Having an extra sail doesn’t always mean you have a larger sail plan. The sail plan of the boat is designed around other factors like displacement and hull shape. In most cases the individual sails of a ketch will be smaller than that of a sloop, but made up for by the additional mizzen sail.

“A mono is good if you want to head into higher latitudes. A cat is good if you like having space. We live on the edge in Wellington NZ and it’s interesting to see how few cats come south. I have a sloop, but I’d love a ketch.” -Robin Marshall, YouTube Sailing Channels Facebook group.

ADVANTAGES

  1. Easy to manage
    The biggest advantage is the smaller sails, making them easier to manage especially in heavy weather.
  2. Single-handed
    Contrary to popular belief, single-handed sailing is a lot easier, especially in heavy weather because of the smaller, easier to manage sails.
  3. More versatile sail plans
    With up to four sails versus the two on a sloop, you have multiple options for managing different sailing conditions.
  4. Better power balance
    It’s not unusual to be able to quickly balance the boat and set the sails to allow the boat to sail itself without auto-pilot. Once set, it’s easy to trim the mizzen from the cockpit.
    The mizzen is a great way to quickly steer the boat and offers an advantage should you lose steering.
    The mizzen helps distribute the power throughout the boat, rather than it being at the middle and forward of the mast
  5. Better heavy weather performance
    Because the mizzen offers better control of the stern, the boat is more balanced, especially in heavy weather, and therefore a more comfortable ride.
  6. Easier Reefing
    With smaller sails, reefing down is a lot easier and can be done in any order depending upon the wind. It’s often the first sail we get out and the last to put away.
  7. Downwind performance
    The mizzen and the main work well together when running down wind. In our videos, you may have seen us pole out the yankee and mizzen only.
  8. Reduction in stress
    Basic physics will tell you that the larger the rigging and mast, the more stress you’re introducing. Shorter masts equal less stress and therefore less wear. This can translate into less wear on your rigging.
  9. Heaving to
    Heaving-to with the mizzen and staysail is easier to manage and provides great stability.
  10. Spare sail
    The mizzen ultimately provides you with a spare sail. Should you lose your main you have a ready-made contingency.
  11. Centre cockpit
    Ketches are almost always centre-cockpit, providing a smoother ride as well as added safety.
  12. Stability whilst anchoring and at anchor
    We frequently keep the mizzen up when anchoring. Leaving the mizzen out as a riding sail can help keep the boat into wind. We don’t do this often, because it means putting additional wear and tear on the sail but it has been useful.
  13. Crane
    You can use the mizzen boom as a crane. We used to keep our small dinghy on the back of the boat and the mizzen was perfect for craning out of the water.
    It can also be used to winch someone from the water.

“Four sails over two offer a great advantage in terms of sail plan.”

DISADVANTAGES

  1. Sailing to windward
    On paper ketch rigs generally do not sail as fast or as close to the wind as a sloop sailboat. In practice we have never had a problem going to windward, in part due to the cutter staysail, and would argue this issue is only of concern to racing sailors.
  2. Heavier
    An extra mast and rigging makes the boat heavier. Ketches will be slower than their sloop counterparts. However, you’ll be reefing later as the wind picks up so you can really ramp up a ketch rig.
  3. Maintenance and cost
    A ketch has two masts so double the rigging maintenance and replacement costs.
  4. Triatic
    If you have a triatic stay, like Esper does, this is potentially a disaster if one of the masts comes down – it’ll take the other with it.
  5. Space on deck
    One of the biggest practical disadvantages is that the mizzen mast takes up space in the stern. We know sailors who have removed the mizzen mast in order to free up space. We would never recommend this. The sail plan has been designed specifically for your boat and removing the mizzen will upset the boat’s balance. You’ll also lose out on the many advantages mentioned above.
  6. Older boats
    It’s quite rare to find new ketches under 50ft, which means affordable second-hand blue-water ketches are more likely to be older. This also makes them harder to find.
  7. Wind vane
    On paper the mizzen sail can disturb any wind vane mounted on the back of the boat. But we used our Wind Pilot extensively with the mizzen out all the way from Turkey to Malaysia.
  8. Shadows on Solar
    The mizzen boom can cast shadows on solar panels mounted at the back of the boat, reducing their efficiency.

CONCLUSION
The disadvantages are minimal for the average off-shore cruiser. For us comfort is more important than that extra 0.3kn when going up wind, but that doesn’t stop us from constantly sail trimming to get the most out of Esper’s performance.

As always, thanks for supporting us and allowing us to share our adventure with you.

Peace, fair winds and stay safe

Liz, Jamie and Millie xxx

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6 Comments on “Why A Ketch Is The Best Offshore Sailboat”

  1. Yes – and No!

    (1) For those of us that cannot afford a 50 foot + ketch intrusion into the aft cabin is a major issue – given that a centre cockpit is by far the best layout for cruising.
    (2) Several of the advantages you sight are related to the cutter rig – which are also relevant to a cutter rigged sloop. In particular when close hauled and downwind where a simple goosewing is easy to run with. I would never rig a mizzen for running where there are gusty conditions as it will tend to slew.

    Given that the wind is always on the nose, in terms of performance, cost, ease of handling and solar efficiency, it’s a centre-cockpit cutter-rigged sloop every time!

    Kindest regards from sunny (and virus-free) N Cyprus.

    1. Yes, we’d never have any kind of boat without a cutter rig, it’s brilliant anywhere let alone for long passages. We love our cutter-rig ketch, the mizzen is the first sail out and the last to go away. We often use the mizzen without the main and to be honest, I can’t imagine sailing without one these days. I think a centre-cockpit, cutter-rigged sloop would be a close second. 😉

  2. I love the idea of the ketch for a couple to sail, especially the extra options with the mizzen. However you’re correct that around 40 ft you’re typically looking at older boats. There are 2 for sale in my neck of the woods and they’re both 40 years old.
    “I’m old, not obsolete”.
    Cheers Stuart

    1. Too right – “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Mark Twain
      Some of the oldest boats are double-masters, but it’s difficult to get one under 50′ these days, I agree. People are scared of them, I guess? We’ll have a word with Oyster!

  3. Thanks for that excellent analysis Liz and Jamie. How do you find the mast furling mainsail and Mizzen? Does it get caught? Presumably you don’t have battens. We’re thinking of moving up in size from a sloop to a ketch. Your information was timely and helpful!
    Cheers Ruth and Michael

    1. The boat came with in-mast furling, which was on Jamie’s ‘don’t want’ list (just as a ketch was)! Compromises, eh? 😉
      We love the in-mast, it works and hasn’t stuck (so far) on either mast except once or twice when the halyard was set wrong in the early days.
      So pleased the video was of use, we stand by everything we say and if had all the money in the world would always choose a ketch.
      Peace and fair winds!

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