Sail Plans and Rigs

Yawl at Anchor

While I personally think that an anchored yawl is one of the most beautiful sights a mere mortal can see, second only to a sailing schooner, yawls with their little mizzen actually have a great advantage over their other sailing brethren. 


Some times, currents will push on your keel and position you broadside or even stern into the wind! This means that as you try and relax at anchor, you will be tossed around violently instead! 


Yawls have a built in method for countering this issue, their mizzen! Raising the mizzen while at anchor will act as a riding sail and hold the bow into the wind. If the current tries to push the yacht sideways or another angle to the wind, the mizzen will be pushed back by any present wind. This means that as you turn, the air on the mizzen will push you back and keep you comfortable. Since the mizzen offers no forward drive, you don’t have to worry about sailing up onto the anchor.

On a non-yawl, a sail set back there is called a “Riding Sail” and this sail requires gear and time to setup and raise the sail. A yawl has this setup built in with the trusty Mizzen! 

Mizzen Spinnaker

Mizzen headsails add a great amount of power to a yacht, but nothing beats the downwind performance of a spinnaker! Have you ever thought about adding a second spinnaker to your yacht? 


A mizzen spinnaker is a second spinnaker that is flown from the mizzen. This sail will generate a lot of power in te aft region on the yacht, which will actually create weather helm! It is very important to always fly this sail in conjunction with a spinnaker on the main mast to keep a very healthy amount of lee helm on the yacht and avoid any unexpected round ups. 

This setup allows a yacht to not only be pulled through the waves, but also to be pushed by the back of the boat along the seas! 


Full disclosure: I think a yawl is the second prettiest rig on a yacht (first is reserved for Schooners). 

Yawls are actually very old rigs, originally called Jol and were mainly used on fishing boats. This rig gained immense popularity in the 1960s thanks to a loophole in the racing rules at the time. This is the Yawl that we know today and the Yawl that we will be focusing on in this article.  


A yawl is a two masted sailboat where the aft mast is shorter than the forward mast. The second mast is also set aft of the rudder post. 

This definition is easy enough to comprehend but a little tricky to put into practice on a yacht in the distance since you can’t see the rudder or rudder post! 


While the rudder may be obscured by the seas, a yawl is still very distinguishable thanks to the fact that it has a normal sized rig and then a tiny little sail stuck on the back of the boat and hanging off the stern. 

The mizzen in a Yawl actually provides no forward drive, but instead simply balances the sailplan. The mizzen sail is trimmed not for power but for balance. Easing the mizzen will make it less effective and produce less weather helm. Over trimming the mizzen will make it more effective and produce more weather helm. The sail should honestly be thought of more as an air rudder than a sail.  

The Yawl was also favored for blue water cruising because reliable windsteering still wasn’t an easily purchasable commodity. Setting the mizzen on a particular wind angle would ensure that the boat would hold that course. If the boat veered from that course, the mizzen would then take the wind and push the stern back onto the correct course. This meant that a set wind angle could be held for long periods of time without any help from the crew or captain.  

In racing circles, the Yawl was favored because the sail area of the mizzen mast was not counted. The mizzen sail was not counted because it produced no forward drive, but a staysail or spinnaker could be set on the mizzen as well and that sail could produce a lot of power off the wind. All of this sail area was not counted in the race rating for that particular yacht, so this was literally ”Free Sailarea” for these yachts. 

As with any boat design that is race driven, as soon as the rules changed, so did everyone’s favor of these design characteristics. The yawl soon fell out of favor and quickly became a relic of the past, replaced by the next rule loophole.

Mizzen Staysail

The mizzen on modern boats is not really thought of as a “power producer” but more of as a balancer. The mizzen mast is often jokingly referred to as the “radar mount” or “wind gen mount”. 

While the mizzen sail itself isn’t often thought of as a powerful sail, it does lend itself to the availability of adding power in a little know form: the mizzen headsail.  


Mizzen headsails are attached at three points and provide lots of power when sailing off the wind. The head is attached to the mizzen, the tack is attached to the aft bast of the main mast, and the clew is sheeted through the end of the mizzen boom. 


The sail is set flying, with no stay supporting its luff. As a result, easing the halyard will allow the sail to billow and generate a lot more power! 


The Center of Effort (CE) will be moved aft with the mizzen staysail, so it is important to make sure that the geometric center (where the CE is found) is as far forward as possible. This is why yawls perform better than ketches with mizzen headsails; the mizzen is very small and set far aft, meaning the the majority of the sail will be found forward on its way to the mast.

Another important point with the mizzen staysail is that by easing the mizzen sheet to the mizzen boom, the clew of the mizzen staysail will move forward which will also help to move the CE forward and help fight weather helm.  

Mizzen staysails are incredible power generators but care must be taken with them to ensure that they do not cause too much weather helm and thus disrupt the balance of the sailplan. It is important to always couple the mizzen staysail with a very large and far forward headsail that will induce a healthy amount of lee helm into the equation, helping to cancel out any weather helm generated by the mizzen staysail. A large genoa may seem like a good idea for this task, but if the genoa is sheeted too far aft, the CE will be brought back behind the mast and actually induce weather helm which would then compliment the weather helm of the mizzen staysail, causing the yacht to “Round Up” into the wind.

Additional sails should always be flown cautiously and judiciously. They can both create a lot of power, as well as a lot of problems. 

Masthead Vs. Fractional Rigs

The main distinction between these two popular rigs is how far up does the headstay go?  


To the top: Masthead

Part of the way up: Fractional

Fractional rigs offer a smaller headsail luff but a much more adjustable mast. Since the headstay doesn’t meet the backstay at the head of the mast, the section between the two stays acts as a lever which can effectively bend the mast to tune the sails. All this equates to much higher performance from the boat. 

Typically, fractional rigs are seen on racing boats while mast head rigs are seen on slower cruising boats.