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Article by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tips


© 2010 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved



Ketches and yawls are not as common as they once were. Still, mizzens have been around for a long time and with good reason. A mizzen sail can be useful in ways that many modern sailors don't realize. Positioned so far aft, this little workhorse acts as a big wind rudder, pushing the stern away from the wind and forcing the bow up into it. There are occasions when this can be particularly useful.

The Riding Sail

When anchored in a gentle crosscurrent, a boat may turn broad or even broadside to the wind. This can be inconvenient if the sea is rocking the boat or if you want the breeze to flow through the hatches.

With a mizzen it’s easy to bring the bow into the wind. Hoist the mizzen sail and sheet it in hard. As long as there is sufficient breeze, the "wind rudder" effect will overcome a moderate current and head the boat into the wind and sea. Cocking the rudder to windward will help, too. (See Figure 1)

Even in normal anchorage conditions, holding the bow steadfastly into the wind reduces strain on on the rode and anchor compared to a vessel that yaws or "sails at anchor," thus lessening the risk of chafe and dragging. 


Another advantage to leaving the mizzen up when anchored is readiness for the unexpected. If for any reason the boat should drag or come adrift, a mizzen sail holding the bow close to the wind gives the skipper better control - some ketches may even tack under mizzen alone, or do so making sternway combined with a cocked rudder. In any case the hoisted mizzen sail buys precious time to either start the engine or hoist a headsail to get the boat underway and under control.

If a swell is working into an anchorage at an oblique angle to the wind, rocking the boat uncomfortably, use the mizzen sail to head either the boat's bow or stern closer into the surge. Simply secure the mizzen boom out to port or starboard with a preventer. This will hold the boat at its own oblique angle to the wind, lessening or even negating the angle of the swell. The boat will roll less and the taut mizzen sail will dampen what little roll remains. (See Figure 2)


Once the anchor is lowered and the boat begins making sternway, most boats quickly fall off broadside to the wind. If the mainsail is still up it may fill, and off she goes sailing on her anchor. In a crowded harbor this can be problematic. Even if the mainsail is doused, broaching while anchoring is awkward and unseamanlike. It seems to take forever for the boat to straighten herself.

The solution is to keep the mizzen sail sheeted in tightly when anchoring. The "wind rudder" effect will hold the bow to the wind even as the boat drifts back. Anchoring becomes easier, neater, and safer with a mizzen. (See Figure 3)

You may then set the anchor without the engine by backing the mizzen as in Figure 2, thus putting pressure on the hook so you can feel it's dug in.


Weighing Anchor Under Sail

In moderate conditions it's fun and easy to get underway without firing up the "iron jenny". First, shorten your scope by about half. Next hoist the mainsail, leaving the sheet slack so the sail is luffing, and have the jib ready to run up or roll out on the intended lee side. Then weigh anchor. Once the bow falls off the wind, set the jib and sail away!

However, in close quarters you need to control which way the boat falls off. Solution? You guessed it - the mizzen. By keeping the mizzen sail sheeted in hard at first, you're sure to have the boat pointed into the wind when the anchor breaks free. Then quickly release the mizzen sheet, grab hold of the mizzen boom and push or pull it over to the side towards which you want the vessel's bow to head. (You can rig up a block & tackle in advance to do this without straining any muscles.)

For example, suppose there's a boat anchored close by to port, so it's essential to sail off to starboard. Push the mizzen boom out to starboard. The wind strikes the mizzen sail, pushes the stern to port, and presto! The bow falls off to starboard. Be sure that the rudder is amidships, or else aimed to port if the boat starts making sternway. (See Figure 4)


With practice you can actually back the boat straight astern for quite a distance under sail to get out of a crowded spot with vessels moored to both port and starboard, using the mizzen and the rudder to steer.


There's no single correct way to heave-to in heavy weather. Each boat handles differently, but the end result should be the same. The vessel should lie at a relatively safe and comfortable angle to the wind and sea, typically with the bow pointing between 40° and 60° off the wind. On a ketch or a yawl, all other sail can often be handed and the mizzen sheeted in, reefed if necessary. The helm is usually secured amidships or nearly so. The "wind rudder" effect does the rest, holding the bow to windward while the bow's own windage holds the vessel in balance.

And More

A mizzen sail allows a boat to carry the same sail area as her sloop-rigged sisters while reducing the size of the mainsail. A smaller mainsail is easier to hoist, reef, and furl. A shorter mainmast reduces weight and windage aloft, increasing stability. A split rig also allows instant reefing. When the wind kicks up you simply drop the mainsail and continue sailing, uninterrupted, under the beautifully balanced combination of jib and mizzen, or "jib 'n jigger" as the old salts call it.

A mizzen increases your selection of sail combinations in other ways, too. There's the easy-to-handle mizzen staysail for reaching in light airs. This sail is like a free-flying jib or drifter except that its head hoists to the mizzen masthead, its tack secures just abaft the base of the main mast or perhaps to a padeye near the windward grab rail, and a single sheet leads through a block at the end of the mizzen boom. Downwind in light airs, some ketches even fly mizzen chutes. Of course, you can always hand the mizzen sail entirely and sail the boat as a sloop or, if she carries a staysail, as a cutter. This is especially true of the yawl, which is virtually a sloop with a mizzen added. This "sloop option" can be effective sailing hard to windward when the air coming off the main may luff the mizzen sail.

In port, the mizzen boom can serve as a ready crane for launching and lifting heavy items such as the dinghy's outboard motor.

Some skeptics describe the mizzenmast and rigging as "something to lean against in the cockpit". Well, they have got a point. It does provide solid handholds and a convenient place to clip your safety harness. It's also an excellent mount for a wind generator on a swivel base.  Some blue water voyagers mount a spare VHF antenna at the mizzen masthead, in case lightening or dismasting renders the main masthead installation useless.

Which raises this point: If a sloop is dismasted and the spars lost at sea, there had better be enough fuel aboard to motor home. On a ketch and even a yawl, you can still set a mizzen sail and mizzen staysail. They’ll get you there eventually.

The sloop is generally the most efficient to windward and the cutter rig is supremely practical offshore. Happily, those sail configurations are still available to a double-headsail ketch or yawl simply by furling the mizzen. But as we have seen, when that mizzen sail is set it truly does have many uses.


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