A One-sided Defense of the Cruising Ketch

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 10:12AM - Comments: (23)

Courtesy of Evan Paul
Courtesy of Evan Paul

Sea Quill, a lovely Allied Seawind II, enjoys a romp in the Caribbean tradewinds

This week I had the opportunity to poke around a ketch-rigged Pearson 424 that was for sale in the neighborhood, and although they've generally fallen out of favor today, I was reminded of the many advantages of the ketch design. The Pearson 424 is an example of several decades-old production boats that were offered in a variety of rigs (sloop, cutter, or ketch), which has given longtime owners an opportunity to compare sail plans.

Judging from Pearson 424 list prices and bulletin board discussions about the Pearson 424, it appears that the scales are slightly tilted in favor of the sloop and and cutter versions. However, the ketch owners are equally emphatic regarding their boats' positive attributes. Having covered most of my cruising miles aboard a ketch, I'm an impartial party in this debate. So keep in mind, that  much of what you read below (redacted from an earlier post of mine) is colored by personal experience.

My affinity for cruising ketches like the Allied Seawind II we feature in the January 2016 issue of Practical Sailor runs contrary to the view of their many detractors. Their criticism goes something like this: Ketches were popular in early days of cruising when undersized winches and friction-bound hardware conspired to make handling large sails a chore. With efficient winches and modern hardware, split rigs are obsolete on boats under 50 feet, they say.

Having wrestled down the main on more than a few 40-footers with “state of-the-art” everything, I don’t buy this argument, but I’ll let it stand. Nor will I quibble over complaints about a ketch’s handicap to windward—which in my view is overstated, at least with regards to the better designs. Being the first boat to reach a windward watering hole is nice, but it’s hardly the first feature you look for in a good cruising boat.  

You can explore the cruising blogosphere and find plenty of resident ketch-haters, and indeed, some of the complaints have merit; the added weight and expense of the ketch’s extra rigging are irrefutable knocks. But having lived aboard and sailed a much-beloved, 32-foot William Atkin ketch for 10 years, I’m not interested in joining the chorus. Instead, I celebrate the rig’s attractions, especially to the short-handed cruiser.

  • Smaller sails are easier to handle. In squally weather, start with a reef tucked in the main, then just furl the mizzen or jib as needed without leaving the cockpit, upsetting helm, or wrestling more reefs into the main.
  • Ride the invisible rail. The fore-and-aft distribution of sails simplifies the task of achieving a rock-steady helm.
  • Impress your sloop-sailing friends with fancy ketch tricks. Sail backward through the mooring field (spin circles if you have a sharpie), nose casually up to anchor, hove-to with jig and jigger.
  • Barrel westward on a reach. Turbo-charge off-wind sailing by setting a mizzen staysail.
  • Don’t fear a dismasting. Having two independently stayed masts increases your odds of having at least one spar to use for jury rigging. (This advantage does not apply to ketches with triatic stays like the lovely Sea Witch.)
  • Sail in good company. Some famous ketches to consider: Steinlager 2 (1990 Whitbread winner), Suhaili (Robin Knox Johnston’s Golden Globe race winner), Joshua (Bernard Moitessier’s beloved, steel globe-trotter), Wanderer IV (Eric and Susan Hiscock’s storied cruiser), Colin Archer’s heroic little rescue boats . . . the list goes on.
  • Draw longing sighs from those ashore. There is something about having a main and mizzen working together that kindles romantic visions of South Sea islands.

Another nice thing about ketches is that many have reached an age when they are true bargains. Here are just a few familiar ketches worth considering:
L. Francis Herreshoff’s classic H-28, Gary Hoyt’s unstayed Freedom 40, Charlie Morgan’s family-friendly Bahama-mama Out Island 41, Ted Brewer’s Whitby 42 (aka Brewer 12.8), the Cheoy Lee Offshore 41, any of William Garden’s iconic ketches, the Swedish-built Hallberg-Rassy 42, Atkin’s Ingrid 38 (and her related offspring), John Hanna’s iconic Tahiti ketch, Holman & Pye’s Bowman 57, and two S&S designs, the Swan 57 and Tartan TOCK.

These are just a few that come to mind. I’m sure PS readers have many other boats to add to the list as evidence that reports on the death of the cruising ketch have been greatly exaggerated.

Comments (23)

Nice piece and happy comments about two masts. Not being able to find a ketch that I wanted, I stuck a carbon fiber mizzen on a Sea Sprit 34 and it has been a dandy addition. Sometimes it adds nothing at all. In gnarly weather we can hit top speed with just jib and jigger, with little tension and less chance of breaking something. And we can back off a mooring, to show off. She balances with all the combinations and, with the mizzen tied to one side of another, she lays steady to the wind at anchor. The main mast is still humongous tall, but with a Tides Marine sail track the main comes down in a woosh. I'm sure there are disadvantages, but I'm not smart or experienced enough to have found them yet.

Posted by: Surrymark | July 17, 2018 2:14 PM    Report this comment

A timeless conversation-starter...when I had a ketch, I noticed the mizzen was the first sail to come off, thanks to weather helm, so I concluded a taller main with two headsails was simpler, lighter, faster, less maintenance and gave all the necessary options. As wind increases, I prefer the sail area move inboard, so the jib and jigger setup in heavy air does not appeal. With a cutter rig, a staysail and progressively reefed main will manage in heavy air, eventually furling the main completely.

I note that none of the ketches I'm familiar with that are mentioned here would reasonably be called a 'performance' boat, but the debate is, like sailing itself, primarily an emotional one. We like what we like and the rest is filler.

Posted by: JonathanMicocci | July 15, 2018 10:08 AM    Report this comment

I sail a 1975 Sparkman & Stevens designed Chris Craft Caribbean 35 cruising ketch with a full keel. The sailing line of Chris Crafts was initiated when Cornelius Shields and his brother owned the motor boat manufacturer. These boats (Commanche 42, Apache 37, Pawnee etc.) are still active on the sailing scene. The Caribbean 35 is a sturdily well built boat easily helmed and comfortable to stay aboard with three cabins/2heads and plenty of storage. She is a dream to sail under any sail combination. Since the production was limited to 100, you might not see one all the time. I love this boat and cherish my time aboard.

Posted by: blueoyster01 | July 12, 2018 11:09 AM    Report this comment

The reason there are so many styles of boat are because there are so many different ways to use them. If I am a weekend racer with a crew of four the last thing I'd want is a ketch. Over 25-years of sailing a ketch, cutter and sloop, there is only one choice in my opinion for a short handed long-range cruiser and that is a ketch. Like comparing sail to power, you can never sail a power boat, and a sloop will never offer the trim flexibility of a ketch. Today my wife & I purchased our beloved 48ft Soverel Staysail Ketch for long-range cruising and I just laugh every time winds are 25+ and are sailing at hull-speed under jib & jigger.

Posted by: Fanfare | July 10, 2018 11:50 AM    Report this comment

We live aboard a Pearson 53 Ketch and beside both heads being on the same side of the boat. Just love the boat and multiple sail configurations. Well balanced and since it's just my wife and I. Very easy to setup the boat for single handed cruising.

Posted by: sv.Blue.Lagoon530 | July 9, 2018 12:52 PM    Report this comment

The Whitby 42's usually carried a ketch or cutter-ketch rig while the Brewer 12.8 was usually a cutter or sloop. Since the underside of the two vessels is significantly different, it is hard to say whether it is the rig or the keel configuration that makes the B-12.8 a better upwind sailer. Another reason we chose the Brewer is that davits and arches can be more difficult to mount and use on a ketch.

Posted by: Jdplus33 | July 8, 2018 6:39 PM    Report this comment

We sail a Bowman 57 cutter ketch and I have written on many occasions what a pleasure she is to sail. We sailed through 6 gales under job and jigger across the North Atlantic. We had every scrap of sail including mizzen staysail up on our next 2 Atlantic crossings. When our steering failed on one crossing, I steered by adjusting sails on deck while Alex worked on the steering below. She stands out in the harbour and we now have two antennas on the two masts so our AIS doesn't interfere with our VHF. She also sails remarkable well and we had our first 200+ mile day last year crossing Biscay. We concur! BTW there are many ketches cruising in Europe.

Posted by: CruisingKitty | July 8, 2018 5:14 AM    Report this comment

We sail a Bowman 57 cutter ketch and I have written on many occasions what a pleasure she is to sail. We sailed through 6 gales under job and jigger across the North Atlantic. We had every scrap of sail including mizzen staysail up on our next 2 Atlantic crossings. When our steering failed on one crossing, I steered by adjusting sails on deck while Alex worked on the steering below. She stands out in the harbour and we now have two antennas on the two masts so our AIS doesn't interfere with our VHF. She also sails remarkable well and we had our first 200+ mile day last year crossing Biscay. We concur! BTW there are many ketches cruising in Europe.

Posted by: CruisingKitty | July 8, 2018 5:14 AM    Report this comment

Silk, my Cutter-Ketch, a 1987 Shannon 37 let's me short hand with her smaller sails. I love to balance the rig to have a very minimal helm. A course trim of a degree or two with a light touch of the helm every 15 minutes or so is a joy.
M Tyler
Sv Silk
(and yes, she was Beth Leonard's)

Posted by: Silk | July 5, 2018 6:31 PM    Report this comment

Few more coimments. Some times we see a furling sail set up between the gooseneck of the main to the head of the mizzen mast. Along with a "mule sale" filling out the rest of the triangle between main and mizzen masts. The big advantage of this rig is not having to go forward and set up or reef the mainsail. Blue water sailors in the Pacific always say prayers when going forward to raise or lower mainsail. That's not a problem with furling masts. Until they become a problem. Just a matter of time.

In the old days the ketch rig always had more sail area than a similar sloop or cutter rig. The ketch rig was considered "handy". Sadly most of the ketches built by post-War glass US boat builders gave ketches "small rigs".

Our observation after some 50 years "out there" is that in any out of the way harbor there are always 2 eternal truths. First, the boats are mostly older. Second, there are more split rigs than one might imagine looking at the new boat shows.

The nicest arrangement for my money is a ketch rig with the masts set on tabernacles so they can easily be lowered by the crew. That makes it possible to store the boat in out fo the way places, ship it freighters, travel through canals and reduce storage costs.

One last word. With independently stayed ketch rig if one looses the mainmast its not much of a job to rig the main boom as a short mainmast and keep on sailing. Anyway the ketch rig is after the schooner rig the most pleasant to look at. Ketch rigs shout out "I'm not a toy".

Peter I Berman
Norwalk, CT

Posted by: Piberman | July 5, 2018 4:30 PM    Report this comment

Ketches have long been the "old man's rig". And have long been favored by Pacific sailors. When the wind pipes up "jib (staysail) and jigger' will see you up through 40 knots.
And when running off or before the wind setting up a mizzen staysail along with a big cruising spinnaker the angels really sing. A major advantage is being able to sail at night or in storms without the mainsail up. Makes sleep much easier. What's given up is some ability to go to windward. But a shorter mainmast makes it less likely a rogue wave will turn the boat turtle. Alas ketches are more expensive to rig and flesh out the sail inventory. Most old timers maintain that to fully realize the advantages of a ketch we need at least 40 to 45 feet. Still anther advantage of a ketch is that the radar and electronics fit nicely on the mizzen mast, the mizzen halyard can easily lift up stern stored dinghies. More than a few sailors favor the old man's rig. We drove several ketches across the Pacific and loved them all. One more advantage is that even with a 50 foot ketch one can get by without electric winches. And its easy to send a crew up the mizzen mast to work through an uncharted reef.

Peter I Berman
Nowalk, CT

Posted by: Piberman | July 5, 2018 3:49 PM    Report this comment

Ketches have long been the "old man's rig". And have long been favored by Pacific sailors. When the wind pipes up "jib (staysail) and jigger' will see you up through 40 knots.
And when running off or before the wind setting up a mizzen staysail along with a big cruising spinnaker the angels really sing. A major advantage is being able to sail at night or in storms without the mainsail up. Makes sleep much easier. What's given up is some ability to go to windward. But a shorter mainmast makes it less likely a rogue wave will turn the boat turtle. Alas ketches are more expensive to rig and flesh out the sail inventory. Most old timers maintain that to fully realize the advantages of a ketch we need at least 40 to 45 feet. Still anther advantage of a ketch is that the radar and electronics fit nicely on the mizzen mast, the mizzen halyard can easily lift up stern stored dinghies. More than a few sailors favor the old man's rig. We drove several ketches across the Pacific and loved them all. One more advantage is that even with a 50 foot ketch one can get by without electric winches. And its easy to send a crew up the mizzen mast to work through an uncharted reef.

Peter I Berman
Nowalk, CT

Posted by: Piberman | July 5, 2018 3:49 PM    Report this comment

Great comments. I would add that when my Diddikai ketch unshipped her rudder in the middle of a passage from Bermuda to the Chesapeake, we were able to sail for a day using the mizzen sheet to steer until we had calm enough seas to rehang the rudder.
I would prefer a ketch for cruising where speed is less important than ease of handling. My biggest concern was actually the clutter in the cockpit.

Posted by: WSB | July 5, 2018 1:22 PM    Report this comment

Having lived aboard two different ketches (Pearson 365 and Whitby 42) my issue is that the Whitby needed 3 knots of hull speed to tack and we still had to back wind the jib to get her to turn. This meant that anything less than 10-12 knots of wind would be motoring only.
Additionally the mizzen on the Whitby went too far aft and was not a safe hand hauled rig in rough seas.
The Pearson sailed nicely jib and jigger, but could not point at all.
I now have a Cal 39 sloop and I am in awe of its sailing capability

Posted by: aschoenberg | July 5, 2018 12:23 PM    Report this comment

My wife and I greatly enjoyed our GulfStar 50 center cockpit ketch for 10 years, and are now into our 4th year aboard a Ta Chiao CT-56 ketch, (Bob Perry design).

When the wind kicks up, I never put a reef in the main, I drop it entirely, thereby avoiding any dangerous on deck gymnastics during rough seas; and with the mizzen and jib, we are still nicely balanced.

Our sails are much easier to handle. We can (as mentioned) balance her very well with the numerous sails - we also have a cutter or foresail - between the jib and main.
Our mast height is lower than sloops, again, as mentioned.

If we are having a problem - lost halyard, etc., we have plenty of other sails to use.

The list of positives is quite extensive, so we are quite pleased to own ketches.

Thank you,
Doug Sabbag
Captain S/V Triumph

Posted by: DougSabbag | March 17, 2016 8:32 PM    Report this comment

You neglected to mention mast height. Our Allied Princess Ketch clears 45' bridges. Nice plus in tight spots.

Posted by: C-Lover's Captain | December 15, 2015 4:59 PM    Report this comment

You neglected to mention mast height. Our Allied Princess Ketch clears 45' bridges. Nice plus in tight spots.

Posted by: C-Lover's Captain | December 15, 2015 4:58 PM    Report this comment

I love my Pearson 365 ketch. She is pretty, fun to sail, a great liveaboard and gets admiring looks. I have sailed on another much larger ketch on S. F. Bay in summer when the wind howls.
She was steady and easy to handle by our volunteer crew and the city kids aboard had a blast.

Posted by: five on red | December 14, 2015 2:00 AM    Report this comment

I take this moment to offer thanks for using that stunning photo of my Allied Seawind MkII
ketch "Sea Quill" on the opening page the most recent edition.

I reluctantly sold her about nine years ago to a couple who planned to take her all the way around the "Marble".
Despite their thin experience the departed the Dominican Republic headed for Jamaica to install a Cape Horn vane steering wane and shortly after departed for the Panama Canal.
Unfortunately Sea Quill was hit by lightening the evening prior to their final Caribbean leg prior to entering the canal.
The damage was significant to her electronic appliances and apparently she languished near Colon for a year or more awaiting a new owner.

I would really like to be somehow a part of her next adventures in the future.
Despite several attempts to reach the cruisers that will undoubtedly cross tacks with her
in the future I have only a quick note from a cruiser who claims Sea Quill was purchased and has been totally refit and may yet be in the area of Panama..
I ask that anyone who can forward any news of the sweet Allied Mk II ketch "Sea Quill to me. No doubt the attributes you have used to describe why the love of the ketch will never go away.

Posted by: GOODKETCH | December 12, 2015 11:05 AM    Report this comment

Thanks Petrea! I think I've got the right Wanderer now!

Posted by: sailordn | December 11, 2015 5:08 PM    Report this comment

Hi Darrell, having owned, lived aboard and sailed a 31' Norwalk Islands Sharpie, I fully agree with you. As this was my first experience with a ketch I was dubious, but quickly became a convert to the ease of handling. Being engine free made it especially important that I could maneuver under sail, and the ketch made it simple and safe. Dead downwind and upwind are the worst points of sail, but hey, they are only a small proportion of the available wind directions. BTW the Hiscocks last boat was the sloop Wanderer V.

Posted by: PetreaMcCarthy | December 11, 2015 4:38 PM    Report this comment

I too own a Hinckley yawl (1984 custom yawl), and agree with the above excellent assessment of a split rig. However, I'm not aware that Hinckley ever made ketch. Henry Hinckley was a fan of the yawl, not the ketch. It had something to do with the old IOR rules, I think?...mnh

Posted by: mnh | December 10, 2015 6:25 PM    Report this comment

We have owned a 49' Hinckley ketch for 16 years (See P.S. review of July 2010). Ours is # 17 of 24 built. from the early to mid-70's. They are roomy, dry and comfortable down below. Both sticks have in-mast furling to permit sail adjustments from either the center or aft cockpit- certainly not a struggle for 2 people of advancing age. .At 38,000 pounds and with considerable tankage, it moves nicely in 10-15 knots of breeze. The auxiliary provides adequate power and will maintain 7 knots @ 1800 RPM- fairly economical. They draw 5 feet board up and 10 feet board down. We think they are a nice fit for a live aboard couple. The market has been stable with asking prices at 200K (+/-) ten percent. Even after 40 years and with proper care, they will still turn heads. We are ketch people!

Posted by: PDH | December 9, 2015 4:18 PM    Report this comment

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