Boat Building with a Difference XII click here to read or make an observation about this  article
by Barend Migchelsen - Montreal, Quebec - Canada

The following is Chapter 12: Rigging and Sailing from Barend's new book, "On Amateur Small-Boat Boat Building". Click the title above for this and other books by Barend.

Rigging and Sailing

Mast- and sail-making are specialized crafts that are not easy to master. They take up a lot of time to learn. That is time you could be out sailing.

If you look into a catalogue, you will see that ready-made masts, sails and the attached hardware are very costly. They can be the cause of a financial hemorrhage. An aluminum mast can cost you anything between $400 and the sky is the limit.

Trial Rig

To try out the boat immediately and without having to visit your banker for a loan, make an inexpensive trial rig.

With such a rig, you can trim, tune and try out the hull to find out if she is worth the cost of professionally made rigging. It is one of the most interesting and thrilling parts of sailing. As it happened to me, chances are that you have so much fun that you never find it necessary to spend more money, and decide to leave things as they are.

Trial Mast

This is the only time that I feel inclined to use the word Instant Mast because of the quick results.


  • 1. 1 – 12' - 2"–ID PVC pipe.
  • 2. 2 – PVC caps to close up the pipe.
  • 3. 1 - 12' - 2"x 2" lumber, pine, or spruce.

Round off the corners of the lumber enough to fit the 2"x 2" into the PVC pipe. Place one cap on top of the pipe. Attach the second cap with a screw on the mast foot block on the bottom of the hull.

Mast Attachments

Fasten the mast attachments to the mast with stainless steel screws into the bearing edges of the lumber. Instead of expensive pulley blocks that can jam, run the lines through fairleads, a.k.a. bull’s eyes. They are smooth, nylon fittings with a round hole between shoulders with a screw hole. The nylon is very slippery. The lines will never jam. Fairleads cost substantially less than pulleys.


The boom and the top yard are made from the same PVC material, but with a smaller diameter. Choose PVC pipe that fits around 1"x 1" lumber.

For light spars, you can use also the 1", or 1½" thick hardwood that is used for digging tool handles. Some hardware stores stock this material up to 10' length.

Belaying Pins

The neatest and easiest way to secure a line, and hang its loose end is on a belaying pin.

The pins fit into holes that are drilled into the mast bench. The holes are drilled on each side of the mast. Leave sufficient space between the holes for the lines.

Drill a 2"-deep 5/8"-ID hole into the length of a 6" piece of 1"–OD dowel wood.

Into this hole, glue a piece of 8" - ¼"–OD dowel wood. Round the sharp edges at both ends of the pin.

Trial Sails

There are several products on the market that can replace the expensive Dacron material for sail making. One of them is Tyvek. Builders use it to seal new constructed houses. It is not expensive but it comes in rolls of 100'. That is probably more than you will need in a lifetime.

Go to a building site where they use it and explain to the supervisor for what purpose you need the material. Nine out of ten, he will give it to you free of charge.

I tried once to make such a sail, but ran into difficulties because I found the material too flimsy. Later I read somewhere that it works well with contact cement.

I found that polyethylene tarp that you buy in the hardware store works easy for me. The reason is that it can be welded to itself in any form and without experience with an electric cloth-iron. No glue, or tape needed. Actually, the sections of the larger tarps are factory-jointed that way. That makes it neat and easy to reinforce at the corners and the other places that need extra strengthening. Try it out on a few pieces of scrap material, until you get the knack of it.

In the hobby shops, they sell small, electric irons with an accurate temperature-setting regulator for gluing lamination tape to the edges of shelf planks. They are ideal for this work and well worth the investment. It prevents a lot of trouble also. When I tried to use my wife’s cloth-iron the first time, I ended up having to buy her a new one that cost twice as much as the laminating iron.

Every local hardware store stocks the tarp in different, convenience sizes and with bright colours that will make your boat clearly visible. The price of the material is conveniently low.

It is weather, water, and mold resistant besides being strong, easy to clean, and does not tear easily. Its surface is very smooth.

The relatively loose-woven strands allow the sail to adapt an aerodynamic shape without allowing the air to escape through the sail. No seam is needed at the leech.

When higher heat than necessary for gluing is applied, it melts. The molten edge hardens with cooling.

Burning with an electric soldering iron with a round tip produces a perfect round hole with a hard edge. Make it a quick stab. Reinforce the hole with a plastic snap ring that you find in the camping section of the hardware store. It makes an ideal, erosion-free combination for line attachments.

These qualities make polyethylene tarps an ideal material for trying out different sail forms and configurations until you find the best performance rig for the boat. That is the sail rigging that gives you complete control, and, above all, with which you feel perfectly safe!

Maybe, any other material, as Tyvek, or similar building products are lighter and cost less, but they require the use of tape. This is not half as strong as polyethylene tarp that is hot-melted onto itself. Test it yourself with some scrap material.

Rigging Hardware

Without compromising on safety, in principle, I try to use as many cheaper substitutes for the rigging hardware that the glossy magazine wants me (and you) to believe that you cannot do without.

However, for two things I gladly pay the price of the expensive marine stores. The first are the rudder-hanging attachments, the pintles, and the gudgeons. The others are stainless steel screws. Altogether, they form only a small part of my usually small budget

Sail Configurations

Sails come in many different shape and forms. From the simplest lug sails to Chinese junk sails, or the Polynesian sails cut out at the top.
If you like to try out other types of sails, the book 100 Small boat Rigs by Phil Bolger will serve you a smorgasbord.

Low-ratio rigs with unstayed (freestanding) masts are the easiest, and the safest for small craft that are regularly car-topped, or transported on a light trailer. Then, a long mast becomes a nuisance, and a danger on the road.

The exception is a Gunter rig that makes it possible to combine a short mast and short spars into a high-ratio rig. However, for fine-tuning this rig requires a jib.

Trimming and Tuning

Trimming a small boat is done by shifting the weight of the crew.

A perfectly trimmed and tuned small boat lies horizontal in the water and stays on a straight course without any correction of the rudder.

A sailing boat is subject to four influences that constantly change:

  • 1. The crew moves around in the cockpit and/or on the deck.
  • 2. The winds shift in force and in direction.
  • 3. The currents shift in force and direction.
  • 4. A course change.

This requires constant tending of the sail(s).

Weather Helm, In Irons

Weather helm is the tendency of a boat to veer off by itself into the direction of the wind. Unchecked, the weather helm turns the bow of the boat into the wind. The boat comes to a dead stop. This situation is called “being in irons. The sail starts to flutter with a lot of noise. Let it not frighten you. Nothing will happen. Although it may be a nuisance, there is no danger.

To get under way again, push over the rudder a few times, or make a couple of strokes with the spare paddle that you should always have with you (by law). The more forward you strike with your paddle, the faster you get out of this situation.

Lee Helm

The intention of a boat to turn itself in the opposite direction of weather helm, away from the wind is called lee helm. A boat with an unchecked lee helm will continue to sail away with increasing speed. This is particularly dangerous if you have fallen overboard.

Safe Sailing

For safety reasons, a boat must be tuned always for a slight weather helm. That small tendency of course change to weather by itself is corrected with the rudder. These corrections should be within five (5) degrees.

If this limit is surpassed, it slows down the speed and the placing of the rigging must be adjusted.

Mast Placement

The mast is the spine of the rigging and its place is the most important. In all my designs, placing the mast at one-third (1/3) LOA from the tip of the bow works well.

By making the hole for the mast in the mast bench not perfectly round, but longer in the longitudinal direction, the mast can be raked with a wedge. That is sometimes just sufficient for fine-tuning the boat.

Sail Adjustments, Tuning made Easy

With a single sail, increasing the sail area aft from the mast increases the weather helm. Increasing the sail area fore of the mast increases lee helm. For these reasons, I favour the simple lugsail.

It is a powerful sail, easy to make and easy for tuning the boat. Corrections are made by moving the hoist attachment on the top yard without that a change of the mast position is needed. It can not be done in a simpler way.

The fine-tuning for course, or wind direction- and/or wind-force changes is done with the inhaul attached at the tip of the boom fore.
This line makes small changes in the ratios of the sail areas fore and aft of the mast.

Effective Rudder

A rudder works only effective within a 25 degrees range left or right.

If the rudder is turned wider, the “drag” component of the forces vector of the rudder starts to act as a brake. Snapping the rudder of a small boat a full 90 degrees (flat against the transom) is a sure way to slow the boat down fast.

Basic Sailing

This chapter is not the place to explain and elaborate on the fine points, and the technique of sailing.

Even so, for your own safety, before you go out on the water, you must be familiar with these three basic movements:

  • 1. Tacking,
  • 2. Running,
  • 3. Jibing.


Sailing straight into the direction of the wind is impossible. A zigzag course is then steered.

Tacking is the constantly changing of the zigzag course by turning the bow through the direction of the wind. It is tightly and easily timed, and controlled. Before you tack, fall of a bit. That will increase your speed and makes the turn through the wind easier. Then you push the helm forcefully over.


Running is sailing with the wind fully aft. In that case, you have to be alert for jibing.

Jibing, Jibe-all Standing

Jibing, a.k.a. gibing can occur while the boat is running before the wind with the boom at a (nearly) 90 degrees angle athwart.

Suddenly the boom of the mainsail swings over from one side of the boat to the other side in a nearly 180-degrees turn. It happens when the wind from aft gets into the other (wrong) side of the sail by surprise. The forceful swing of the boom can knock you unconscious, overboard, or both!

A controlled jibe is the fastest way to change course 180 degrees. It is used deliberately in emergencies, i.e. “man overboard.”

Always make sure that a necessary jibe is anticipated by every member of the crew, accurately timed, and controlled.

If a jibe happens involuntary, it is called a jibe-all-standing.

Correct Setting of the Sail(s)

Novices to sailing often have the tendency to pull in the sail(s) too tightly.

  • 1. Sail a boat as upright as possible,
  • 2. Let the sail(s) out as far as it (they) will go until you see a little dent developing into the sail(s) at the tack (corner) fore. For the correct setting, pull in the sail(s) until that little dent just has disappeared.

“Geien” (pronounced Gy-jen)

Before WW II, very few of the Dutch barges were motorized. They relied on wind power. Hoisting the main sail was the biggest job of the day, even if they had a multiple gear box at the foot of the mast to reduce the required force.

Getting a loaded barge through the narrow canals with their many bridges and locks was a real obstacle course that required all the skills and cunning of the crew.

Since hoisting the main sail was the biggest job and letting it down completely to stop the barge was a nuisance, the Dutch barge men found a simple compromise that left the sail on the mast but took the wind completely out of it.

All the mainsails of the barges have a loose foot which is convex cut at the foot as is shown in the picture below.

Instead of attaching the tack to the mast, this corner of the sail, with a line from the top of the mast, was hoisted halfway up the mast.
When the wind came into the sail it formed a kind of baggy sack, not unlike a full blown spinnaker.

To take the wind completely out of this airbag without having to drop the mainsail, they let the peak of the gaff fall down halfway. The airbag collapsed. The mainsail became a roll between the top of the mast and the end of the boom.

That way they were able to stop the barge without having to drop the mainsail completely. When the bridge or the lock opened, all they had to do was raise the peak of the gaff, and the airbag would slowly fill up again and get them underway.

The trick was to get that loaded barge always stopped at exactly the right place before the bridge or the lock. Too close would cause a lot of damage, too far required a lot of extra work to get the barge into a lock. The fact that the wind is seldom constant but blows in gusts made this whole operation even more an exciting chess game that required split timing action.

Other Articles by Barend Migchelsen:

Books by Barend Migchelsen

Email this page to a friend