Confessions of a Lug Nut click here to read or make an observation about this  article
By Gary Blankenship & Helen Snell - Tallahassee, Florida - USA

Led by designers like Phil Bolger and more recently John Welsford, Ian Oughtred, and Jim Michalak, lugsails have been increasing in popularity, particularly in smaller designs built by their owners.

Based on almost 20 years of experience with balanced and dipping luggers, I think there is a good reason for this. Luggers, particularly balanced luggers (and probably the Chinese lug, with which I have no experience) are probably the most efficient rig there is in terms of cost, performance for the amount of work done by the crew and the height of the mast. They also simply outperform many more modern rigs in many conditions, much to the consternation of those with preconceived notions about unstayed and “primitive” rigs. (I also have experience with sloop, sprit, gaff and lateen rigs. At the moment we have a 30 footer (custom design from Bolger), a 20-footer (Michalak’s Frolic2), and 11-footer (Piccup Pram), all balanced luggers.)

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"LeDulcimer", our 30 footer with her balanced lug rig.

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Let’s start, like I did, with probably the least used lug rig, the dipping lugger. A dipping lugger is a four-sided sail, but it has no boom, only a yard. Bolger has accurately described it as a big genoa sail with it’s top cut off and requiring no forestay. Or if it helps, think of a four-sided Chinese lug, but with no battens or boom. Since the sail projects in front of the mast at both the head and the foot, if it were tacked normally, on one tack it would be aback against the mast (when its on the windward side), and dipping luggers perform poorly in that configuration. The traditional method is to lower the sail, cast off the tack tie down line, carry the sail and yard around to the new leeward side of the boat, reattach the tack line and reraise the sail.

Bolger recommended the dipping lug 20 years ago when he designed the 30-footer Le Dulci-Mer for me for single-handed offshore use. The thought was while offshore, tacking would be fairly rare, and so the slowness of tacking or gybing a dipping lug would be mitigated. Rather than the traditional method of tacking, Bolger specified two sails, one on each side of the mast. Tacking would involve lowering one sail and raising the other.

The plan was based on his experience with a 450-square foot dipping lug as the foresail on his own Resolution, plus some experiments with twin dipping lugs on one of his June Bug hulls.

For the 385-square-foot cat rig, Bolger came up with some nice touches. For one thing, he put the tacks of the sails on a traveler. (See diagram at right - click to enlarge) This allowed the tack to be hauled to the windward rail for a better set of sail on a relatively narrow hull, although it was also one more job to do in tacking. Second, it was obvious that parrels would not work for attaching the yards to the mast in a rig where one sail is raised as the other is lowered. Instead, 1/4-inch stainless “jackstays” were run up each side of the mast. These do not have to be bar tight as they do not support the mast; I merely lashed the bottoms to padeyes bolted into the deck next to the mast. On each jackstay was a stainless steel thimble, around which was spliced a rope which was tied to the yard. Nearly frictionless, this system allowed the sails to be raised or lowered on any point of sail and proved jam-free. (See diagram at left) Next, as anyone who has sailed with a balanced lug knows, when the halyard is released, the yard comes down aft end first and tries to crack the skull of anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way. This isn’t a problem with small rigs that are easy to physically manhandle (personhandle?), or where the sail is raised and lowered from the mast, out of range of the mad yard. But on this boat, sail handling is done from the cockpit and that rather heavy yard on a 385-square foot sail is a danger. Bolger designed control lines, or downhauls, that led from the forward and aft ends of the yard through blocks on deck and then to the sail handling position in the cockpit. In practice, the aft line proved unneeded and was discarded. The only requirement is that the deck turning block must be forward of where the front end of the yard will be when the sail is lowered. When lowering the sail, take in the downhaul as the halyard is eased. In essence, the downhaul turns the halyard attachment into a pivot point. Pulling on the downhaul causes the aft end of that lethal yard to lever upwards.

I use a 1/4-inch double-braid Dacron line for the downhaul. By happy accident, I discovered that dropping the line into a ½-inch clam cleat would provide tension on the line, yet allow it to feed through when raising the sail. Sort of an automatic clutch that simplified sail hoisting.

A note here. When the boat was converted to a balanced lug rig, the jackstay and forward downhaul were retained, and lazy jacks were added. The sail now falls always under control into lazy jacks. It isn’t the neat bundle that boats with full-batten Chinese lugs report, but it’s fully under control until I can do a neater furl.

Certainly one of the best things about the dipping lug was aesthetics. Close hauled or on a close reach, the curve of the sail is a thing of beauty – my favorite of all rigs (gaff is second) to look at. That might be because it’s only attached to the mast at the yard, and the sail makes a great sweeping curve from the windward rail, around the mast and back to the stern. (I’ve always thought the way mine,with the tack on the windward rail, looked better than most others I’ve seen in photos, where the sail was tacked on the centerline. Maybe that’s an owner’s conceit.)

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And another is the apparent efficiency of the sail. It always gave me the feeling, more so than any other rig, of producing great power with little effort, seeming to give good speed with little appearance of strain. As Bolger notes, there’s no mast – or for that matter even a forestay – in front of the sail to interfere with the flow of air, so efficiency is enhanced.

What’s wrong with it? Well, it’s a lot of work to tack and reef. Plus, if rigged like mine, you have to buy two mainsails (although perhaps there’s something to be said for redundancy in an extra main). And without a boom, it’s loses some efficiency well off the wind.

Of these, the first is the most critical. Bolger said his 450 square foot sail was made out of 6 ounce sailcloth (or perhaps a little lighter) and he had no problem raising it by hand. I had ordered my mains made out of 8 ounce cloth, thinking to make them as bulletproof as possible. It also made them too heavy to raise by hand. Providence intervened as I found a pair of single speed #20 Barlow winches, complete with handle, at a marine flea market for $25. They only needed cleaning and greasing, and that hoisting problem was solved. (I now use a two-speed Barlow 25 for the halyard, which is even better.)

But raising the sail still wasn’t fast. I could halfway raise the sail by hand, then take some turns around the winch and crank it the rest of the way up, but it was a couple minute operation. In tacking, I would set the autopilot to start the tack and then lower the sail, which was now on the windward side. Releasing the tack traveler first would allow it to slide to the proper side for the new tack without any pulling on the control lines, which also led to the cockpit. Once down on deck, a length of shock cord on the deck would be pulled over the sail and then slip under a clip, to provide at least a temporary tie down. Then the second sail would be raised. Total time to tack, if everything went well, was 3.5 to 4 minutes. Repeated three to four times on a 95 degree Gulf of Mexico summer afternoon, and I was pretty much done for the day.

(When the rig was converted to balanced lug, I was toying with another scheme for tacking. That would leave the old sail up but shifting the sail tack on the traveler when coming about. Then the new sail would be raised behind the old sail, and then the old sail lowered. It would guarantee better control during the tack because a sail would always be up, but I was concerned about chaff when the sail was lowered while pressing against the mast.)

Reefing was another problem. Raising and lowering the sail from the cockpit was of limited usefulness if the sail couldn’t be reefed from the cockpit as well. Obvious, reefing points along the leach of the sail were handy to the cockpit for redoing the clew, but I couldn’t figure out any workable way to reef the tack from the cockpit. Any solution would involve two lines for each sail (one for each set of reef points), and have to work as the sail tacks slid back and forth on the traveler.. So reefing required a trip to the foredeck, but at least not to the very top of the bow.

It is possible to tack and make progress with the dipping lug on the wrong, or windward side, of the mast, to save the work of moving the sail around the mast or dropping one sail and raising the other. On my boat, you could also haul the tack to the weather rail to improve the shape. It works, but kills the speed. I recall doing it once when we were doing 6 knots and I did a short tack without dipping. The speed dropped to 3.5 knots with the sail on the wrong side (and with the tack hauled to the high side), and the boat felt like it was laboring. I have some more thoughts about this, which we’ll get to in a bit.

Bolger reported that on his June Bug rigged with two dipping lugsails, tacking took no longer than resheeting a genoa sail of about the same size, so this is something worth trying on a smaller scale.

After a couple years on the 30-footer, the decision was made to switch to a balanced lug, at least for day and coastal sailing (which at the time was all I was doing anyway).

About this time Bolger came out with a new scheme for tacking a dipping lugger, using only one sail. So not long after I had converted to a balanced lug, I rerigged back to a dipping lug for a couple test sails. The main change was Bolger ran a line up to the masthead and then back to tie off on the yard at a point about halfway between the mast and the aft end – sort of a topping lift for the yard. One function was the same as the downhaul line I used; to tame the yard’s noggin’ knocking tendencies when raising or lowering the sail. (In my experience, the downhaul works better than the topping lift because it also tends to tame the swinging back and forth of the yard. There’s also no chance a downhaul that doesn’t run to the masthead will ever jam at the masthead.) The second purpose was to allow the dipping lug to be tacked without completely lowering the sail.

The idea was the yard topping lift would be set so when the sail was lowered, the lift would support the yard just before the forward end touched the deck. It would also hang naturally on the aft side of the mast. Tack lines would be rigged so the tack could be hauled around behind the mast and to its new position, and then the sail raised again, with the yard naturally following the tack to the new leeward side. I had hopes this could cut the tacking time – and labor – in half. Not to mention the reduced clutter from having only one large sail, instead of two, on deck of a rather small boat. Well, it worked, but not as smoothly as I hoped. My typical tacking time, without unusual glitches, was 3.5 to 4 minutes – the same as the two-sail method. Part of the problem was the design of the boat. The sloping forward side of the cabin ended where the mast went through the deck, created a tilted V-shape there. The sail and the tack tended to jam when passing through that constricted area, necessitating a trip forward to clear things up. There was also just a lot of friction inherent in hauling a heavy, partially-lowered, 385-square foot sail from one side of the boat to the other.

I do think this idea has promise, perhaps on a boat with a somewhat smaller and lighter sail, and with a more streamlined deck design (and watching out for miscellaneous cleats, hatch corners, or anything else that could snag the sail.

For me, though, it was on to the balanced lug rig.

LeDulcimer with balanced lug

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The conversion really was quite easy, mostly a matter of building a boom long enough (about 20 feet) for the foot of the sail, and adding a cleat low on the mast for the boom downhaul. There was only one slight glitch, The initial boom downhaul was set to keep the sail in the same fore-and-aft location, or to put it another way, to keep the same amount of sail forward of the mast as there had been with the dipping lug.

The balanced rig reached as well as the dipping lug and not surprisingly ran better since the boom held the foot of the sail out. But the boat was sluggish hard on the wind, My attention engaged, I checked Chapters 15 and 17, on. respectively, dipping and balanced lugs, in Bolger’s book, 100 Small Boat Rigs (since reissued as 103 Small Boat Rigs). The drawings showed that the dipping lug rig had more of the sail forward of the mast along the foot than did the balanced lugger (there was no noticeable difference on the yard). I slid the downhaul 12 to 18 inches forward on the boom, and the windward performance dramatically improved. In retrospect, I probably should have done some more experimentation, but not being terribly high-performance driven, I was happy with what I had. During a later conversation with Chuck Leinweber, another balanced lug enthusiast, he reported that he had experimented with downhaul location and had found there was a optimal spot, and further forward or aft degraded speed. Obviously, moving the foot of the sail aft increased the weather helm, but the boat had come out with a near neutral helm when on the wind, so the extra weather helm didn’t hurt. Sometimes, you just gotta be lucky. The boat was sailed with this configuration for about 15 years.

Here are some unscientific observations. My impression is the dipping lug rig was both faster on the wind and closer winded that the balanced lug, but I was usually so busy handling the dipping rig, or so tired after tacking it, that I never took careful compass or speed readings. The one time I do recall checking is when I experimented with carrying the sail on the wrong side of the mast, and the boat was doing around 6 knots hard on the wind with the sail on the right side. It has never equaled that speed hard on the wind with the balanced lug. The balanced lug, with fierce concentration at the helm and with the original fin keel on the hull, could be made to tack in about 100 degrees; 110 was more usual. Reaching the speed of the two rigs seemed to be about even (in 12 to 15 mph winds, 7 knots was common), and running the balanced lug had the clear edge.

Against the more conventional sloops of the ubiquitous cruisers and cruiser/racers that populate most marinas, my impression over the years is most were slightly closer winded and slightly faster on the wind. The advantage swings my way as the sheets were eased and none near my boat’s size could hold that balanced lug downwind, unless they went to the trouble of flying a spinnaker. Competing against out-and-out racers, like a J-24, would be a different story, but by the time I got around to doing that, I had changed the keel and hadn’t worked out all the problems. Even with them worked out, I would expect to be outperformed, just as these boats will outperform the typical fiberglass production boat. But the point here is efficiency. The balanced lug gives one halyard to haul, and one sheet to set. Tacking is merely throwing the tiller over, and the rig is self vanging. It’s also undeniably more efficient downwind than the modern Bermuda rig, unless you go to the hassle of a spinnaker.

Twice in head to head sailing with conventional sloops in gusty conditions an interesting phenomenon was noticed. When a gust of wind would hit the boats, both would increase their heel, but my boat with the balanced lugsail would noticeably scoot ahead. The most striking example was an impromptu race in St. George Sound with a friend in her 36-foot ketch and a another boat, identified by its sail as a Hunter 28, that wandered along and accepted our invitation to join. The wind was moderate at the start, but then died. It slowly filled from a new direction, until by the last leg, which was a close reach, it was blowing 15-20 with higher gusts. In the light winds, the Hunter and I left the ketch, which lacked adequate light air sails, behind. I had a slight lead, but was unable to shake the Hunter until we got to that last leg and the new wind reached its full, gusty velocity. Our speed remained the same, except when the gusts hit, and then I would noticeably gain several yards. By the time we finished, I was well ahead. My guess is the efficient shape of the lugsail, along with the lower height of the mast it allows, was responsible for that result. (The mast on the 30-footer is about 28 feet above the waterline – about the same height as for a 22 foot sloop. The mast on our 20 foot lugger is 17 feet and its 9 feet on the 11 foot pram.)

I think the shorter mast itself is an advantage, carrying less windage and heeling effect, leading to the results mentioned above. (And in the typical marina with towering aluminum spars, my stumpy wooden mast is going to be the last one hit by lightning!) Again, it’s a different way of looking at efficiency. Draw a 28-foot (above the waterline) mast on the hull of your choice and then try to get it to carry 385 square feet of sail with the conventional three sided Bermudan sails.

Another difference with conventional boats is I don’t have a bow pulpit. The lifelines angle down to the bow are tied off to a securely bolted padeye. The pulpit isn’t needed because there’s no need to go to the bow to handle jibs. The only time I go there is when docking (and after the boat is already at the dock), anchoring which is usually in calm waters, or to watch the bow slide through the water in moderate conditions..

A common question about balanced lugs is whether there is a noticeable performance difference with the sail on the “bad” tack, on the mast’s windward side and the sail presses aback on the mast.

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LeDulcimer on the "bad" tack.

Given my experience with the dipping lug on the bad tack, I had expected some loss, but not as severe. But after 15 years with the rig on three boats, I can say any difference isn’t noticeable. Sometimes, in fact, the GPS will indicate the bad tack is faster than the good tack, and sometimes vice versa. My impression is the sail sets flatter onthe “bad” tack and hence does better in conditions that favor a flatter sail (usually stronger winds). Conversely, it is fuller on the good tack and does better in lighter winds, or when extra power is needed to punch through s short chop. I also think any difference to too small to be measurable worth much worry..

Okay, remember I said we’d be coming back to the experience with sailing with the dipping lug on the wrong side of the mast? Well, now is the time. See if you can deduce from what I learned when I switched from the dipping to the balanced lug what might make a dipping lug perform better on the “wrong” side. This only sat unseen before my eyes for more than a decade before the possible answer occurred to me. Yep, when tacking from the good to the bad tack, instead of just hauling the tack to the new windward rail, also move it aft a couple feet or so. Just like I had to shift foot of the sail aft with the balanced lug, doing a similar thing on the dipping lug might significantly improve performance. It would also mean quite difference in weather helm from one tack to the other. But it could allow short tacking by only having to haul on a couple tack lines. The idea would be to handle the sail like this in tight quarters or when leaving an inlet or sound or for a short daysail, and then set it properly when one course will be sailed for a long time. I hope to test this sometime.

This is a lot of words about dipping lugs, but there’s a reason. With more and more people using balanced and Chinese lugs, knowing about the dipping lug adds a lot of redundant protection for your boat. Break a yard? Jury rig the boom for the yard and rehoist as a dipping lug. Break the boom? Remove it and sail as a dipping lug. Break the mast? Step the boom as a mast (and probably support it with some lines), reef the sail appropriately, and rehoist as a dipping lug. Think about how you would fasten the tack to the deck, but with some thought it’s a perfectly feasible jury rig for other lug rigs.

Okay, now for some more thoughts about balanced lugs. One advantage in switching from the dipping to the balanced rig was the single sail instead of two, freeing up a lot of deck space. Secondly, it became possible to rig up a jiffy reefing system that could be operated from the cockpit.

This is rigged similar to jiffy reefing on a conventional Bermudan main. A reefing line runs from the boom through the clew or tack reefing cringle and back down to a turning block on the boom (giving a 2:1 purchase). The lines then run either forward (from the clew) or aft (from the tack) through some eyestraps which act as fairleads to turning blocks at the mast, and then back to the cockpit. My turning blocks at the mast are three sets of doubles (one for each set of reefs in the main) and are simply tied to a cleat, right at the downhaul. This latter point is important because as the reef lines are hauled in, they became the new downhaul. I use 3/8-inch, three-strand Dacron rope for the reefing lines. The reefed sail also sets several inches lower, so make sure there are no obstructions on the deck.

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To reef singlehanded, I ease the main (with the boat being steered by the autopilot), until the front of the sail luffs but the aft is still drawing. This slows the boat, but keeps it moving and under control. Next the halyard is eased – it’s easy to mark it on how far to slack off for the first, second, or third reef. The reefing lines are led to line clutches and then to one of the trusty Barlow 20 winches. It seems to work best to first reef the luff, then the leech. If this is the first reef, the slack is taken up on other reef lines. Then the sail is hoisted and resheeted.

Reefing, by the way, seems to flatten the sail, which is good in strong winds. It also, as Jim Michalak has noted, reduces the twist of the sail, which can enhance windward performance.

It usually works pretty well, but there is a fair amount of friction in the system and there are a lot of lines meeting and crossing at the mast – the tangle potential is high. The sail was first rigged with only two reefs, but I wanted a third one, which would be needed if winds hit 25 to 30. But adding that third set of lines seemed to double or triple the number of snags. As I said, it usually works, but sometimes the tack lines can hang up, and it’s very important to keep the lines sorted out at the turning blocks at the mast base. (This system is overkill on my smaller boats, although I do have turning blocks and cleats at the front and back of the boom on the 114-square foot sail on the Frolic2.)

I did once try a system with one line for each set of reef points. One line ran from clew reef up the boom and through the tack reef, and then back along the boom to the turning block and then to the cockpit. It worked, but had too much friction to be reliable.

Since I reused the dipping lug sail on the 30-footer, I’ve always carried it loose footed on the boom. And usually when it’s reefed, I don’t bother to tie in the reef points unless I’m worried the sail is bunched in such a way that the folds would fill and hold a significant amount of water. The lack of tying in the points has never caused a problem. I do use reef points on the smaller sails.

There are other ways to reef, especially on smaller balanced lugs. Matt Layden on his line of small cruisers dispenses with the boom downhaul. Instead, he has a metal rod inserted into the center of the forward end of the boom, and which curves around, sort of like a question mark, to a flexible deck mount. That allows the boom to be rotated and Matt can reef his sail like a window blind. I’m not sure this could be scaled up for a 385-square foot sail.

Another idea would be to mount a conventional jib roller fuller system on the boom and use it to reef the sail. I think I’d like to try that with an inexpensive, used small system on one of the smaller boats before venturing to try it on the 30-footer. Roller furlers generally aren’t cheap!

Okay, those are my experiences. Here are some opinions based on those experiences, but take them with a large grain of salt. One is that on a dinghy and small boat, I think a balanced lug is better than a Chinese lug because it’s a simpler sail and is reputed to have a better aerodynamic shape. Messing with the long sheet, sheetlets and the full length battens doesn’t seem worth it. Notwithstanding that opinion, I was extremely impressed with Mike Mulcahy’s recent Duckworks article on making a polytarp Chinese lug and fully intend to try it in a small size. (Like I said, it’s only my opinion and I could very well be wrong!)

When you get to the size of sail on my 30-footer, the Chinese lug picks up some significant advantages, primarily it’s superior ease in reefing. I still think I get a better shape with the balanced lug and a simpler sail with no battens to break.

I also fully agree with Bolger and other designers who observe if sailmakers put the research into lugsails that they put into high tech Bermudan mains and jibs, the sail would perform much better. In fact, I suspect there would be no reason, except for the racing fanatics who want the nth degree of windward speed and pointing ability, to use the high-stress and expensive sloop rig. The lug would be better for 99 percent of the sailing we do.

My 30-footer recently has given some tantalizing hints of the possibilities. As written elsewhere in Duckworks, the original fin keel has been replaced with an experimental wing keel, which had some teething problems. It initially both slowed the boat and hurt its pointing ability. Those have been worked out in such a way that I can adjust the angle of attack of the wings by swinging the keel up and down. Completely unexpected by me, this apparently has a major impact on performance. That effect was accidentally discovered one day when I ran aground while exploring a channel under power and while the keel was lowered to what I through was the proper angle for the wings. Fortunately for me, this proved one of the few times I haven’t been able to power off after grounding. The keel was raised a couple inches and much to my surprise boat speed improved by about a third of a knot. About the same time, I decided that some experimentation with the boom downhaul location was warranted and it was moved further forward. My impression on a couple subsequent sails was windward speed was noticeably improved; in fact one day the GPS recorded my best hard-on-the-wind boat speed ever with the balanced rig, a sustained 6 mph or about 5.3 to 5.4 knots. And yes, the sail was on the “bad” tack at the time.

Also surprising is on a couple of occasions while working on tacking I was able to get the boat to tack on 80 degrees. It went slowly so pinched, but I’m amazed it could point that close at all. The speed was much better on those days with 90-100 degree tacks.

Complete investigation of these apparent improvements has been delayed by a nagging minor illness, a long spate of outboard problems, and a busy schedule, not to mention rotten weather (Florida has had a few weather disturbances in the past couple years). But sooner or later, I’ll do some real testing to follow up on these promising leads.
I also intend to do some more experimenting with dipping lugs, although not on the 30 footer. Most likely it will be on our Piccup Pram, or maybe on a June Bug. Using Dave Grey’s polytarp kits will take the sting out of the expense of making two sails, and I want to try my idea of shifting the tack aft on the “bad” tack on a small, easily handled platform.

And it would be nice to see that sweeping, lovely curve of the dipping lug again, even on a smaller scale.

Other articles by Gary Blankenship & Helen Snell: