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Voyager explains junk rig choice

Jan 1, 2003

My decision to buy a Chinese junk-rigged schooner was shaped by several factors. Foremost was the certainty that I would be voyaging and not racing. The second important consideration was the rig's simplicity. Made up mostly of lines and knots, this feature guaranteed less maintenance time and far less maintenance and replacement costs. There would be no expensive stainless fittings, winches, or high-tech sail materials. The third consideration was ease of handling. I knew that I would probably sail by myself or with inexperienced crews. Therefore, I wanted a boat I could handle safely and comfortably from the cockpit with a minimum of sail handling on the foredeck. Last, I was won over by the design and voyaging exploits of several well-known sailors who experimented with modern interpretations of this almost 2,000-year-old rig.

Back in the 1970s, Thomas Colvin designed and built several junk-rigged boats in Chesapeake Bay. One of his most popular designs, an aluminum schooner called Gazelle, can still be found occasionally in classified sailing magazine advertisements. He extolled the unique charm of the Chinese junk rig in a book called Cruising as a Way of Life.

Englishmen Blondie Hassler and Michael Richey made history by sailing the junk-rigged folkboat, Jester, in 13 successive Atlantic singlehanded races. It was the first singlehanded Atlantic race in 1960 that pitted Chichester against Hassler and his junk-rigged sloop. Chi-chester's Gypsy Moth won that race, but Jester, captained by Michael Richey, subsequently established a record for the most race attempts. The fact that the boat and rig held up in this most inhospitable North Atlantic Ocean race is a testament to the boat and sail designs. In 1988 Hassler teamed up with Jock McLeod to write a definitive book on the junk-rig called Practical Junk Rig.

A dedicated group of British sailors has adapted this ancient sail plan for modern Western craft. They also formed the Junk Rig Association to further the study and exchange of ideas toward improving the rig. One of my all-time favorite sailor-authors is Bernard Moitessier. This Frenchman was born in Vietnam and acquired much of his early sailing experience in traditional junks. Although he changed to a more modern Bermuda-rigged boat for his many sailing exploits, he wrote nostalgically about those early sailing days in junks.

Almost everyone's first sailing hero is Joshua Slocum. His greatest exploit is being the first singlehander to make it around the world in 1895 and write about it in a book called Sailing Alone around the World. He accomplished this awesome feat in a boat called Spray, a traditional gaff-rigged schooner. However, later in life he built the junk-rigged Liberdade for a trip from South America back to the U.S. This adventure is described in his book The Voyage of the Liberdade. The writings of these famous sailors made a deep impression on my choice of boat. Admittedly, I was also drawn to the uniqueness of the sail design. I wanted to be different and not have a boat that looked like every other boat in the harbor. I finally settled on a 32-foot Sunbird schooner made in England. It has a traditional Western, fiberglass hull and a pair of tan-bark, Chinese junk sails.

Almost everyone who stops to stare at my rig admires the unusual design but quickly turns the discussion to her poor light-air windward performance. I don't disagree with this assessment, although I get a little frustrated and defensive having to explain that there is much more to voyaging than going to windward. I feel that the positive qualities of the rig far outweigh this concern.

Over years of coastal cruising I have learned to live with the fact that anywhere from 20% to 40% of passage time is spent under engine power or motorsailing. On my two transatlantic crossings, the engine was used more sparingly, and the sailing was slow but kindly. Even after an unfortunate dismasting of the foresail in mid-ocean, 1,500 miles from the Canaries, the remaining sail provided a safe, albeit slower, passage to the Bahamas.

In his wonderfully illustrated book, Ships of China, Valentin Sokoloff writes, "A hand-crafted sailing ship is a living thing with its own character and charm. A Chinese junk is even more so, and no wonder, as it was invented by an offspring of a nymph and a rainbow. His name was Fu Hsi, the first great ruler, who, they say, was born in 2852 B.C. Then Lu Pan, founder of the art of carpentry, greatly improved the original design. Further generations of Chinese shipwrights gave junks their final seaworthy and practical shape."

The evolution of sailboat design in the West has taken place over a much shorter period of time and a much different tack than in China. Today the epitome of Western boat design is represented by America's Cup contenders and similar high-tech racing boats. Variations of the Bermuda rig (also known as Marconi rig, for the inventor's tall radio transmitting tower) is seen on virtually every racing and voyaging boat to come off the showroom floor. For the most part, the emphasis in these designs is speed and, particularly, performance to windward. But there are obviously other aspects of sailing, especially voyaging; that is where the Chinese rig comes into its own.

The distinct advantage of the Chinese balanced-lug rig is in shorthanded, comfortable voyaging. Modern junk rigs have married the ancient designs with new materials, replacing bamboo and grass mats with fiberglass and Dacron. The resulting modern rig can be easily handled with less strength and endurance and without leaving the safety of the cockpit. Sailing with this rig can be relaxed, enjoyable, and safe without the high working loads of more popular triangular sails with their taut sheets and strenuous winching. The junk rig is easily reefed in strong winds and easily balanced for self-steering vanes and for lower loads on the tiller or wheel.

At first sight the rig's unusual appearance is confusing to Western eyes. However, it is extraordinarily simple, clever, and easy to handle. The balanced-lug sails have full-length fiberglass battens that are laced across the width of the sail from luff to leech, as shown in the accompanying illustration. Each of the battens divides the sail into separate panels. The top batten is the yard, a heavier batten than the others because it carries the full weight of the sail. The bottom batten is the boom. It carries very little load and, therefore, needs to be no larger than the other battens.

The head of the sail is laced to the yard, which is hauled up by the halyard. The halyard is a multi-part block system to reduce the effort of hauling the sail. No winches are needed with this system, and the halyard can be hauled from the cockpit. The sail is held against the mast by a series of batten parrels. The sail always lies on one side of the mast and extends a short distance forward of the mast. This is what makes it a balanced lug rig, similar to a balanced rudder with a small area in front of the rudder stock. On one tack the sail lies directly on the mast. On the other tack it is constrained by the batten parrels. Multiple topping lifts, or lazy jacks, are tied off at the boom and create a cradle for the sail when reefed or completely lowered.

Two additional parrel lines are led back to the cockpit to control the fore and aft position of the sail. The yard parrel is used to hold the yard snugly to the mast. This is most important when the sail is reefed and would have a tendency to swing aft of the mast. The yard parrel brings the sail forward. Similarly, the luff parrel is used to prevent the sail from going too far forward and maintains moderate tension on the luff of the sail. Between these two parrel lines, the sail is kept in correct position, especially when reefed.

Simply lowering the halyard any distance reefs the sail. The more the halyard is lowered, the more panels are reefed. It acts like venetian blinds that are easily raised or lowered. As the panels are reefed, they and their battens lie in the cradle formed by the lazy jack system. The weight of the lowered battens prevents the sails from billowing out between the lazy jacks. The sails are automatically held in check no matter how many battens are lowered. This makes it unnecessary to tie reefing points or bundle the sail with sail ties.

As soon as the halyard is slackened, the sheets become loose, and the sail begins to spill wind. However, unlike other sails, it will not flog and damage itself if the sheet is loosened. The full-length battens make the rig much quieter without the loud banging associated with flogging sails. In light, downwind sailing, the battens also prevent the sails from collapsing periodically, thereby reducing sail wear and noise. A single sheet system controls the boom and all the other battens through a series of spans (sheetlets). This provides control over the entire leech of the sail, unlike a Bermuda rig where sheet control is only over the boom or clew of the sail. Therefore, the load on the tail end of the multi-part sheet is light and easily handled without a winch. The portion of the balanced-lug sail forward of the mast performs an important function, contributing to the safety and comfort of the crew. When wind and boat direction conspire to create an accidental gybe, the small portion of sail before the mast counters the wind's effect on the remaining sail area and dampens the motion of the sail. This slows the otherwise violent tendency of the sail to flip to the other side of the boat. Both intentional and accidental gybing become much less hair-raising. The free-standing masts of a junk-rigged boat are typically designed to be somewhat flexible. They bend when winds get too strong, and spill the wind in the process. This bending reduces the heeling of the boat and acts as an automatic shock absorber in sudden gusts that would otherwise severely heel a conventional stayed-mast boat.

The Chinese junk-rigged boat is not for everyone. For most people, the Bermuda rig, with its conventional triangular sails, is more popular, either for the look or the windward performance. However, for those seeking a more effortless sailing experience with a unique traditional rig, the junk sail plan is an interesting alternative. n

Michael L. Frankel is a freelance writer who lives in Orange Park, Fla., when he isn't voyaging aboard his 32-foot Chinese junk-rigged Sunbird, Sabra.