Roger Hughes explains exactly what a brigantine square-rigger is and why he swapped his masts to turn his ketch into a square rigger

People have asked why I decided to change a perfectly good ketch into a staysail schooner? It’s a reasonable question. The simple answer is that I always wanted a brigantine.

Traditionally, a brigantine is a schooner with the foremast square-rigged and all other sails fore and aft. The name comes from the brigands who pirated their trade along the Mediterranean Barbary Coast – which is what I might have to resort to after spending all my money on my 51ft yacht, Britannia.

A brigantine is the ideal small boat cruising rig. It offers the best of all worlds: capable of hauling tolerably close to the wind with its fore and aft sails; having fast reaching capabilities and unbelievable downwind stability using the squaresails.

Also, like a ketch, the sails are divided into smaller manageable sizes. Squaresails have been used on boats for centuries, and when the wind is astern or a few points either side, it is a very efficient way to propel a craft of any size.

I have sailed on a few square riggers and learned the advantages and shortfalls of the rig. Anyone with Bermudan sails knows how tricky it can be to hold a steady course when running before the wind, especially when a big sea is rolling up astern. Even with whisker poles and preventers the helmsman still needs to keep a keen eye on the wind and his course to prevent the sails collapsing, then filling with a resounding crack, imposing great strain on the sail.

With squaresails correctly braced there is absolutely none of this and the boat becomes very stable, yet the course can fluctuate widely. There is no concern about gybing or broaching, and the helmsman or autopilot will have little difficulty in keeping a steady downwind run. The squaresail is a fine downwind sail, and the boat will also roll a lot less.

Britannia’s new schooner rig boasts a spread of up to five sails, all furling and controlled from the cockpit

Furling and reefing

There are, however, a few significant problems with having a whopping great sheet of canvas billowing out from a yard high up a mast. Those problems are furling, unfurling and reefing.

This has, traditionally, precluded the use of squaresails on vessels that don’t have large crews, such as sail training ships with lots of youngsters prepared to scale the ratlines and edge along flimsy foot-ropes to secure or release the canvas. Even if they’re harnessed to the yard it is still a dangerous operation.

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But what if you could easily furl, unfurl and reef a squaresail from the safety of the deck or cockpit, with no-one having to go aloft? That would bring a totally different perspective to their use on a short-handed sailing boat.

I spent two years designing and building such a system, with a squaresail that rolls up inside the yard. It’s not unlike a roller-furling mainsail, but mounted horizontally with control lines coming back to the cockpit and operated by just one person.

Main and mizzen

Changing the rig meant moving the positions of the existing main and mizzen masts – swapping them over so the mizzen went forward and the main went aft. Then, just to complicate things, the forward mast would be termed the ‘fore’, but the after mast would still be the ‘main’.

It also meant repositioning all the chain plates to new positions. Luckily these were simply bolted through the hull with stainless half-inch bolts, and were changed after the masts were moved.

Her ketch rig before the masts were swapped

Breaking free

With the crane lift struggling (see right) a crowd began to gather. They were astonished when I appeared on deck with a hefty electric saw and started to merrily saw my mast in half. The crane took the weight and as the last cut went through, the mast broke free and lifted a mere 3in.

The yard crew lowered the swaying stick onto a forklift truck, and off it went to be laid down on trestles. The mizzen was then easily lifted off its deck-stepped location and laid next to the main. The entire operation took just two hours, but it seemed a lot longer to me. I was very relieved when it was over.

Hydrochloric acid

I had to think of a way to pull the remaining mast section out of the boat.

I decided to pour hydrochloric acid down the pipe to dissolve the corrosion that was still gluing the mast to the keel. For a while the boat looked like it had a steam engine, with fumes coming up out of the deck. I then set up two wooden blocks each side of the mast and placed a trolley jack across the gap.

Forklift truck carrying away the sawn-off mast

I drilled holes at either end of the mast stub and shackled a chain from one hole to the other and over the lifting end of the jack. It took all of the jack’s power to break the joint at the mast step, which finally separated with a disappointingly indifferent ‘pop’.

Splicing pieces

The mainmast would now come through the saloon, but I didn’t want a 10in by 7in mast obstruction right in the middle of the cabin, so I spliced a 4in square compression post to the mast using splicing pieces supplied by the mast maker. This extended the mast by 11ft to the bottom of the boat where it locates in a heavy wide stainless steel spreader plate directly on the keelson.

Fore-course sail

The new foremast was now stepped forward of where the ketch mainmast had been, so I made a new mast step by pouring cement into a wooden mould directly on to the keelson. I also extended the foremast height by 8ft to make a wider slot between the jib and fore staysail. The taller foremast also increased the jib luff by some 8ft, which improves her upwind performance.

The mainmast spliced to a new section below deck

I also needed a taller foremast to be able to carry a second square topsail above the forecourse if I ever got around to it in the future. The foremast was extended with a length of the same section, using splices. (The lower squaresail of any vessel is called the ‘course’, consequently the squaresail on Britannia is the forecourse sail).

Navy blue primer

All the spars were repainted with aluminium primer undercoat, then two coats of undercoat, and around seven layers of Interlux Navy Blue two-part polyurethane paint. The original spruce spreaders were worn and cracked, so I bought longer aluminium spreaders for both masts. The spreaders on the foremast were also raked back 30 degrees to allow for bracing the yard.

Climbing steps

I fitted a Facnor roller furling system to the back of the mainmast, which converted it into a roller furling mainsail. Originally only the jib was roller furled but I wanted to control all the sails from the cockpit so I converted both the fore staysail and the ’tweenmast staysail to roller furling. That made all five sails roller-furling.

I also riveted aluminium climbing steps up both masts at 20in centres. They do increase windage, but are very convenient for singlehanded mast work.

Re-stepping the mainmast in its new position further aft with the new compression post visible

Re-stepping the masts

Re-stepping both masts was simply the reverse of lifting them out and went relatively smoothly. As Britannia is a UK-registered vessel I placed the traditional antique British penny under both masts before they were lowered onto their mast step.

Waterline trim

I was a bit concerned about whether the boat’s balance would change by switching the mast positions, but nothing appeared amiss at the waterline once masts were finally in place. There are advantages in having a heavy long keel cruising boat with a 14ft beam – you can add more or less any weight you like with no ill effect.

Initially the masts were stayed with ropes in place of the steel rigging that had yet to be measured and ordered. To do this I had to go up both masts and measure from each wire attachment point down to their turnbuckles.

The original wires were 5/16in and 1/4in, but I ordered new wires using 3/8in stainless throughout. I also installed twin mainmast backstay chain plates, instead of the single one for the original mizzen.

Re-chromed cleats and rigging screws ready to go back on the boat

I always believe in a belt and braces approach for an ocean cruising boat. While waiting for the standing rigging to be delivered I also had all the rigging screws and turnbuckles chrome plated, along with the deck winches and cleats. These were then connected to the masts.

Within a few weeks the new wires arrived and I was hoisted up the mast a dozen or so times bolting them into place. Thank goodness for the new Maxwell electric windlass, which made the job effortless for the deck crew.

With help, I manoeuvred the long yard into position across the boat and set up the various control lines. Then up she went on the track that I’d riveted to the front of the mast. The combined yard and sail weighed 135lbs (61kg) but it was easy using the windlass.

To separate and identify all the lines coming down the masts I made four teak pin-rails and turned 16 belaying pins on a lathe. These make for a very clean deck with no loose lines lying around and also add a traditional air to an otherwise modern boat.

We quickly discovered another life affirming advantage of having a yard on the foremast. If the skipper and crew fancy a refreshing gin and tonic around noontime, but the sun still hasn’t managed to rise above the yardarm, we simply lower the yard a bit – yet another problem solved!

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