Long distance cruiser Steve Brown shares his experiences of sailing with his AeroRig aboard his Bestevaer 60C schooner, Novara

Sailing an AeroRig

It was Armin Fischer, then skipper of the 100-year-old Fife Classic Sumurun that first coined the phrase the ‘wobbly rig’ when I spoke to him about the AeroRig on the dock at Wayfarer Marine in Camden, Maine, writes Steve Brown.

Armin had sailed a single-masted AeroRig across the Atlantic and was explaining how it had taken the crew some time to get used to the movement of the rig at the masthead.

I had just bought the AeroRig schooner, Novara, so had two ‘wobbly rigs’ and other than a short sea trial in light winds and sub zero conditions I had never sailed an AeroRig before.

Novara and her rig

I had seen Novara on the brokerage pages and although her pedigree was undoubted – Dykstra-designed, ice-strengthened hull, built in aluminium by Damstra in Holland – few, if any, sailors looking for a boat understood her unconventional rig, so she remained unsold.

But with our own four-year circumnavigation completed I turned my attention to finding my ‘icebreaker’ to take me on some high latitude adventures and Novara had been built for the job and was still available.

An AeroRig yacht

The forward sail balances the mainsail and rescues the sheet loads. Credit: Andrew Cassels

Weeks of research into the original concept, a copy of Dykstra’s original tank testing carried out at the Wolfson Institute in Southampton, plus a number of articles all praising the AeroRig in action, including one from the otherwise traditionalist Tom Cunliffe, convinced me that Novara was worth a look.

Her first owner had already taken her to 80˚ north to Svalbard and the Antarctic.

Arctic sailor Amyr Klink had built the second AeroRig schooner Paratii 2 for his polar adventures, and Cath Hew was taking charter guests back and forth across Drake Passage to the Antarctic peninsula in her AeroRig Icebird.

Getting going

It was going to be a steep learning curve, our first expedition together was to be through the North West Passage to Kodiak in Alaska, and once through the ice-choked passage we then had the little matter of 3,000 miles through the Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering Seas to contend with; perhaps I should take friend’s advice and start with something a little easier?

But no, life’s clock was ticking and it was time to head north.

The key to learning how to sail her was to understand the principle of the ‘balanced rig’, the relationship between the small self-tacking blade jib and the mainsail.

A schooner with an AeroRig

Sailing an AeroRig does require some specific sailing skills. Principally, the key thing to remember is that every force through the mainsail is countered by the headsail. A significant boon in this is that as the wind increases, should you reduce mainsail by reefing, leaving full headsail out will mean there is little sheet load increase even in strong winds

The balance created slows down the rotation of the mast, stops crash gybes and significantly reduces forces on the spars and deck gear.

In the cockpit, Novara has only two Lewmar 55-powered winches for the two mainsheets, halyards and jib and on the foremast two small winches for the halyards and jib sheet.

It was also necessary to understand the need for balance between the (aft) mainmast and the foremast to reduce loads on rudder and autopilot.

Get it right and she would sail in a straight line, get it wrong and she would wander around the ocean with the forces on each mast in conflict.

It was soon apparent that a little more sail up front was what was needed to create this balance, making life easy for the helmsman or autopilot.

The previous owner had fitted two huge roached mainsails, the result of a collaboration between himself, Gerry Dykstra and Robbie Doyle with the intention of improving Novara’s downwind performance.

AeroRig on a yacht

Due to the additional structure required, masts are usually made from carbon to reduce their weight

This had been achieved but the extra 30% of mainsail area meant that, in anything other than light airs upwind, Novara was overpowered.

Being slow on the uptake, it took me a while to figure out that reefing down much sooner than I would have done with a conventional rig resulted in a faster, smoother ride with less stress on the boat and her crew.

Following on from our successful North West Passage transit, our journey through the Beaufort, Chuchki and Bering Seas in the Arctic highlighted the need for a third reef in both mains and this then gave more flexibility regarding sail plan and the ability to go through the gears, first, second and third reefs, and finally to go down another gear using the Trysails that sit in the Stakpaks and run on their own tracks.

I also quickly found that it was not necessary to go to windward to hoist or lower sails, simply weather-cock the booms.

The carbon-fibre masts and integral booms were built by Carbon Spars in the UK, a company that eventually morphed into Magma Structures who have gone on to build the masts on the Maltese Falcon and the Black Pearl, the biggest free-standing rigs in the world.

The amount of flex at the masthead (hence ‘wobbly rig’) takes time to get used to, but the carbon mast and integral booms are incredibly strong, as are both the mast base and deck bearings.

My two earlier boats were a conventional rigged sloop and a cutter, but I have now sailed Novara over 35,000 miles, through some of the roughest, toughest seas on the planet.

The rig is ideal for these conditions; stresses are lower, with no standing rigging there are far fewer components to go wrong and the ability to depower the boat in seconds by weather-cocking the sails is a huge safety factor.

Are there any downsides?

The upfront costs are greater than a conventional rig.

Not everyone is a fan of the aesthetics of those big booms and a conventional sloop would have the edge when hard on the wind, but Novara’s AeroRig and schooner set up provides great flexibility in a variety of conditions.

How an AeroRig works

The AeroRig is a trademark name for a type of freestanding rotating rig. It does not rely on stays or rigging in a conventional sense being without shrouds etc.

Due to their unstayed nature the masts tend to need to be built rather stronger than their conventional counterparts. As such, they can be heavier than a usual rig setup.

AeroRig on a yacht. Once sails are correctly set up they need little adjustment

The slot between headsail and mainsail is key to power generation

Modern materials counter this somewhat and, as such, many of these types of rig are built from strong, fatigue-resistant carbon fibre.

The carbon mast exists alongside an integral long boom extending fore and aft of the mast, on which both main and jib are set.

An advantage is that the sails always work correctly, as the sailplan is adjusted when sailing via the mainsheet rather than adjusting each sail individually.

Although the mainsheet is the only control, when actually sailing the mainsheet loads are very light, due to the counterbalancing effect offered by the jib.

This setup makes the whole thing much easier to sail shorthanded than conventionally rigged boats, even allowing the mainsheet, should the wind increase suddenly, to be let out until the whole system is weathercocked, preventing overloading of the mast and providing time to reef or wait out a brief squall with little potential for rig failure.

The wobbly nature of the rig is not just a byproduct of the mast being unstayed but a designed feature.

The flexing provides the ability to self-unload by flexing and also helps to self regulate stresses and reduce likelihood of breakage.