My camp-cruising boat is rigged as a lug yawl, with a powerful and well-behaved pair of sails that is ideal for solo sailing. My cruising grounds tend to have very light morning winds during the summer months, and despite my boat’s ample sail area I have looked for ways to improve light-air performance. Enter the mizzen staysail.
I first saw one in use on the Maine coast, where Harris Bucklin and his wife Barbara were flying one in ghosting conditions on their Ian Oughtred-designed Caledonia yawl. The blue sail was not only eye catching, it was also a demonstrably effective bit of sailcloth, providing a notable gain in speed over several other Caledonia yawls sailing in company with them.
When I contacted my sailmaker, Stuart Hopkins of Dabbler Sails, he was enthusiastic and replied “I’ve had four yawl-rigged boats through the years, and every one of them had mizzen staysails—lovely, useful things.” A few weeks later I had taken delivery of the new mizzen staysail and was out on Lake Champlain in 5–7-mph winds, doing sea trials aboard WAXWING, my Vivier-designed Ilur.
The staysail is 40 sq ft of 3-oz cloth, which represents a 30percent increase in sail area over the original rig’s 133 sq ft. Deployment is straightforward. I had lashed a small block to the head of the mizzenmast, and placed a halyard cleat on the mizzen step. I already had four small horn cleats, one at each corner of the cockpit, which are normally used when setting up my boom tent for camping aboard. Once the boat settles in on a reach, I hoist the staysail by its halyard, and take the tack line forward to the cleat on the windward gunwale. The staysail sheet runs from the clew, passing through a low-friction thimble on a Dyneema loop aft that’s dropped over the leeward cleat on the aft gunwale. The staysail sheet can be secured with a small clam cleat within easy reach while I’m at the helm.
Over a series of trial runs with and without the staysail set, the new sail translated into a roughly 10 to 15 percent gain in speed as measured by GPS. The increased speed is noticeable even without GPS. When shooting pictures for this piece, my friend Christophe was the photographer. He sails a Sea Pearl, which has about the same sail area (136 sq ft) as my boat, but with a waterline line almost 6′ longer than the Ilur, usually leaves WAXWING well astern. I was ahead of Christophe as we started out, and I set the mizzen staysail. A few minutes later, the Sea Pearl was still well astern. Christophe hailed me: “Hey, luff up and let me catch you!” I think he might have said that to make me feel good, but the staysail was clearly making a real difference.
My staysail is a low-aspect sail, and doesn’t add noticeable heeling moment to the boat; it doesn’t affect the balance of the helm significantly either. It is a reaching sail, and in the 3-oz fabric, is stiff enough to manage sailing as far upwind as a close reach.
Tacking is easy, even singlehanded. With the boat balanced to sail hands-free, I walk forward, uncleat the tack line, and return aft. I then bundle the staysail to the mizzenmast, and come about. Once the new heading is established, I unbundle the staysail and go forward again to cleat the tack line to the new windward cleat before returning to the helm and trimming the staysail sheet.
The mizzen staysail is a beautiful, effective, and easily managed addition to a yawl or a ketch rig’s quiver. It isn’t a sail I’d deploy in close quarters or when short-tacking in confined environs, but on a longer light air reach, it is indeed a lovely, useful thing.
John Hartmann lives in central Vermont. He built his Ilur dinghy, WAXWING, to sail the 1000 Islands region of the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, and along the coast of Maine. He details the Pythagorean mooring system he used at Nubble beach in the Technique article in our November 2016 issue.
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