Traditional Small-Boat Sails

Make your modern sailboat look (and work) like a salty classic.

The BookThe Golden Age of Sail is long past, sadly, and much of its lore is nearly extinct. Sailboats now almost uniformly use the Bermudan sloop rig—a triangular jib and a triangular mainsail. But that rig evolved mainly to meet esoteric yacht racing measurement rules. It is not necessarily the most efficient or effective rig. This book lets sailors rediscover the practical advantages—and the esthetic delights—of such configurations as the sprit rig, the gaff rig, the lugsail, and the gunter rig. It also includes valuable information on marlinspike work like rope — whipping and eye-splicing; and tips on converting your modern sailboat to a traditional rig.

The Working Guide to Traditional Small-Boat Sails:
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What People Are Saying »

The following is part of what the British publication Water Craft has to say about The Working Guide to Traditional Small-Boat Sails

"The ‘traditional’ rigs here are the kind you’ll find on the clinker plywood designs of Iain Oughtred and the like; rigs with polyester sails and running rigging. Tufnol blocks and stainless steel shackles. ‘Modern traditional boats’, if you’ll forgive the phrase. Similarly, there’s a nice mix of old and new the manner the material is presented: old in the cleanliness of the page design; new in the extensive use of colour close-up photographs to illustrate details of the rigs. Highly recommended."

» Read the entire review in the March/April issue of Water Craft.

Here’s an excerpt from Robin Lincoln’s February 2007 review in WoodenBoat Magazine on The Working Guide to Traditional Small-Boat Sails

“This book will be of particular interest to small boat builders: home-based builders or professionals who want to learn more about sail and rig options. It would also be of interest to small-boat sailors who want to change or improve their rigs or to rowers who would like to add the option of sail to their craft.

Nichols offers detailed information on the low-tech versatility of traditional rigs and sails. He draws on history and tradition, and encourages the reader to take delight in the process of experimenting in order to create the best rig for the boat and the conditions in which the boat will be used. The author’s approach to the subject connects the sailor, sail shape, sail materials, sail and rig construction, and configuration.

Nichols suggests that below a certain boat size, traditional rigs make a lot more sense than the more conventional Bermudian rig. He examines the sliding gunter rig; the spirit rig; and standing, dipping, and balance lug rigs, including the Chinese lug. Last, but not least, he takes a look at gaff rigs for small boats.

The evaluation of rig and sail options are based on simplicity, efficiency, ease and safety of reefing, setting up and controlling sail shape, hardware, and cost. Nichols encourages the owner/builder to experiment with low-tech, simply rigs and sails that don’t require standing rigging and complicated hardware and are easy to build, maintain, and repair.

There is also a discussion of basic marlinspike techniques that will aid the sailor rigging a small boat. Included in the chapter is how to whip lines, accomplish a three-strand rope-splice, and seize a thimble. There is also information on where to find some of the tools that make up a useful ditty bag. Different alternatives for setting up spars, halyards, and sheets are shown. A variety of ways of attaching the sails to the spars are presented.”

» See the entire review in WoodenBoat issue #194 February 2007.

Below is a review by Gary Blankenship & Helen Snell – Tallahassee, Florida – USA…

In my fantasy life, I’m such a well-known nautical personality that publishers flood me with advance copies of sailing books, looking for those clever, pithy quotes to plaster on the dust jacket.

Alas, as in so many things, reality is well short of fantasy (“You got that right, buster,” my wife is quick to chip in). But when Chuck Leinweber sent along a copy of David L. Nichols’ book, “The Working Guide to Traditional Small-Boat Sails, A How-to Book for Builders and Owners,” it seemed appropriate to indulge fantasy and pretend the publisher had asked me for some blurbs.

For this book, they just seem to roll off the keyboard. Such as: “This is a concise and thorough compendium on using low-cost and efficient traditional rigs, the kind that not only look better but work better on small boats than their modern counterparts.” Or this one, geared for Duckworks readers: “Shorty would reach for this book when he decides to put a sliding gunter on a PD Racer, or Rob would grab it when he wants to redo his Light Scooner with a balanced lug foresail and sprit main.” Or my favorite: “This will become the classic book on traditional rigs for small boats.”

You may have deduced that I really like this book.

You’re right!

Published by Breakaway Books and only 96 pages long, Nichols has packed an amazing amount of information into this well-illustrated volume.

It starts with the basics of sail shape, covers fundamentals of marlinspike skills (I lust after the rigging knife shown in one picture), and then has an excellent chapter that explains how to figure where the mast(s) and sail(s) should be located in a boat, whether starting from scratch or retrofitting a traditional rig on an existing hull. Then it proceeds with separate chapters on the sliding gunter, sprit, standing and balanced lugs, Chinese lug, and gaff rig. A final chapter looks at esoteric variations for some rigs and unusual rigs.

Although I have been sailing for almost 30 years (including stayed sloop, lateen, sprit, gaff, and dipping and balanced lugs) and have read hundreds of books, it seemed like I was learning something new at every turn of a page.

For example, in Chapter One, I knew that draft in a sail produces its drive and that the ratio of the depth of the draft to the length of the sail is called its chord. But did you know that the chord of most sails falls in range of 1:10 (one foot of draft for every 10 foot of length) and 1:13, with 1:10 being considered on the “full” side and 1:13 being consider on the “flat” side? I didn’t either.

Chapter Two shows how to whip a line, seize a line around a thimble, and do an eye splice in three-strand line. Whipping and seizing involve wrapping twine tightly around rope and can be rough on the bare hands. Nichols eases the pain by revealing (also unknown to me) that there are two types of sailor’s sewing palms. The more common is the seaming palm. But there is also a roping palm that has a hard ear over the thumb that allows the twine to be carried over it and tension applied without tearing up your hands. It’s now high on my list of desired gear.

And so it goes, chapter after chapter, as Nichols looks at the various traditional rigs. The sprit rig is a model of simplicity with one mast and one peak sprit. But some sailors want to add a boom. Nichols shows several variations and also discusses the pros and cons of the change. (One of the book’s many strengths; Nichols always gives the advantage and disadvantage of any rig, rigging or variation.)

Figuring out the center of effort for a Chinese lug defies the commonly used methods because of the sail’s odd shape. Nichols shows you how to do it. Don’t want to use a traditional beaded parrel on your lug sail yard? Nichols has a neat variation using a line with a thimble (which is one reason in Chapter Two he shows how to seize a thimble in a line) and the halyard that tensions itself as the sail is raised.

Finding the center of effort of a Chinese lug can be difficult because of the odd shape, but Nichols provides step-by-step guidance.

And we’ve barely touched the rigging nuggets waiting to be mined. Much of the high accomplishment of this book is due to the amount of information Nichols was able to pack in such a modest length. His writing is economical, straightforward, and easy to follow. Combined with a generous number of high-quality color photographs and black-and-white drawings, it makes the book and its information easy to follow.

There is no bibliography, but throughout, Nichols does a good job of citing other sources where an interested reader can find more information. (Both he and I are admirers of Hervey Garrett Smith’s writings — and Heaven knows Smith probably mentioned the roping palm somewhere and I missed it.)

It’s also important to know what this book is not. It is not a bible with all possible information and permutations covered. It does not give you scantlings for a mast, yard, and boom for, say, a 150-square foot gaff sail, or for the spars for an 80-square-foot sprit sail. That’s not its purpose. As the title says, it’s a handbook. It will show you the variations of rigs available for your small boat and should allow you to figure out which one you want and where it should go in your hull. I suspect most readers of this book would already know what the spar scantlings should be, or where to find that information. Others can consult the sources given by Nichols.

I like this book because it is not overloaded with such minutiae. It is fact packed, interesting, well illustrated and a good read. Consequently, for my money, it’s the first book someone looking into traditional rigs should consult.

Having said that, there are a couple points to be made. One is that throughout the book, Nichols refers to the normal stayed Marconi-style sails that populate production boats as the “Bermudian” rig. Most authorities call it the “Bermudan” rig. (I know, I know, talk about nitpicking . . . .)

The second comes from Nichols chapter on locating masts and sails. If you have done much reading, you know this involves figuring out where the center of effort (COE) of the sail or sails are and placing that in relationship to the underwater center of lateral resistance (CLR). Some designers hold that locating the COE just aft of the CLR produces the desirable slight weather helm for sailboats. Nichols calls for locating the COE five to 10 percent of the waterline length in front of the CLR. In his essay on the subject, boat designer Jim Michalak notes in his leeboard boats he usually places the COE slightly behind the CLR, but adds that for fin keel boats some designers have the COE forward of CLR. I’m not the expert to sort this out, but merely want to note the discrepancy for the reader. And it’s also good to listen to Nichols’ comments on locating a rig, where he notes there are other factors that affect balance, including weight and location of crew and gear.

“Finding the balance for a sailboat is really a compromise of various factors that are in a constant state of change, and allowing for some adjustment once the boat is launched is very important,” Nichols writes. “If this is done, then the process will be a satisfying and successful change.”

Like everything else in “The Working Guide to Traditional Small-Boat Sails,” it’s sound advice.