Gaff rig sailing in Sydney, Australia

Long-standing OGA Overseas member, Bill Gale, reflects on the future of the gaff rig in Sydney, Australia.

My father, Cliff was a consumate helmsman and had success in Bermudian as well as gaffers, but all his life he was a dedicated gaffer. He designed and built ‘Ranger’ in 1933 and I raced over a period of 77 years in her, sail no. A1. I inherited ‘Ranger’ following his death in 1968. She is now owned by Shaun McKnight, dockmaster at Noakes Boatyard. Some years ago our Governor General awarded me the Order of Australia Medal for contribution to yachting. My role was to introduce many people to ownership, racing and the joy of sailing over a period of 70 years.

It is my firm belief that Gaff rig is superior to Bermudian in every way. My late father was an amateur designer of many boats, he was a consumate Gaffer but not one-eyed. He skippered the Fife 9 metre ‘Josephine’, Bermudian, in the early 1930s with great success and said she was the most exciting boat he ever sailed. Sean Langman, owner of Noakes Boatyard, is competing in the Hobart Race December, 2016 in his 28’ ‘Maluka’. She’s a 28’ version of ‘Ranger’, gaff rigged and designed by my father in the early 1930s for coastal cruising. This will be her third go, the only gaff rigged yacht to complete the course for some 50 years. Her hull was optimised for cruising our coast and near islands, not for boat speed, she is nevertheless vey fast. Sean Langham built ‘Vanity’ early this century. LOD 24’ she is a modernised ‘Ranger’, rig and hull simplified. Timber built, glass sheathed,with a great improvement in ballast ratio, she has sail no. A2. Gaff and sail is attached to the mast by a very heavy track, all halyards lead to on mast winches with clutches. The one advantage of Bermudian rig, simplicity, has been eliminated. ‘Vanity’ very often sails a faster elapsed time while racing than yachts 10’ longer and more, particularly in fresh winds.

Gaffers look a lot better, passing boats often called out compliments as they went by ‘Ranger’. If you have a fat heavy boat it is impossible to get enough area in the mainsail without going so high at the luff in a Bermudian that the boat will not stand up to a heavy wind without reefing and then there is not enough are to drive her through a sea. Because of the low centre of effort gaffers do not need to reef so early, also by scandalising the sail you are still OK in 50 knots. The more vertical leech gives power and ov course you can change sail shape easily by changing the angle of gaff to mast.

Close start for the Ranger fleet Photo: John Jeremy, SASC

Our local 18’, 16’ and 12’ racing skiffs have all abandoned the triangular main and have a horizontal batten, called the gaff batten at the masthead. This rig is in fact a high aspect ratio gaffer, a few skippers persisted with the Bermudian for a while but have now gone to the gaff batten rig. Many boats are suited to a Bermudian and do not need the power of a gaff. In the USA there is a larger class of small stem head boats. JFK owned one, all gaff. Many years ago a few owners went to legendary designers for Bermudian main design, some area as gaff, this was not competitive.

Gaffers are slowly coming back in Sydney. I do not believe Bermudians will ever die away, the rig is very well suited to many hulls. In the late 1920s, early 1930s a larger number of our boats converted to Bermudian, such lighter masts, new sails, often redid the bottoms and were faster, this led to the belief in subsequent decades that gaffers were slow. ‘Cherub’, ‘Ranger’ class replaced her very modern Bermudian rig with a modern gaff, she is faster with this, particularly in strong winds.

Bill Gale at the helm of ‘Rana’ Photo: Dale Wahren, SASC

For 25 years I was the only gaffer racing in the Sydney area, now there are 16, increasing, the future of gaff rig in Sydney is assured.

Best wishes and good sailing to all, Bill Gale
Sydney, Australia