Why the Cutter Rig Sailboat Is My First Choice for Cruising

The cutter rig sailboat has two jibs, the foremost one usually a high-cut yankee set on the forestay and the other a staysail set on an inner forestay. It's a flexible, easy to handle rig, which is why I - along with a lot of other cruising sailors - am such a fan of it.

Alacazam, a cutter, under sail.My boat 'Alacazam' - a cutter - reaching in ideal conditions under yankee, staysail and a reefed mainsail.

Admittedly a cutter rigged sailboat is not quite as efficient to windward as a sloop rigged version, but its other benefits outweigh this small mark against it.

Often both foresails are on furling gears, but I prefer to have a furling gear on the forestay only so that I can get rid of the hanked-on staysail and replace it with a hanked-on storm jib if I need to.

The inner forestay (or cutter stay) exerts a forward load on the mast which has to be resisted. This usually achieved by either aft-intermediate stays or running backstays.

Types of Cutter Rig Sailboats

There are two variants of the cutter rig:~


One where the yankee is set on a bowsprit and the staysail attached to the bow.

This arrangement is normally found on heavy displacement sailboats, as a way of increasing the size of the fore triangle without having to extend the height of the mast.

No Bowsprit

The other where the whole rig is contained inboard, with no bowsprit like the sailboat on the right.

You'll find cutter rigs on sloops, ketches and yawls too.

Examples of these are shown below:~

Tacking a Cutter Rig Sailboat

This is slightly more complicated than with a sloop as you've got two headsails and an extra pair of sheets to deal with when going about. Here's how we do it on Alacazam:~

  • centralise the mainsheet on its track;
  • put the helm over and release the yankee sheet as she goes through the wind;
  • let go the working runner and set the other one;
  • let go the staysail sheet and haul in on the working yankee sheet;
  • haul in on the the staysail sheet;
  • trim the yankee until the telltales are flying nicely, then do the same with the staysail and finally the main.

Many staysails are set on a self-tacking boom, which means that going-about is simplicity itself. However, unless you do a lot of short-tacking with both headsails set, this benefit is outweighed by the additional hardware. In my view, that is!

An Island Packet 380 cutter rigged sailboat'Harmonium', an Island Packet 380 with a staysail set on a self-tacking boom.

The staysail boom may well mean that you won't be able to stow your upturned dinghy on the foredeck. Not that this is an issue in Harmonium's case as she carries her dinghy in davits.

Reducing Sail on a Cutter Rig Sailboat

Reefing a cutter in deteriorating conditions usually goes like this:~

  1. put first reef in the mainsail, then;
  2. put a few rolls in the yankee;
  3. put second reef in the mainsail;
  4. furl the yankee completely;
  5. put third reef in the mainsail.

This will leave you with a deep reefed mainsail and a staysail set on the inner forestay, which should serve you well right up to full gale conditions. It's storm jib and trysail territory after that.

Off The Wind with a Cutter Rig Sailboat

On a reach you'll find it very easy to balance your sailboat perfectly with a cutter rig, such that the windvane self-steering gear will have no difficulty in keeping her on course.

But when the wind drops and falls well aft of the beam the staysail (now blanketed by the mainsail) starts to flap and disturbs any airflow into the yankee, you're effectively sailing under mainsail alone.

With a sloop you'd probably pole the genoa out to windward in these conditions and sail wing-and-wing.

This isn't an option with the cutter rig as you'd be under-canvassed with just a yankee set on the forestay - you'll need a spinnaker, a prospect that doesn't fill some sailboat cruisers' hearts with joy.

On Alacazam we just drop both sails and hoist our colourful asymmetric spinnaker, which is a classy name for a cruising chute.

Alternatively you could turn your cutter into a slutter...

The Slutter Rig

Slutter isn't a formal term - it sounds a bit derogatory - but most cruising sailors will know what's meant by it.

an aluminium cutter rigged sloop sailing in the Caribbean

It's so called because it's a combination of a sloop rig and a cutter rig, the crucial difference being that a furling genoa is set on the forestay in place of the yankee, but no staysail is set (initially) on the inner forestay.

This is a sloop rig at this point, so windward ability isn't compromised at all, and the genoa can be poled out when sailing downwind.

The inner forestay is likely to prevent the genoa blowing through smoothly when you go about, so it's best to roll it in a few turns before you go through the wind.

Reducing Sail on a Slutter

Reefing a slutter in deteriorating conditions might go like this:~

  1. roll a few turns in the genoa
  2. roll a few more turns in the genoa
  3. first reef in the mainsail
  4. roll a few more turns in the genoa
  5. second reef in the mainsail.
  6. furl the genoa completely and hoist the staysail
  7. third reef in the mainsail.

As with the conventional cutter you've now got a deeply reefed main and staysail which will sail through all but the most depressing conditions.

So what's it for you, slutter or cutter rig sailboat? We usually set the cutter rig on Alacazam, as it's a great reaching rig for cruising through the Windward and Leeward Islands of the Caribbean.

Other popular rigs for cruising offshore...

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