For most of the 20th century a ketch rig was a mark of a serious large sailing yacht (see our full article on sailing boats and their rigs) and the envy of many owners of smaller sloop rigged vessels. A key attraction was that splitting the sail plan into smaller units made a lot of sense on boats over 35ft in the days before modern efficient and sophisticated sail handling systems

It’s easy to forget the amount of effort that a large sail used to take to hoist, drop and reef. However, it was this that led legendary British designer, boat builder and writer Uffa Fox to famously declare that 300 square feet (28 square metres) was the biggest sail one person could handle alone. A further advantage of a ketch is at anchor, when the mizzen can be sheeted on hard to hold the boat head to wind, reducing the tendency to roll and to sheer around.

Yawl rigs, with the second mast stepped aft of the rudder post, have smaller mizzen that ketches. Nevertheless they still have a number of advantages over a sloop. For a start, in heavy weather the mainsail can be dropped at a relatively early stage at which it’s still easy to do so and the mizzen can again be used as a steadying sail when anchored. While some very fine yachts were produced with the option of a yawl rig, including the Swan 55, Nicholson 55 and Bowman 46, they were not as popular on this side of the Atlantic as in north America and so fewer are found on the second hand market.

Ketch yawl Westerly 31-32 ketch

Westerly's 31ft ketch range included four models.

Westerly Renown, Longbow, Pentland and Berwick

Ketches were never solely the preserve of the upper echelons of yacht ownership. When boatbuilding was expanding at a rapid rate in the 1970s many of the biggest boat builders had several ketches in their line up of production yachts. Westerly’s 31ft Laurent Giles designed range – the Renown, Longbow, Pentland and Berwick – sold some 900 boats in the early and mid 1970s. The different names referred to whether the boat was a centre or aft cockpit model, and whether it had bilge or fin keels.

All four variants were offered with a ketch rig that had a 54sq ft (5 square metre) mizzen, giving the same overall sail area as the sloop. To accommodate the lower aspect ratio sail plan all the ketches had a short bowsprit that extended the overall length to 32ft 6in. The arrangement made perfect sense before efficient mainsail slab reefing systems became available and before headsail roller furling was commonplace. The downside is that when sailing to windward there’s more windage and weight aloft, so the boat is less efficient, although with a mizzen staysail more sail area can be set on a reaching course.

By today's standards the accommodation is relatively small for a boat of this length, but prices have become very attractive over the past few years, so these are still roomy designs compared to others in the same price bracket. The bulky coachroof has large windows, so the saloon benefits from a lot more natural light than is typical for yachts of this era.

Ketch yawl Swan 65

The Swan 65 Desperado racing during Cowes Week 2015. Photo: Rick Tomlinson/CWL

Swan 65

This is perhaps the most famed ketch rigged yacht of all time, a Sparkmans and Stephens design from an era when a state-of-the-art racing boat would also make a superbly comfortable cruising yacht. The model shot to fame in the first Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race) in 1973/4. Sayula II, the Mexican entry skippered by Ramon Carlin, was one of the first Swan 65s. Despite not being tipped for good results before the start, the team won the first edition of the iconic race. This in turn propelled the design to the forefront of the sailing world as an ultimate yacht to aspire to own. Three boats competed in the next edition of the race, taking three of the top five places and proving without doubt the impressive seaworthiness of the design and build.

While the Swan 65 has much less accommodation volume than a newer boat of the same length, it was fitted out to an extremely high standard and still makes a supremely comfortable long distance cruising yacht and owners tend to hang onto them for a very long time – 45 years in the case of the Carlin family, which still owns Sayula II.

Ketch yawl Amel Super Maramu

Amel's Super Maramu.

Amel Super Maramu

The French market was just as enamoured with the ketch rig, with even the big yards such as Jeanneau and Beneteau including them in their ranges. Amel, arguably the country's best-known yard among serious cruising sailors, has almost exclusively produced yachts with a ketch rig.

Founder Henri Amel contended that a cutter headed ketch was by far the best arrangement for long distance voyaging with a small crew of two to four people. His yachts were designed so that in heavy weather they could be sailed with just the mizzen and staysail. The result was a hugely successful range of blue water cruising yachts that can be found through out the world. One of the yard’s most popular models is the 53ft Super Maramu, which enjoyed an impressive 17 year production run. The company’s enthusiasm for ketch rigs is such that its current designs are all available only as a ketch, with the sole exception of the newly announced Amel 50m which is sloop rigged.

See our article: Four of the best Amel cruising yachts.

Ketch yawl Oyster 46

The Oyster 46 was offered on a semi-custom basis.

Oyster 46

In the 1980s Oyster’s 406, 435 and 46 formed the mainstay of the then young company’s range of serious cruising yachts. Initially the 46 was offered only with a ketch rig, although later boats were sloops. It’s a Holman and Pye design from 1981 and has the distinction of being Oyster’s first deck saloon yacht. This transformed the traditional saloon into a light, bright and inviting area that has since become a signature feature in later designs.

The Oyster 46 was offered on a semi-custom basis, so there were many variations in the deck and accommodation layouts between different boats. Around 25 boats were launched between 1981 and 1990. This model should not to be confused with the later Rob Humphreys designed 46 that was only available with a sloop rig and was built from 2005 to 2012.

Ketch yawl Guppy

Laura Dekker’s Jeanneau Gin Fizz Guppy. Photo: Lighthouse Roter Sand CC BY-SA 3.0.

Jeanneau Gin Fizz

This centre cockpit 37 footer from 1974 set new standards in both speed and accommodation thanks to a longer waterline length, greater beam and lighter displacement than other contemporary designs. It was to prove a popular model, with some 600 boats built in total. It’s also a design whose sea worthiness has been repeatedly proven through a number of successful circumnavigations. This most noteworthy of these is Laura Dekker’s Guppy, in which she completed a singlehanded circumnavigation at the age of 16 to become the youngest person ever to do so.

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Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.