Canoe Sailing Rigs

Sailing Canoes are broadly defined

Sailing canoes, in general, are not a single class racing boat, with strict rules about what type of rig or sail you must use. Although there are sailing dinghies designed for cruising, many  are primarily used for racing around a course of buoys at a sailing club. They need to have a standard boat and rig for each class, so that they can race together on equal terms – at least regarding the equipment.

Sailing canoes do not need to follow any racing tradition and are more suited to cruising. They can be easily transported and launched at different bodies of water, as well as being capable of doing multi-day trips in more exposed locations. And they can still be used for some light-hearted racing, for a bit of fun occasionally!

This freedom is liberating and gives the canoe sailor a chance to experiment with different sail types and various sail sizes, to find something that suits them best.

A long way from ‘one design’ rules

With sailing canoes, there is not a one size that fits all. The young athletic sailor might want to sit out with a powerful rig and sail fast and aggressively, whilst an older less active sailor might want to sit in the bottom of the canoe and have a much less demanding rig that will look after them.

With this freedom of choice also comes some responsibility. Canoe sailors often cruise in company with other canoe sailors. We aim to be self sufficient and look after our own safety, but we also have a duty of care to others that we sail with. It is tempting to get into an ‘arms race’ with other sailors, to get a faster more powerful rig, to show off your prowess and leave others behind. Equally it is possible to have a very small rig that doesn’t perform well and doesn’t allow you to keep up with other sailors. And this can end up with no-one to go sailing with.

In general we should aim for a rig that is easy to manage, easy to reef when the wind picks up, does not interfere with paddling if the wind dies, easy to remove for passing under bridges etc and generally one that looks after you. Below are a few types that we have seen in the Open Canoe Sailing Group. We are a UK based group so most of these are available in the UK. We have seen a few rigs from other parts of Europe and the USA, so it is possible to look further afield for something that might suit.

Sail area can be measured in square feet or in square meters. Roughly 10 sqft =1sqm

25sq ft Standing Lugsail

This 25sq ft Standing Lugsail is a good entry level sailing rig for the canoeist. This is a Solway Dory Expedition Rig. It comes with a mast, yard and boom that are all 6ft long. The sail can stow away by rolling it around the boom and yard, so that with the mast it makes a small portable package. This will easily fit inside the canoe when not sailing so will not interfere with paddling. It is small enough that it is easily manageable, steering with the paddle, and small enough not to need reef points. The sail shape is very controllable, having an adjustable outhaul on the boom to alter the draft or curve of the sail. It also has a kicker on the boom which can be tensioned to control twist in the head of the sail – important when running downwind.

Balanced Lugsail Ketch

Lugsails are a good way to carry sail on a canoe. The masts are shorter than for triangular sails and the sail can be easily dropped into the canoe when not needed. This rig uses a 30 sq ft mainsail with a 14 sq ft mizzen. The combined sail area of 44 sq ft will give plenty of power for a good performance. By putting each sail near the ends of the canoe it leaves the centre free for the sailors. The 44 sq ft area is set lower down than putting the area in a single sail. This reduces the overturning moment of the sailing rig without reducing power.

The main has a set of reefing points that reduce the area to around 20 sq ft, so the total area is then only 34 sq ft and set at a fairly low level, making the rig easily manageable even in a strong wind (by pulling the mizzen in hard, the canoe should sit head to wind whilst the main is dropped to put in a reef). It is also possible to drop one of the rigs and sail under just one – useful for getting home if you get caught out in very strong winds. 

Once you are using this size of sail area it is best to control the canoe with a rudder.

Large Balanced Lugsail main with small Batwing mizzen

Once you have a rig that will reef down in strong winds it is possible to carry more sail area. In this example the main sail was made by a local sailmaker with the spars and mizzen made by the owner. The larger sail area enables it to have good sailing ability in light winds. This balanced Lugsail main is 44 sq ft (but with two lines of reefing points to bring the area down to 30 sq ft or 15 sq ft). Add to that a 14 sq ft mizzen and you have a combined sail area of 58 sq ft. Again the mizzen can be pulled in tight to hold the canoe head to wind whilst you drop the main to put in a reef.

Bermudan rig

The Bermudan rig was first introduced to the group by John Bull back in 1990. With its longer leading edge, and fully controllable shape, the Bermudan is a more efficient sail for going close upwind. At the moment it is the most popular rig sailed by OCSG members.

Not only is it a very efficient upwind sail, it also is the most efficient when it comes to reefing. The sail is reefed by rolling some of the area away by turning the mast. First you have to slacken and unhook the kicker, then slacken the outhaul, turn the mast two or more times, re-attach the kicker and re-adjust the outhaul. This can be done in just a few seconds and with practice can be done one handed whilst you control the canoe with the tiller and sheet in the other hand. The speed and ease with which this can be done means that it is easy to change the sail area to suit the conditions when the wind is squally and changeable.

Given that there are around 10 turns of the mast before the sail is furled completely, there are many different sail sizes available for different wind conditions. A lugsail on the other hand only has one or two reefs and each one takes much longer to put in.

Small Bermudan

For the canoeist who wants to steer with the paddle, the small Bermudan is a good choice. This one is a 35 sq ft Expedition Bermudan from SD. With the larger size and more efficient shape it is a more powerful rig for the paddle sailor than the Lugsail. With its roller reefing it is also very adjustable for the wind conditions. It doesn’t stow inside the canoe as easily as a small Lugsail but when the wind dies it is easy to fully reef the sail and paddle with the rig left standing. It is also feasible to roll the sail right away, remove the boom and lay the mast along the gunwale.

Fully Battened Bermudan

In the late 2000’s a few members experimented with fully battened Bermudan rigs. This modern style of rig is theoretically more powerful than the simple roll round the mast Bermudan and promised more performance with a similar sail area. Indeed they did sail well and for a while we thought they might become popular. They didn’t perform as well on expeditions though, as like the lugsails, it took time to put in the reefs and in changeable conditions people tended to reef heavily in the squalls and not bother to take them out in the lulls. They then couldn’t keep up with the simple Bermudans. They were also more expensive to have made and the spars had to be home built as off-the-shelf rigs weren’t available.

Other styles of sailing rig

Once you look online at canoe sailing around the world you will become aware of other styles of rig that can be popular. Over the years the OCSG has seen a few people try out these styles and it is always nice to see people experimenting and bringing them to meets. Rigs such as Lateens, Crab Claws, Sprit Sails have all been tried but none of them are good for reefing. Here in the UK where we have a maritime climate with regular Atlantic depressions and their strong gusty winds, rigs that do not reef easily are not popular.

Researching online about canoe sailing rigs it is now possible to see “experts” who make their own sails out of polytarp etc. To the untrained eye these can indeed look like a sail and their owners may tell you how well they work (for a year or two!). Professionally made sails deliver much more than can be achieved by cutting out a flat shape from polytarp.  A proper sail is a 3D shape that presents an aerodynamic wing shape to the wind. It is made up from multiple panels of extremely stable sailcloth. Each panel is shaped with curved edges, so that when sewn together form a fully curved shape. The reason that home made sails declined in the group is that they usually didn’t work well enough and the sailors kept getting left behind. A professionally made sail is a good investment that will give years of service. They sometimes come up for sale second hand on our MARKETPLACE.