Why bother with a Junk Rig?

(Updated 14 Mar 2015)

This page is here not because I'm an advocate, people should stay with the rig they enjoy. However, if you are not a sailor, you may wonder why we have gone a different path or maybe you are a sailor and are seriously thinking of adopting the junk rig, then this page may help. I am only interested it the few "deal making" attributes, not a huge list of "advantages", however emotive they may or may not be. I hope this page is more factual than subjective, but none the less, these are my opinions only.

Ashiki beating into a light breeze

Simply stated the point of a junk rig is being able to set the sails for all conditions easily from the cockpit without having to go forward.

That's the whole kit and caboodle. I really mean all conditions too, whether its to set a storm sail in a gale, full sail for light conditions or ideal config for downwind running and everything in between by simply reefing from the cockpit. There is no re-rigging and swapping out of the sail plan like needs to be done with a bermudan (the popular triangle shaped sail yacht), the junk sail permanently on the mast does it all. Reefing becomes a spur of the moment decision instead of a "if you are thinking about it, you need to reef now" as on a bermudan since it is a major operation. Reefing the Junk can be done repeatedly just to adjust the speed of the boat. I want fast or slow, no problem because reefing is simply a release of the one line away, shaking out a reef is a haul of one line away. It has become a throttle. I like to reef for wind vane use and shake out a reef when hand steering. Shake a out a reef to windward and reef downwind.

We have sat in the cockpit and watched a squall approach, we were able to reef both sails within 10 seconds before the 40 knots blast was on us. Ashiki heeled only 20˚ in that squall because of our lightning fast sail reduction. The best with other rigs is maybe completely douse a gaff rig, but that is not reefing.

Ashiki sailed 5 hours in company with a similar length cruiser with spinnaker downwind in the Kimberley. It was constant 4 to 5 knots sailing in the light breeze. We finished a dead heat at the end of it, he with 90sqm spinnaker, us with 54sqm sails wing on wing. The Bermudan skipper had to stop, douse and stow the spinnaker before rounding a point and was impressed by the fact we sailed on, only needing to haul the sheets to sail beam on then upwind to the anchorage. No stopping, no stowing, no fiddling about.

This is not possible with any other sail rig in the world.

All this is the big advantage to the long distance cruiser. We don't get to pick our weather when we are days out to sea. I want the "automatic rig".

The norm is to do deck work in a heaving sea, as if this is the only way to cruise on a sailboat. It gets pretty hairy out there and downright dangerous but there is another way. More so for the long distance cruiser than the weekend sailor who can choose his weather. So far our junk has delivered on the promise, the times I have had to go forward was to unhitch the sheet which catches on the front (home made) stanchions. This glitch is fixed (I chopped off the top 1" of those 2 stanchions). 

The only big issue that needs to be answered is: 

What is lost by gaining this wonderful sail handling technology?

Finding the bermudan rig on our previous boat so cumbersome (I didn't know it in the beginning, everyone accepts "cumbersome" as the norm), I can't think of anything that is lost sailing wise. The bermudan is a very "manual" rig, and extremely un-versatile. You have to clamber all over to change anything.  That all disappears with the junk. (I have noticed the modern solution to combat the Bermudan's un-versatility is to simply motor.)

Many bermudan boats have roller furling jibs and expensive ones have in-mast furling mains. But these are delicate, unlike the rough and ready to fall under gravity junk, in a serious blow these boats need to round up pointing into the wind to furl with sails beating and flapping like mad. Try that in 40 knots and big seas, I'm not game! (Bermudan sailors have been known, when not able to douse sail, to simply hang on like grim death till the squall abates.. somehow.) They are not going to compare. I have never heard the sails on Ashiki beat, the battens really do calm them and I have reefed without problem in a gale and never needed to round up.

There have been design issues, we have bent 3 battens so far, indicating the aluminium battens should be a larger diameter. The foresail which does the most work on our boat is where the problem is. 40mm diameter 3mm walled is not enough. They need to be 50mm tubing for the 24sqm (260sqft) sail.

But there has been an issue with a few junk rigged boats in other parts of the world, namely:

Performance sailing to windward

I wouldn't want to lose this. Early junk rigged boats built by cruisers and enthusiasts in Europe and the US used flat sails - I think 75% of all junks still do. Built as described by Blonde Hasler and Jock McLeod in their bible "Practical Junk Rig". These boats did not have good performance in light winds so started the bad reputation Junks still have with some people. I am certainly no denigrating "Practical Junk Rig", this book is essential reading for anyone wanting to build the rig. It is encyclopaedic and has everything from building the mast to deck placement of cleats. But later work on cambered sails (by Arne Kverneland*) is an "addition", a deserving appendix to this book.

Flat panelled junk rig, little drive to windward in light winds.
But they do have a following amongst some who mostly
sail offshore.

However, a sail boat is not rocket science. String a piece of cloth on a boat and it moves. If the cloth has "draft" (a belly shape, like an airplane wing needs curves) it will sail to windward too. Because a fore & aft sail plan, of which both Junks and modern Bermudans are, acts by the air passing along it generating aerodynamic lift, exactly like an aircraft's wing. Aerodynamic lift can occur even on a board flat sail, but is much stronger on a curved sail. A foil shape is even better. So those early "Western" junks being cut flat which couldn't generate much lift in light winds performed poorly. 

In a strong breeze the stretch of the sail cloth or flexing of the battens bulges the flat rig improving aerodynamic lift and they sailed much better to windward. It has been reported the difference between cambered and flat rigs is negligible in strong winds by sailors who have had both. Cambered sails solve the problem of needing flatter sails in strong breezes by designing the top three panels flatter then the bottom ones, since sails are usually reefed at this point anyway.

Cambered panels transforms the Junk Rig's windward performance.

Ashiki has sails inspired by Arne Kverneland's* cambered sails and they have proven to us that the issue is solved. Bermudan yachts have spent hours match racing us to windward and not made any ground. That's good enough for us! 

Even then, the handicap Ashiki has is her keel, not the rig. Our shoal draft keel does enable some leeway (sideways drift while going to windward) and windward ability would be even better if it was deeper. But then we'd lose shallow anchorage options..
Our junk rig is too good for the keel.

Arne on a screaming reach with his cambered junk rig sail in Norway
Sister ship (or at least a close relative to Ashiki) Zebedee completed a world circumnavigation usingflat sails (and no engine). On converting to cambered sails (above) Alan reportedtacking became easier. Less instances of failed tacks (going into stays). Completing a voyage across the Pacific with cambered sails, he is
a convert.

Guess what? The Chinese had shaped panels all along... Probably by default by not using modern non stretch sail cloth. They have been sailing to windward in light and strong winds for millennia.  They needed to, because they were all work boats, many were fishing boats. All over the world fishermen used boats with fore & aft set rigs, even in early Europe - using lug sails, ancient Egypt using lateen etc,  because they needed to return to port quickly to sell their catch, no matter the wind direction. They didn't use square riggers for fishing thats for sure. The junk was the Chinese answer for weatherly large boats. (Weatherly = able to go to windward.)

Large Junk making excellent headway to windward.

But the junk rigged sailing vessel is just about disappeared from China, killed not by a more modern sail plan, but by diesel. Work boats, after all, are about making a living, and nothing beats the diesel motor for efficiency. The last vestige of junk rig use may well be with sailors in the west.

But some junkies still prefer flat sails

The argument for flat sails is the loading on battens is much less, since it is spread out along their lengths. Cambered panels concentrate loads at the batten ends causing  batten failures. Also I think flat sail rigs have gentler gybes. The cambered sail is a very powerful sail and demands more careful handling. Creases aren't a feature of flat sails either. They always look good. (Though creases can mostly be eradicated from cambered sails if rigged correctly.)

Mehitabel - the owner prefers the
docile nature of flat cut sails.
The other argument is offshore sailing doesn't involve much sailing upwind. They have a point. Going to windward can be quite slow when there is a sea running and very little is lost waiting another day when the wind blows a more favourable direction.
We did sail a couple weeks ago in light winds on the nose, tacked into it for 6 hours. The distance made good was only 6 miles! (we were sailing at 2 to 3 knots most the time, which was good for the conditions.) When the wind did fill in from the other direction, we covered 5 miles the next hour, 6 miles the following hour and 6.5 miles the 3rd hour! We could have just waited at the anchorage for the right breeze, no time would have been lost!

However, the weekend sailor may not be happy with flat cut sails.

Aren't junk rigs more complicated?

Not to sail, they are no more complicated to sail than a dinghy. Point the boat where you want to go, tacking simply by pushing the tiller over. No sheets to undo and re attach like jib sheets on a bermudan. They are very simple to operate.

To initially rig the boat, or bend the sail on to the mast, it is complicated. Lots of lines to tie on, but this is done only once, then its all plain sailing!

Is there a good tack and a bad tack?

Because the sail of a junk rigged boat hangs to one side of the mast (it stays there, no way to flip it over) one of the tacks has the mast making an imprint on the sail. Spoiling the shape as it were. On the other tack the sail is downwind of the mast and assumes a nicer looking shape. So its a fair enough assumption to think that the tack on the nice side the boat sails better.

Does one side of the boat sail better than the other?

Arne reported in a forum a friend installed some accurate wind and speed instruments and measured the boat went 2-3˚ lower on the "bad" tack. No way I could notice 2-3˚ by seat of the pants. Out on the cruel sea, we can't tell the difference. We have no wind instruments to analyse this, the GPS tells us Ashiki charges to windward like a demon on whichever tack we are on. So much so it is a non issue.


A junk sail is a framework of battens and bolt ropes, this takes all the loads. The sail cloth is lashed to this and is quite incidental, the cloth doesn't take any of the structural loads, it merely provides a medium for the wind to act on. This is its strength. In contrast a bermudan's sail cloth is definitely a structural part of the rig and the material is heavily reinforced to be so. This is why junks sail cloth can last so long, there's very little load acting on it. If it does rip, it can mostly be ignored, if it rips badly, it will be confined to one panel and the quick and easy fix is to tie the two battens bordering the bad panel together, so a 7 panel sail becomes a 6 panel sail.

There are very few fittings, lines are fastened with bowlines to the pad eyes at the mast head and those on the deck. Very simple.

Ashiki suffered a rip at the bolt rope, actually we didn't install bolt ropes, thinking heavy tabling and gussets would be enough. But not really (We'll sew in webbing bolt ropes sometime in the future), the top panel on the foresail started to tear at the luff. We were at sea at the time so we dropped the foresail and hove to, I put on the harness, walked forward and tied the yard and the first batten together at the luff with some 6mm line. This took the load off the sail fabric in the top triangular panel and Ashiki was good to go for the next 500 miles. That was a 10 minute operation.

It was a bad experiment to go without bolt ropes, going against 2,000 years of junk rig evolution and we paid the price (small as it was). I learnt my lesson. But this incident highlights how easy repairs are and how effective the rig is. I effected a repair of what would be a MAJOR incident on a bermudan in 10 minutes in pitching seas and the result is almost permanent. Short of the masts falling down, there's virtually nothing that can stop a junk rigged boat.


Re reading this page it still looks like a sales piece! So I'll address some negatives.

We have sailed this rig over 5,000 nautical miles so far, the only chafe is the batten pockets where it rubs against the mast. The pockets are worn through and ripped at that point. This has no impact on function as having pockets the whole length of the battens are overkill anyway.

Before sailing this rig I did read claims on the net by enthusiasts that junks have low stress gybes. We haven't found this to be the case. It can slam with the best of them. Maybe our rig isn't particularly balanced enough to cushion the blow or this may only be a characteristic of the powerful cambered sails, as opposed to the old flat panelled sails. But prudent sheeting in before going around is needed with this rig, as with bermudan. 

Fan ups:
Potentially a real problem. We haven't had one yet, thank Neptune, but it would be a nasty mess to clean up in a gale!  A fan up happens during an accidental gybe and the all the battens end up pointing skyward, and probably falling forward of the mast. I guess it means just don't do accidental gybes. 

In calms the battens tend to clang against the mast, this requires a better pocket design than we have now. Thinking of PVC pipe with carpet cemented on. We lash the bundle securely at anchor so no noise then. 

The sail bundles are heavy. Though not an issue for the boat handing or performance wise, in fact many boats can benefit from a little weight aloft, this slows the motion of a rolling boat. The issue is that sail handling requires some energy. We don't have winches on Ashiki, the 3 part blocks on the halyards are enough. Winches make very slow work of sail raising, while hauling by hand requires one to have a had a hearty breakfast beforehand. Too much reefing and shaking out of reefs can mean a real workout! But sailing compared to other sports is low on cardio exercise so I consider it a positive, so be like the grinder on those high tech race yachts, junk sailors have muscle! OTOH the more elderly junk sailor can always use an electric winch handle.

Tons of cordage:
It can get messy in the cockpit! Requires some management, either use rope bags or as Susie does. She is the  cordage organiser on Ashiki, she makes hanging coils and hangs them off their cleats.

Other issues:
These are the builders fault (that would be me), but the very nature that most junks rigs being owner built means we are all sentenced to do our own tweaking and mods. 

The lazy jacks aren't quite right, means the yard on the main frequently goes the wrong side of them. Luckily, because there are 3 lines controlling the yard, I can usually manoeuver it out of trouble from the cockpit. Like driving a crane. I'd need to go up the mast to fix this permanently, again...

The sheetlet lengths are too long for when the sails are dropped in their lazy jacks, so the bundle are still a little loose at anchor and require further tying down.

The sheets get caught on things when gybing and tacking. Fortunately not that often. The main sheet is not too bad, its within easy reach to unhitch. The foredeck needs attention though.

Who does the junk rig best suit?

Anyone who wants one. Little more seriously, they advantage long distance cruisers the most, because offshore conditions are the most arduous and the less need to go forward on deck the better. For the weekend sailor, maybe the ones who don't like crawling around deck, or the sailors who live in very windy places, or those who live in locales with light winds. The junk sail can be designed with extra sail area compared to the designed sail area (bermudan) for that hull, because the easy reefing ability of a junk makes it possible. 

Sailors with old boats in need of a re-rig jump on the chance to install a junk. It's a cheap option since it can be all home made. A sailor said to me he is thinking of replacing his gaff main with a junk sail, keeping the jibs. Then he'd gain the reefing qualities. I think that would work with a gaff, their masts don't have spreaders to interfere with the parrels.

Also, anyone who is building their own boat from scratch, a junk rig costs a fraction of a bermudan and as far as I'm concerned suits all hulls which are designed for sail.

* Wealth of material on building a cambered sail authored by Arne Kverneland available here.


  1. Nice work, thanks for that.

  2. Great article. I have a m12 benford dory like yours. Bought it in the hard have completed most repairs and I now sailing. I love it. Not reefing as I'd hoped. I've put down hauls on it.to assist. Would love top pick your brain sometime. sylibbtata@gmail.com. Sy

  3. Thanks for the feedback guys.

  4. I have a Jay Benford 46' Toketee that we converted from Macaroni ketch to Junk schooner with standing rigging and Jibs, in a Colvin manner

  5. Thanks for that, I really enjoyed that read .

  6. Excellent, very practical article. Thanks a lot.

  7. Excellent article. Simply stated without wild emotive overtures.

  8. Thanks for the article, I've been fascinated with junk rigs since learning about Blondie Hassler. Day dreaming about building my own junk rigged coastal cruiser.

  9. Extremely helpful article--thank you!