Re-rigging a Nicholson 35 as a cutter

May/June 2007

To the editor: My wife and I owned a Nicholson 35 from 1993 to 2003, during which time we sailed more than 50,000 miles, which included a cruise around the British Isles and a circumnavigation via Panama and South Africa. I have experience racing cutters and cutter-headed ketches from 1956 to 1992, so I get asked quite regularly for my opinions regarding re-rigging a Nicholson 35 as a cutter. The primary motivation for re-rigging is to improve the ease of handling the large foresail area. For some, there may also be an aesthetic dimension.

The 35-foot Nic 35 is a typical 1970s single-spreader rig sloop, so these re-rigging thoughts could be applied to many similar sized and rigged yachts. Generally speaking I am discussing true cutters (i.e. non-bowsprit yachts that set and utilize a masthead yankee jib and a genoa staysail set on an inner forestay simultaneously). Note that staysails do not work effectively set inside genoa jibs. Multi-forestay/headsail sloops should not be confused with cutters.

Historically, headsail size was determined by the characteristics of available materials. In the days of cotton sails, hempen halyards and sheets, and wooden spars, headsail shape (and therefore efficiency) could only be maintained by limiting the size of the sail. Whilst it is possible to name successful examples of cutter rigs in racing yachts of years gone by (e.g. John Illingworth’s Maid of Malham and Myth of Malham) the effective setting of staysails was always difficult on the modern form of yacht. With the development of synthetic materials in the 1950s – Dacron sails, Terylene sheets and halyards, and aluminum spars – it became possible to construct sail plans that utilized larger single sails efficiently. Utilizing these new materials the sloop rig would always outperform the cutter. You don’t find any cutters in the Americas Cup, Volvo or Vendee Globe these days.

To make the cutter rig perform to the best advantage both the boat and the sail plan need to be designed specifically with the cutter rig in mind. In particular, the mast needs to be further aft (relative to a sloop-rigged yacht) and the mainsail correspondingly reduced in area. Suitable sheeting positions have to be determined, as does the location of the inner forestay on both mast and deck. The mast should best be a two-spreader design (when less than about 45 feet). Mind you, the early Nic 35 masts would probably be robust enough to take a conversion without going to two spreaders if one was to proceed with a conversion.

To re-rig the Nic 35 as a cutter it would necessitate running backstays to compensate for the load on the inner forestay. The jib sheet track would have to move outboard, probably onto the top of the toe rail, and a track laid for the staysail sheet. There might well be a problem sheeting the staysail past the forward lower shroud. Unless a naval architect was used, the most favorable positions for these items would have to be determined by trial and error and may result in their being placed where the design is not suitable. Further problems to be resolved would be the organization of the sheet leads and winches, and the siting of the running backstay gear in the confined space outboard of the cockpit coaming. To carry out the job properly, new headsails designed to work together would be desirable. The whole project would inevitably be expensive in time and money for what would almost certainly be an unsatisfactory solution.

A further problem is that the cutter rig could move the CE forward – an undesirable change given that the keel already starts abaft the mast resulting in a CLR that is well aft. (One of the consequences of this may be seen in the later comment on setting a sea anchor.)

How then to resolve the issue, if indeed it is a problem? Given that it is commonly agreed that a roller-reefed headsail will only maintain its shape for a maximum 30-percent reduction and that twin roller headsails, one large and one small, would produce far too much windage on the Nic 35 in relation to the CLR, our solution on our boat, Moonlight of Down, was to change the rig to a multi-headsail sloop (the same broad principles as a Vendee Globe sloop).

To make this change, an inner forestay was fitted, complete with its own halyard sheave 14 inches below the masthead. In this position running backstays are not required as the inner forestay load is in line with the permanent backstay attachment point. Its lower end terminated in a rigging screw/highfield lever device and attached just aft of the furling drum (parallel to the main forestay) on an extension strop. Its main attachment point was to a fitting at the aft end to the windlass pad. The deck structure was reinforced to take the loads of the inner forestay terminations.

When stowed, the inner forestay attached to eyebolts by the forward lower chain plates. It needs to be well tensioned to prevent abrading the spreaders when underway.

The forward position was used for 150-percent lightweight genoa hanked on; the aft position for a 90-percent heavy-weather working jib or the storm jib – both of which were hanked on. Depending on the expected weather, the particular sail to be used was hanked on, bagged with its sheets attached and carried on the foredeck. Tack strops were used so that the sail could be sheeted through an additional car at the forward end of the existing tracks. They also raised the tack sufficiently to avoid boarding waves from catching the foot of the sails.

With this rig the 150-percent LW could be carried in light winds, then the 135-percent furling genoa was used, progressively rolled up until it became 100 percent. Then it was furled, and the 90-percent working jib used until it was time for the storm jib.

A further advantage for our mode of operation was that when cruising on the coast in settled weather the inner forestay was stowed and the inflated dinghy could be carried inverted on the foredeck. You would not be able to do this with a true cutter rig.

We found the rig very practical during our 41,000-mile circumnavigation aboard Moonlight of Down, and if we went back to a Nic 35 we would rig it in the same way.

John Driscoll is a two-time circumnavigator, once with his wife Pat. The Driscolls live in Holywood in Northern Ireland and plan to cruise the Norwegian coast this summer aboard their current boat, a Moody 42.  

By Ocean Navigator