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By Frank Hagan
The Gaff Rig Interview
Captain George Vancouver surveyed the natural harbor before
him. Charged with charting the Pacific northwest and settling once and for all if the
fabled "northwest passage" existed, Captain Vancouver was captain of not one,
but two sailing ships of the British navy, the Discovery and the Chatham. Vancouver never
believed the "northwest passage" existed, a fact made plain by his sharp
criticism of those who supported the idea. He was, in his day, a man skeptical and more, a
man who proved his claims with the irrefutable proof of personal experience and discovery.
In todays venacular, we would say Captain Vancouver had "been there, done
that." Captain Vancouver
named the safe and secure harbor for his friend, the Marquis of Townshend. Today, it is
known as Port Townsend, WA, officially founded in April of 1851, and given the nickname
"City of Dreams" for its promise of becoming the largest port on the west coast.
While that dream never became reality, Port Townsend is still a safe and secure harbor,
and the local economy for the 8,000 people there is still greatly influenced by the
Q. For most of us, the profession of
"Master Rigger" is not one we hear about everyday. How did you become a rigger,
and what influenced you to choose it as a career?
Q. In your book "The Complete Rigger's Apprentice," you have a dedication to Master Rigger Nick Benton. Who was he?
A. Nick Benton was rigging's Mozart, a
prodigy of manual and technical skill. Like Mozart, he died young, but not before
inspiring a new generation of riggers to see their work as something more than just
holding up masts and sails. It was Nick who said, "The first rule of rigging is: FAIR
LEADS". He said this often, and when I eventually asked him what the second rule was,
he said, "Brion, there are no other rules". The deeper idea behind this is that
rigging involves the resolution of forces, and the smoother and more efficiently we can
move those forces around, the better the rigging will be.
Q. Besides the videos and books, you also conduct seminars? How did you get started doing that, and do you find it enjoyable?
A. From the very beginning, I have been incurably enthusiastic about this beautiful art, and eager to share its beauty with others; no matter how careful and thorough one is in crafting a book or video, there is nothing like in-person experience. The first seminars I taught were pretty much blatant self-promotion at boat shows, but even there, it soon became obvious that there was a lot more at stake than commercial opportunity. People were hungry for information about rigging. They wanted to know how to do it, and do it right, and there was a real shortage of details on the subject. In time, I offered classes on everything from splicing wire rope to jury rigging to rig tuning to fancy ropework. Satisfying stuff, but also exhausting, as the only time I have for them is on weekends. I'll be taking at least a year off from teaching, so your readers might want to know that the last two classes I'll do for the indefinite future are the ones scheduled already: on October 21and 22 Ill be presenting "Jury Rigging and How to Stop It" and on November 11 and 12 "The Wah of Wire (Rig Design Principles)" here in Port Townsend.
Q. The Weekender, Vacationer and Pocket Cruiser our members build have gaff rigs, and finding information on gaffers isn't that easy. You devote quite a bit of material in The Complete Rigger's Apprentice to the traditional methods and techniques. Why do you include that information in this day and age of high tech rigging?
A. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough
to have some extended conversations with the late, great Lars Bergstrom, one of the
inventors of the B&R rig. This is the futuristic-looking rig seen on Hunter's and
other modern boats, and Lars was expansive on the subject of how and why he had come to
develop it, as well as how a rigger could optimize it in terms of tune and sail trim. But
eventually I said, "Wait a minute, you've got a rig here with no backstay, aft-swept
spreaders, big mains'l, small jib, and you get performance more by changing sail shape
than by changing mast shape." "That's right," he replied. "So
essentially," I continued, "what you have is a gaff rig with a three-cornered
main." As one might imagine, this cutting edge rigging genius was taken aback by this
conclusion, but eventually granted that, except for the way the stays interrelated, I was
essentially correct. I relate this story as an example of how seemingly archaic
technologies have a habit of reappearing in new guises. There is nothing intrinsically
obsolete about the gaff rig; it's just that it has suffered a long suspension of
development, in the shadow of the Bermudian rig. But new materials, a better understanding
of aerodynamics, and breakthrough ideas like the B&R rig all give gaff a new life. And
that is in addition to its longstanding advantages of strength, simplicity, potentially
low cost, and versatility.
Q. Do you still sail your 16' catboat, Katy? The information on measuring it for a new rig has helped quite a few of our builders.
A. I'm so glad that Katy has been valuable to others. That is one sweet little boat, but unfortunately Katy is in Maine, and I am in Port Townsend, and the commute is a chore. For some years I toyed with the idea of moving it out here, but partly it would cost more than I have, and partly I'm reluctant to take it out of home waters. So if anyone out there would like to buy an historic Crocker catboat, get in touch.
Q. Some of our builders are using the very best of materials, and others are looking for the least expensive alternatives. In regards to rigging, where can you save money on a day sailer? For instance, is there a big difference between stainless and galvanized shrouds? How about things like galvanized turnbuckles or stay adjusters, galvanized cleats, etc.?
A. Our shop specializes in cruising boat
rigs, both traditional and modern. No material worth taking to sea is going to be cheaper
than some alternatives, and many sailors, over many millennia, have found to their regret
that bargains can be your worst enemy. In fact, too much of our business comes from
redoing rigs that were done on the cheap in the first place.
Q. The Complete Rigger's Apprentice includes several options for making "self tending staysails," which has been of interest to some of our members. Our boats have a jib clubfoot, attached to the foredeck, that makes the jib self tending. But some have speculated that your Semi-Self-Tending Staysail arrangement (pg. 155) might be a better solution, while others think the benefits probably won't be seen in our small boats. Do you think its appropriate for our small boats?
A. Good heavens yes. There's not as much foredeck space liberated as on larger boats, but the performance improvements alone give the arrangement an edge.
Q. You recently renovated your website,http://www.briontoss.com The Internet has helped fuel our associations growth. How has the Internet affected your business?
A. Our website is a lot like the art of rigging: workable, but undergoing constant evolution. Thanks almost entirely to the efforts of my spouse, Christian, we now have an online catalog, a schedule of upcoming events, my semi-regular "Miscella" column, and of course the heart of the site, the "Spartalk" board, where people from all over the planet write in to ask and answer questions about rigging.The upshot of all this is that we ship tools, books, and videos a lot further than we used to, that I get a lot more consultation jobs, if only because the boats are too far away for me to go and work on them (although see below for exceptions), and that I have the makings for a great book, just by taking the cream of the exchanges. It feels now as though the "Apprentice" is the foundation, what I think everyone should know about rigging fundamentals. "Spartalk" is about how those fundamentals get translated into actual boats.
Q. You seem to be in the prime of your career, with a busy schedule. Is there anything else in the works you can tell us about? In other words, what is next for Brion Toss?
A. Our shop is expanding, at a dizzying-yet-manageable rate, and we are firmly committed to continuing to build superlative cruising rigs. But much of the fun of this business is that it has such a wide spectrum. So I'll be heading for Milwaukee shortly to supervise the installation of a rig in a new 3-masted schooner, we're working on the design phase of a "sailboat sculpture" for a hospital in Texas, and it looks like we'll be in Burma sometime early next year, to work on a classic cutter. Your readers can find more about the other kinds of work I get involved with on the site. Aside from the two books mentioned above, I have some others in mind, and maybe a new round of instructional videos. Between the rate of change in rigging, and the rate at which my ignorance is daily revealed, it's a full-time job just keeping up. Fortunately, I still spend the bulk of my time in the shop and on boats; all that teaching and learning is great, but as Nick once told me, "Unless you're getting the work out the door, you're not rigging, you're hobbying."
Q. We know you are busy, but youve been extremely gracious with your time. To wrap it up, if theres one last thought you can leave our builders with as they rig their boats, what would it be?
A. Fair leads.
Readers can explore the Brion Toss Yacht Riggers website at http://www.briontoss.com Links there lead to all of Brions products including tools, books, videos and information on his last seminars for the near future. The site also includes "SparTalk," the bulletin board mentioned in this article, and "Miscella", Brions regular column.