Like many others, I started sailing dinghies as a child and progressed through day sailing catamarans to offshore sailing. As the boats grew larger, the shortcomings of a standard stayed rig and the crew needed to operate them became ever more obvious.

Struggling in the dark to get a spinnaker down that had wrapped around the forestay, or reefing the main while running before a gale with the sail pressed up against the shrouds, I was convinced there must be a better, safer way.

These tasks are all possible on a standard rig but they are hard work.

What was needed was an unstayed rig that rotated. You could then get the wind pressure out of the mainsail on any point of sail and there would be no rigging to chafe the sails.

With standard stayed rigs, every effort is made to reduce the size of the mast section, in order to minimise the inevitable turbulence that it generates. By making the FreeWing mast a true aerofoil shape this turbulence is avoided. Far from being a negative factor the mast section is now the most aerodynamically efficient part of the rig. The mast can be a large carbon fibre section, providing immense strength while keeping weight to a minimum. The centre of gravity is very low as the section tapers to a small carbon fibre masthead fitting.

With the large wing shaped mast it was important that the mast and boom rotated independently. There is no point in having a wing mast that is not set at the correct angle to the mainsail, or the aerodynamic advantage is lost because of mast-induced turbulence.

The FreeWing rig mast and boom are supported by a round-sectioned carbon fibre support tube that is fixed into the hull. There are no moving parts below deck and no bearings to leak.

The FreeWing rig uses a “Balestron” boom that extends forward of the mast to support the jib. The boom is free to rotate a full 360 degrees in the horizontal plane, but is fixed vertically. No topping lift is required and it is impossible for a forgetful crewmember to drop the boom onto those in the cockpit. When reaching or running, no boom vang is required to control mainsail twist. The self-tacking jib sheets to an arched track on the boom, just forward of the mast. It has roller reefing for easy handling.

The jib, the mast and the mainsail operate as a single, slotted aerofoil. Once the jib is set the sheeting angle of the entire rig is controlled by the mainsheet. The wind pressure on the jib and the mainsail balance each other, so that the sheeting loads are light. In an emergency the rig can be feathered instantly, by releasing the mainsheet This can be done on any point of sail, even a dead run. This is a tremendous safety feature. No longer do you have to turn the boat into the wind before you can de-power the sails. No more fighting to reef a mainsail while it is pressed against the shrouds. No longer do you have to fight a war on chafe, there is no rigging against which the sails can chafe. Without rigging stepping the rig is simple. Gone is the worry of trying to tune the rigging to keep the mast in column under load. The compression load from the rig is eliminated so that sophisticated mast step structures and chain plates are not required.

Maintenance is reduced to an absolute minimum. The simplicity of the rig with only four components (mast, boom, support tube and jib furling gear), eliminates the multitude of small components found in a stayed rig, the failure of any one of these components can bring the rig down. Stainless steel and aluminium are very prone to fatigue cracks while carbon fibre is highly resistant to fatigue.

Sailing with a FreeWing rig is very relaxing yet it produces the power needed to provide the excitement that we all crave. To windward the absence of parasitic drag from the rigging and turbulence from the mast helps the rig to perform at least as well as the best, stayed rigs. Once the apparent wind angle increases the power generated from the FreeWing rig increases rapidly. The jib, mast and mainsail maintain their trim, whatever the sheeting angle. The aerodynamic centre of pressure is always very close to the centre line of the yacht. This makes steering control easy and virtually eliminates the risk of rig induced broaching. When running before the wind the boom, (set at 90 degrees to the centre line), is so far out that accidental jibes are almost unknown. If you do wish to jibe, the jib damps the movement of the boom reducing the shock loads.

In extreme conditions the sails can be dropped and the mast section operates as a very efficient storm rig. It can’t flog and it can be feathered at will. In the feathered position the windage is a small fraction of that from a round mast.

The first FreeWing rig was built in 1979. Fitted to a 54ft cruising yacht, it now has a tremendous sailing record. FreeWing rig yachts have made multiple crossings of the Atlantic, both north and south, including a number of passages through the “Roaring Forties”.

Richard Glanville
FreeWing Masts