Junk Rigged Birdwatcher
by John Craig

I have a friend who takes good pictures, like the ones below of our Bolger Birdwatcher.

I built the boat over a three-year period, working a few hours about every third weekend from a set of plans I bought from Dynamite Payson ( The design is a marvel of simplicity. If I'd been able to work on it full time, it would have been done in about six weeks. Mind you, the finish is not at all elegant. I am a determined carpenter, not a good one. My success is mainly a testament to the clever and thoughtful work of designer Phil Bolger.

The photo at right is from launch day, appropriately Labor Day 2001, in Mission Bay. All did not go well -- the rudder assembly buckled, the tiller came off in my hands (twice) and she leaked like a sieve -- but as Buckminster Fuller once remarked, one often learns more from failure than from success.

The original rig was a sprit-rigged sliding gunter, which works quite well when you get it up, but which requires that it be mostly dismantled in order to take in a reef. Also, it does not like being jibed, controlled or otherwise (and quite an adventure it is to experience an uncontrolled jibe in a boat this size with a sixteen foot boom. Fellow sailors take note: a four-letter expletive travels a long way across open water). There are probably some little secrets to all of this that I missed somehow, but I grew frustrated with it.

For some time I have been interested in the junk rig. I thought the lower, or main, part of the mast was about the right length, so I drew up a plan (guided in part by "Practical Junk Rig", by Hasler and McLeod, which is surely the bible on the subject). Materials were scrap lumber, a pile of cheap manila twine, and a $20 polytarp purchased at K-Mart. Total cost was about $75, as compared to the $600 I paid for the sprit sail I bought from Dynamite Payson (and a nice job, too, by the way). This cheap-and-dirty method of building the rig has a noble ancestry in this case: see this fascinating article about junk rigs, written forty years ago:

Now look at the result of my efforts:

Note that I was careful to pick a "Tanbark" (i.e., brown) polytarp, for maximum stylish effect (the alternative being green).

As stated above, I made it quick and dirty, not even adding a boltrope. So far it has performed flawlessly. I've been out in reefing winds, with no sign of stress. The polytarp will disintegrate if I leave it out in the sun for a month, but as long as I put it away after the sailing is done, it should last for a while. The battens are two-piece, running along either side of the sail and joined with screws right through the polytarp. When it does finally die, replacing the sail is a matter of $20 and a couple of hours work.

Sail area is a little more than the sprit rig, about 165 sq ft as compared to 143. The center of effort is slightly higher than with the original rig, but the effect on heeling is not noticeable.

A significant benefit, however, is the higher foot. The sprit rig literally sweeps the deck. Well, that's okay if everyone sits down inside the boat as Mr. Bolger intended, but guess what? No matter how hard he tries to encourage people to get out of the cockpit, they always want to get up in the sun and the air (see above photo of rebellious crew). The extra headroom under the sail is welcome.

It takes as long to set up and take down as the original rig, longer if the sheet gets tangled, but I have refined the process to about twenty minutes from trailer-to-sailer, which I think is perfectly acceptable.

Although there are probably a dozen different methods for setting up and working the Chinese lug sail, I use what is likely the simplest, which consists of a halyard, a snotter (to bring the yard up against the mast when the sail is reefed), lazyjacks (absolute necessity!) and a one-part sheet. Underway, there is only the sheet to handle. To reef, I loosen the halyard, drop a panel, secure the halyard and then take up the snotter. That's it.

Blocks are a significant part of the material inventory for this rig. It uses four, including a triple-sheave mainsheet block. I originally intended to buy them at the local marine hardware store. After recovering from sticker shock -- anything worth having would have totaled more than the rest of the materials combined -- I made my own from scrap quarter-inch ply and scrap Douglas fir, with stainless nuts and bolts for sheave axles. Ugly, but they work, and as I was making them I chuckled gleefully in consideration of the large amounts of money I was denying the ship chandlery and could thus use to fatten my 401(k).

Mostly by luck I got the balance of the rig just about right, but she comes about more ponderously than with the sliding gunter rig, which has the pleasant attribute of spinning her on a literal dime. I attribute the sluggishness with the junk rig to the large centerboard, but more likely she just needs a bit more weather helm. I believe I can accomplish that by adding a little jigger off the stern. I've got a sail for an El Toro dinghy that's just about the right size…

Mr. Bolger would doubtless consider the junk rig to be far too complicated for a simple daysailer, and he'd be right. But aside from the fun factor -- which is significant -- it is a great learning tool, which is relevant considering my (eventual) intent to build something more appropriate to it.

Postscript: The junk-rig photo is of my wife Beth and I at Fiddler's Cove in Coronado. The occasion was an impromptu messabout sponsored by the SCUZBUMS (Southern California Small Boat Messabout Society). Check out their website at