How Do You Rig a Small Sailboat (Things You Need to Know!)

How Do You Rig a Small Sailboat

Have you recently purchased your first sailboat and are preparing to give it a spin? You may be wondering what you need to do to rig your small sailboat and start sailing. Rigging a sailboat is not that hard as long as you know what to do with your boat and how you want to use it.

You can also rig your boat by yourself as long as you have enough knowledge and the right tools. However, if you want to have a comfortable and safe trip, you need to do it the right way. If you want to know the answer to how do you rig a small sailboat, continue reading.

What is Boat Rigging and How Does it Work

There are many reasons why boaters rig their boat as it is used for several purposes. Boat rigging simply means preparing the boat depending on a person’s intended use. It can be for fishing, for pleasure, for rowing, and a lot more.

Rigging is different for every kind of boat, as it consists of configuring a boat in the best way that will suit the person using it and conforms to the recommendations of the manufacturer. Marine technicians usually perform rigging and it is vital that they are knowledgeable on how to configure and install different kinds of engines and equipment. However, it is possible to rig a boat by yourself, especially small sailboats.

When rigging a small sailboat, the boom and mast should be in place. Once you’ve ensured that both are ready and in the proper place, you need to attach the rudder and tiller, also the engine if necessary. The next step is connecting the jib sail lines and then the jib sail. The last step would be to affix the mainsail lines and the mainsail to the boom and mast.

For small sailboats, they don’t have to be rigged completely each time they are used to sail. Some parts are left in place to make it simpler for users to sail the next time they use their boat. The boom and mast are usually left in place when rigging a small sailboat.

What are Boom and Mast?

What are Boom and Mast


It is a horizontal rod that is connected to the mast. It also holds the mainsail up. When storing the boom, it is usually stored to the deck but is not removed entirely. However, it can be removed in case you need to keep your boat in a storage or trailer.


The mast is used to hold the sails in an upright position. It is a vertical rod that is placed someplace near the center of the vessel. Most small sailboats have their mast collapsible or removable for easy storage or trailer. However, most boaters prefer to leave it in place when they don’t need to store their sailboat.

For some sailboats, the mast and boom are not always in place and you need to set them up before you rig your boat and sail.

The first step is to affix the mast and the mast step. If you’re not sure what a mast step is, it is a thick stainless steel mounting piece that is attached to the boat’s deck. Place the mast in the mast step and secure it with lines. While not all boats are the same, they all have shrouds that come in at least two directions to keep the mast affixed firmly and securely.

Next, it is time to put the boom in place. In most cases, the boom is affixed to the mast just below where the sails are attached. However, the mast and boom attachment usually vary from boat to boat. But the common goal is to allow the boom to swing without constraint. A gooseneck is typically used to get the boom to swing freely.

Rigging a Small Sailboat

Rigging a Small Sailboat

Now that the mast and boom are in place, it is time to rig your small sailboat. These steps should be done each time you take your sailboat out for a drive.

Installing the Rudder

As a practice for many boaters, they take out the rudder after every use. This is because it can easily deteriorate when left in the water for a long time. To keep it in good shape and make it last longer, it is ideal to remove it after every trip. Before sailing, you need to reinstall it or check that it is firmly and securely attached if it is already in place. There’s an option to use a safety lanyard to ensure it is secured to the boat.

In general, small boats have pintles or pins that are attached above the edge of a rudder. These pintles are then inserted into gudgeons that are affixed to the stern. Gudgeons are just like rings, in case you have no idea how it looks like. This process may not be the same across all sailboats. However, it is easy to identify how the rudder is attached to the stern by holding them side by side. Rudders usually have the tiller affixed, however, that may not be the case always.

Attaching the Tiller

In case the tiller is not yet attached to the rudder, here’s how to do it. The tiller is attached to the rudder to allow you to steer. It is a steering arm that is long and thin that is normally placed in a slot near and above the rudder. The tiller may have various kinds of attachment but the usual way to connect it is with a pin to secure it in place.

If yours has a pin, ensure that you connect it with a lanyard so it won’t accidentally fall. You can also use a tiller extension if you wish. A lot of small boat sailors use it so they can move around further, especially if they are sailing solo. Most tiller extensions are fit to the tiller and may use a pin or other locking mechanism to keep it secured. In case your tiller is already in place, all you need to do is check that it is secured.

Installing the Motor

Now, not all small sailboats have a motor but if yours has one, this is the time to put it back. If you don’t practice removing it after a trip, it is time you make it a habit as it can do great damage to your motor. Some sailors don’t remove it entirely, but rather just tilt it up. That’s okay, too but it is still best to remove it. When installing the motor, it should sit precisely on its casing while the two pins keep the motor in place. Each time you install the motor, check whether or not it is degrading before sailing to avoid any problems while boating.

Setting the Sails

A sailboat is not a sailboat without its sails. Many sailors, especially the newer ones, find this the best part about rigging their sailboat. However, sails need to be taken down after each trip as weather conditions, especially sunlight can wear them out quickly. They can be bagged or covered if you don’t feel like removing them.

Bending on the sails is what most sailors call the process of putting them back on. Attaching the sails is fun but there’s somehow a lot of work to do. To make sure you do it right, follow the simple steps below.

How to Attach the Jib Sail

Get the Sails in Position

Determine the head of the sail by spreading them out. The head has the narrowest corner among all corners of the triangular sail.

Attach the Jib Halyard

The jib halyard is what keeps your sail up, so make sure that it is attached properly and secured. Your halyard shackle should be attached to the corner. The shackle should be secured so that your sail will always be in place once you get out of the water.

Next is to attach a grommet between the edge of the sail and the luff. It is quite easy to determine which is the luff since it has lots of attachment points and is found at the bottom edge of your sail. A shackle or removable pin is used to attach the grommet of the sail’s tack.

Affix the Sail’s Bottom

The attachment points at the bottom of the sail are called hanks and you will use them to attach the sail’s bottom. To do this, raise your sail a little while you take a hold of your jib halyard. It is best to start with the hank that is nearest to the sail’s head. The hanks are basically easy to attach to the sail since they are spring-loaded. Just continue attaching it to the luff. As you go along, make sure that all hanks are properly lined and that the sail is not tangled. Raising the sail a little bit will make it easier and faster for you to go through all the hanks.

Affix the Jib Sheets

Most of the time, the jib sheets need to be attached every time you use your sailboat. But they can also be left on the sail. The jib sheets’ main function is to direct the jib from the cockpit. There is usually a shackle on jib sheets. If you have one, use it to affix the jib sheet to your sail. If there’s none you need a bowline as an attachment. Every sheet will go through the sail as it reached the cockpit. The sheets can go either outside or inside the shrouds, it will all depend on the kind of boat you have. To hold the sheets in place, attach them to the cleats.

How to Attach the Main Sail on Small Sailboats

It is now time to attach the mainsail. After you have attached the mainsail, you’ll be ready to get your small boat sailing. So, here are the things you need to do to attach the mainsail.

Get the Main Sail in Position

Similar to what you have done with the jib, you need to identify the head of the sail. Once you have located the head from the triangular sail, you need to attach it to the main halyard. In most small boats, the mainsail’s forward lower corner is affixed to the boom using a pin that is removable. Once the mainsail is attached to the boom, the lower edge of the luff of the mainsail should be secured in place on all ends.

Mainsail and the Boom

Most mainsails are attached to the boom already. However, depending on your boat the mainsail can either be directly affixed to the boom or is affixed at points. The boom can be slipped into the groove towards the end. The flexibility of your mainsail will rely on how it is attached. No matter how it is attached, the important thing is to ensure all attachments are firmly affixed so that the mainsail will not disconnect from your boom as you sail away.

Attach the Mainsail and Mast

There are different ways to attach the mainsail to the mast. It can with the use of slugs or by fitting the mainsail in a groove in the mast to allow it to go up without difficulty and with no space between the sail and the mast. No matter how you attach the mainsail to the mast, you need to ensure that your sail is not tangled or curled. While raising the sail and attaching it to the mast, you need to pull the halyard carefully, as you secure each attachment to the boat’s mast.

Raise the Mainsail

As you attach the mainsail to the mast, just continue raising it. When you are finished, the mainsail will be all the way up. Now, pull hard on your halyard to smoothen and completely stretch your mainsail. After that, tie it in a cleat.

Time to Sail

Once you have attached the jib sail and mainsail, you can now raise the jib and get going. But if your boat has a centerboard, you need to lower it first before you raise the jib. It is now time for you to sail. You can fine-tune the jib sheet and mainsheet as necessary.

Fine-tuning Your Rig

Fine-tuning Your Rig

Before the boating season comes, you may want to prepare your boat and fine-tune your rigs. This will allow you to enjoy your sailing with improved performance on your sailboat. While it may seem difficult especially for newer sailors, worry not as anyone can do it within just a couple of hours.

Before we start fine-tuning your rig, you need to know first the different parts of the rig and understand how they work. Let’s start with a sailboat mast. In general, the mast is put up and held by several stainless steel wires. However, that’s not the only function of these wires. They work hard to keep the mast in an upright position, especially when the wind blows hard. They need to stop the mast from bending, thus taking all the strains from the wind. But when the sailboat is not moving, and the wind is not blowing there is less stress on these wires, and is the strain is mostly toward the keel.

The shrouds are what you call the wires that keep the mast from moving from left to right. While stays are the wires that prevent the movement of fore and aft. The number of stays and shrouds to be used will depend on how big the mast is. The taller and larger your mast is, the greater its load would be. For instance, a typical 35 ft cruiser would need one backstay, one forestay, and at least two shrouds on both sides.

The best way to give your sailboat the best performance is by tuning the rig. This simply means ensuring that the rigging is set up the right way. When tuning the rig, it is ideal that your boat stays in the water when there is no wind or as much as possible with just a little wind. You should also stay away from other boats and wakes so they won’t rock or move your boat. Once you’ve found a nice spot to fine-tune your rig, here’s what you need to do next.

Tightening the Turnbuckles

At this time, you don’t need any special tool to tighten the turnbuckles. Your hand should be enough to tighten them for now. While laying down on the foredeck of the boat, look up at the mast’s front. The mast should be straight without any bends. Once you are sure that there are no kinks, it is time for the lower shrouds to be tightened. The lower shrouds are those that do not reach the top of the mast and are usually affixed to the mast at the foot of the crosstrees. The crosstrees are located at the top ends of the topmasts; these are the two horizontal spars.

At this point, you may need to get a large screwdriver to turn the turnbuckle. You also need to get a wrench to make sure the shroud fitting will not turn as you rotate the turnbuckle. Do several complete turns on both sides. Ask someone from your small crew to help you let go of the main halyard and to put a little strain as you pull down the end. The end part is typically attached to the mainsail.

Make sure that it touches the top part of the toerail that is close to the chainplate. Ask one of your crews to cleat off the halyard, then sway it above the boom. Make sure that it has the same measurement as the other side. If you think they do not have the same measurement, you can adjust the turnbuckles, so that it is identical on the starboard and port.

Once the measurement is equal, you need to do the same thing with your cap shrouds. The cap shrouds are the wires that are above the mast. However, be careful and avoid bending the mast to the starboard or port. This usually happens because of the shroud’s length. Once you have adjusted the shrouds, check the mast again and make sure it is still straight.

Fore and Aft Adjustments

The next step is to adjust the fore and aft. This is done with the forestay and backstay. To do this, the mast should lean back a little and should never be moving forward. To do this correctly, begin by tightening the backstay and forestay a bit with your hands. You can utilize the main halyard as your plumb bob to keep it from leaning forward. Let the halyard hang by cleating it off. This should clear the free end above the boom.

Now check if the shackle is hitting the mast. If it is, you need to adjust it. You can do this by loosening your forestay and tightening the backstay a bit. Adjust gradually until the end of the halyard does not hit the mast. To prevent the turnbuckles from getting loose, you may need to put cotter pins on them. But before you put the cotter pins, take your sailboat for a spin when the wind is blowing at least at 10 knots. If you think your sail is working perfectly, you can now install the cotter pins.

While sailing, inspect how tight the windward shrouds are. If they feel a bit loose, tighten it a bit. You may also need to loosen the backstay and screw up the forestay a bit if the boat is a bit hard on the wheel or tiller. When that happens, it means that your mast may have too much aft rake. Now, if you noticed that the bow is turning away from the wind, you have to stir the mast backward a bit, as this may mean that your mast is positioned a bit far forward.

Fine-tuning your rig may take some trial and error at first but once you get used to it, it will be easier over time. However, if you think that the work is too overwhelming and you want to make sure it is done properly, you can always consider seeking help from a qualified rigger. These professional riggers have different tools such as rig tension gauges to ensure that your boat will be on its optimal performance.

Different Types of Sailboat Rigs

Different Types of Sailboat Rigs

Bermuda Rig (Sloop Rig)

The Bermuda rig, commonly called sloop rig, is the most common among the other types of rigs. It has a large single mainsail that goes on top of a mast. Compare to other rigs, it is easier to handle, and hoisting and trimming the single main sail does not require a large crew. This type of rig can sail close-hauled which makes sailing easier in any direction. Bermuda rigs are commonly found on sailboats from 12 feet to at least 100 feet.

Cutter Rig

This is almost the same with the Bermuda rig, but the only difference is that the forward sail of the cutter rig has two small head sails. This is commonly used during the 20th century. This is a common rig for a small sailboat that will be used for long-distance journeys on the ocean. This is because it is easier to handle with just a small crew and the three sails allow the small boats to sail in light or heavy weather.

Ketch Rig

The Ketch rig is almost similar to the Cutter rig with its mainsail is broken up into two sails. Instead of the usual single mast, ketch rigs have two masts. The masts are called mizzen mast which is the aft most mast and the sail is known as the mizzen sail. There are variations in a ketch rig, either a sloop or cutter setup. This type of rig is best for downwind compared to other sail rigs and can still perform nicely on windward. Many sailors also prefer this type of rig when going on a long ocean journey because of its performance and the sail combinations they can do.

Gaff Rig

The Gaff rig was more popular during ancient times, but they are still used by some today. Compared to other rigs that rely on the number of sails, the Gaff rig relies more on the shape of the sail. Instead of the usual triangular-shaped sails that have three corners, this rig uses a 4-cornered sail, making it very uncommon on smaller sailboats. There are some advantages of using a Gaff rig, such as providing more speed, better sail direction, and ease of control. However, it does not perform well on upwind like the Bermuda rig. This type of rig is commonly found on larger sailboats.

Maintenance and Taking Care of Your Rig

Maintenance and Taking Care of Your Rig

Your rig needs to be inspected and taken care of regularly. Even if you have a state-of-the-art rigging system, it does not mean that it will not wear out over time. This is especially true since most of the materials used were lightweight to improve the performance of the boat. Here’s what you need to do to keep your rig in top condition each season.

Inspecting the Standing Rigging

The best time to inspect your standing rigging is during the winter when you need to get your boat out of the water. It is recommended that you inspect your rig at least once a year to make sure it will continue to run smoothly for the next boating season. Since the terminals, shrouds, stays, and turnbuckles normally bear all the strain and load from the mast, they can wear and tear over time. While it will usually show some warning signs before you experience total failure, it is still best to take action before your rig sustains minor damages.

There are several ways to inspect the rig such as stepping on a bosun chair or unstepping the mast; however, it may not be needed. If you are going to use a chair, make sure that there are other people on the deck to help you climb. When climbing, it is vital that you use a line with ratings, a backup line, and harness that you can attach to the mast, and other things that you can safely hold on to each time you stop.

While going up, make sure that all your tools are well kept so you won’t accidentally drop them. This may damage your boat and injure the other people onboard. Always ask those on the deck to step away from where you are positioned to avoid injuries.

What to Look For When Inspecting the Rigging

Inspect if the chainplates and turnbuckles are at the right angles. If they are in direct line with the stays and shroud, then there may not be an issue on your rigs. However, if they are not aligned that way then you need to find the cause of it.

There are several reasons for this to happen, some of them are:

Misalignment of turnbuckles and shrouds

If it is due to misalignment, you should see some distortions and cracks around the chainplates on the deck. Metal fatigue can lead to a more serious problem in the future.

Leaks on the deck

Another reason for this is that there may be leaks on your deck. If this is the case, then you should do a thorough inspection and act right away. Leaks can cause serious damage to the structure. You should also be more worried if the chainplate is connected to a bulkhead made from wood under the deck, as this could mean that damage may be severe.

Water leaking on wood can cause it to rot. When this happens, it can wear out the bulkhead which in time may not be able to hold the chainplate and the pressure from the rig. If you suspect delamination due to leaks, it is best to consult an expert and have it checked immediately.

Unstepping the Mast

It is ideal to set up a process of regular and safe procedures when unstepping the mast. A trailered boat will not require frequent unstepping but if not, it should be done with care and a lot of preparation. This will help prevent harming and damaging the hardware. If your mast is not that heavy, hold it by hand in an upright position and release the stays and shrouds. Remember to only do this if you think it is safe. Doing this will prevent nicking or bending the mast even before it is lowered.

Before you secure the running rigging and the halyard, you may want to prepare some small pieces of carpet with shock cords. You can wrap them on the mast to prevent some tension in the rig. This will also prevent further damage to your mast.

As a rule, don’t use adhesive tape or wires when securing something. A whipping twine or rope is much better to use. A rope or whipping twine won’t leave adhesive behind, and they don’t leave marks on metal fittings and will not pierce through a rope.

When storing your standing rigging, you may want to find a place where it can be protected from different elements and that it is thoroughly rinsed with clean water before you store it. Your attic or dry basement will be a good choice. While still on the ground, it is also the best time to check your plugs, wirings, and running lights before you re-step the mast.

Stainless Steel Fittings

Your stainless steel fittings need to be washed and cleaned after sailing. It is important to keep them clean all the time to avoid developing stains that may lead to corrosion and cracks. You can use a water-soluble detergent to clean them. If you noticed any corrosion spots or stains, check them before and after cleaning. To remove stains, you can use a soft cloth and polish. Never use steel wool and rough scrubbing pads. If the rust or stain is not removed after polishing, it is time to replace it right away. If you want to protect them from snagging and abrasion, it’s recommended to use turnbuckle covers and commercial spreader boots.

Running Rigging

Running Rigging

Since modern standing rigging is now the standard, running rigging systems tend to be overlooked. Being complacent on your running rigging system may lead to serious problems, which is why it is vital to regularly check them as they bear extreme loads. It is important that you check all your lines when trailing your boat. The lines should be coiled neatly and must not be exposed to high winds. Avoid storing your running rigging when heavily soaked in water.

Another thing you should check religiously is the blocks. Check for rust, slow-running sheaves, stress cracks, and elongation of the shackle. You can prevent these things from happening if you clean your block carefully. You shouldn’t also leave your blocks soaking wet with saltwater. You can use dry silicone or lubricants to keep the mechanical workings clean. Also, it’s best to keep in mind that your sailboat may require more frequent maintenance during warmer climates than colder weather conditions.

Wire Lines

Wire lines usually have a hard coating that is usually utilized for lifelines. While they are designed to withstand saltwater, they still need cleaning and care from time to time. You can also find wire lines that have UV stabilizers as protection from solar degradation. When cleaning your lifelines, don’t ever use chemical cleaners as they may react on plastic coating. It is also not advisable to use kerosene as it can stain the plastic coatings. When cleaning your lifelines, check for rust that may be piercing through the coating as this may be a sign of crevice corrosion.

Following a maintenance procedure regularly will prevent gear failure while sailing, and it can also improve your rig’s performance.

Boat Rigging Terms

Boat Rigging Terms

If you are new to sailing, it pays to know the different terminologies and parts of the boat and rig. This will allow you to take care of your sailboat better and handle minor repairs and setups by yourself. Doing these things by yourself will not only enrich your knowledge of boating but will also save you money. In addition to that, you can easily strike a conversation with other sailors and explain the condition of your sailboat to repair services in case you experience major damage on your boat.

Checkstays – Also called baby stays, these provide additional mast support. They run under the lower spreaders

Clew – This is the aft lower corner of the sail

Luff – Forward edge of the sail

Foot – Bottom edge of the sail

Tack – A sail’s tack is a term used for the windward corner and the forward lower corner of a sail. It can also be the bottom corner of the luff

Backstay – Prevents the top of the mast to swing forward

Bury – The part of a keel-stepped mast between the hull and deck

Masthead Rig -It consists of a backstay and forestay on sailing vessels. A masthead rig has more headsails and is larger

Cutter Stay – Carries the jib or staysail (inner headsail)

Runners – Also known as running backstays, these are used to counteract or stabilize the rig

Partners – This is where the mast goes through. It is a hole in a deck and is also called a deck collar

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do You Rig a Small Sailboat Frequently Asked Questions

How do you set up a sailboat rig?

Setting up a sailboat rig is different for smaller boats and larger boats. How you rig cruising boats will also be different from racing boats. But here’s how to set up a sailboat rig for small boats. First, you need to install the rudder or check if it’s already in place. After that, you need to attach or check the tiller, if it is not installed yet. Now, it is time to attach the jib halyard, run the jib sheets, then the exciting part – attaching the mainsail to the halyard. Once the mainsail is attached, secure its tack and the mainsail clew on the outhaul. Slip the mainsail slug in the mast and raise the mainsail until it is all the way up. Cleat your main halyard and you are now all set to sail. Keep in mind that most small boats may still have different tillers and rudders, and setting up a rig may still vary.

How do you attach a sailboat to a sail?

To attach a sailboat to a sail, you need to spread the sail and identify the head in the triangular sail. The head is the narrowest part of the triangular sail. Once you have identified it, attach the jib sail and then the mainsail. The process of attaching the sailboat to sail is different between the types of boat.

How much does it cost to rig a sailboat?

Costs vary depending on the size of your sailboat. A small sailboat will cost less than a larger boat. For instance, a 40-foot boat may cost around $100 per foot when wire rigging is included. It may cost around $4,000 more or less. But it can cost more if you will include unstepping and stepping the rig and to haul and launch the boat.

How long does it take to rig a sailboat?

How long it will take someone to rig a sailboat will depend on the sailors’ experience. An experienced one will only need at least 10 minutes to fully rig a boat. A beginner may take more time.

What is the most common type of sailing rig?

The Bermuda rig is the most common kind of sailing rig. Many sailors prefer this type because it is easier to manage single-handedly or at least with only a small crew. It is also easier to sail in different directions with this type of rig.

How often do sails need to be replaced?

How often you need to replace your sails will depend on several factors such as the quality of the fabric, the number of times you have sailed, how you maintain your sails, and a lot more. However, on average, sails need to be replaced after 5 to 10 years.

How big of a sailboat do I need for the ocean?

If you are an experienced sailor, you can confidently sail boats that are smaller than 10 feet. However, keep in mind that the smaller the boat is, the more challenging and dangerous it is to sail in the ocean. If you are a beginner or an average sailor, 30-40 feet long should be safe enough.


Do you think you can now handle rigging your small sailboat on your own? How to rig a sail boat may look challenging at first but once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize how exciting and fun it is, especially when it is time to raise your sail. Learning how to rig a boat can be fulfilling and has a lot of benefits, too.

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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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