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Do I need to add running backstays?

2023 September 1

Dear Boat Doctor,

I just bought a 1984 Tayana 37 and am beginning a refit with a plan for long-distance cruising. The boat is set up as a cutter but doesn’t have running backstays. The guy I bought it from didn’t seem to know about runners but claimed never to have an issue with the mast pumping. I suspect he didn’t sail the boat much. Do I need to install new runners or am I OK without them?

Mike Boemer

Port Sanilac, Michigan

Dear Mike,

I am familiar with the Tayana 37 and its rig. When you say it doesn’t have runners, I assume it has aft-led intermediate stays. These stays attach at the level of your cutter stay and lead to the deck near the aft lowers. If you don’t have runners or intermediates, something is likely awry. Without any stay to oppose the cutter stay, the load of the stay and sail will cause the mast to pump fairly dramatically. Pumping is disconcerting and can be destructive.

Taking a few steps back, a sailboat rig is a delicate balance of opposing tension and compression members. In general, the stays are in tension, the mast and spreaders are in tension, and set up to support each other and resist the pressures from the sails. The stays oppose each other: port lowers balancing starboard lowers, forward lowers opposing after lowers, and so on.  Fore and aft, the backstay opposes the forestay, and something needs to oppose the cutter stay. This is typically done in one of two ways, either with running backstays or aft-led intermediate stays.  

In most cases, running backstays are the best way to oppose the cutter stay. They belay far enough aft to provide leverage against the cutter stay. The negative to running backs is that you must tend them, or they get in the way of the boom. This is not a big deal at sea when tacks are measured in hours if not days, but when short tacking close to shore, this can be a hassle.

The answer to running backs is the aft-led intermediate. The idea here is that the intermediate opposes the cutter stay and doesn’t get in the way of the boom.  This is all good, except the geometry doesn’t work out. Since the angle of the stay is very steep, it doesn’t offer much pull aft, the tension is mostly downward, and this adds compression load to the mast.

In either case, intermediates or missing runners, I would suggest you add runners to your boat. Sure, it’s a bit of work when tacking, but that’s just motivation to head offshore where you don’t tack very often.