It’s the perpetual debate: should the gaff use jaws or a saddle? Some see jaws as an antique and crude solution: heavy, snag-prone, and liable to break. By contrast, a mast-hugging saddle spreads the load while maintaining a lower profile, doesn’t snag lines, and can’t break a leg like a wooden jaws can. But there are hidden dangers behind the saddle’s shine.
Having drunk the Kool-Aid of the saddle enthusiasts before knowing anything of gaff rigs for myself, I built a saddle for Ganymede which gave nothing but trouble until I finally replaced it. To begin with, it was prone to capsize and not load evenly, which may have been as much due to my bad design as anything else, but there it is: it was rare to get it to sit properly. Then the greater surface area had more friction going both up and down, making setting and striking harder. Last of all, one thing rarely accounted for, is the awful twisting load the gaff puts on the hinge. The twist is harder the more the gaff is eased out, and after nearly tearing the pin right out of the aluminum of the gaff, we had to sleeve the spar and weld doublers onto the saddle in farthest Mexico. Even so the tortured pin elongated the holes and racked the saddle nearly into pretzel. I’ve never seen a saddle since that wasn’t suffering damage from racking so.
One of the drawbacks of old-style wooden jaws is that they have to be so huge, that they don’t allow the gaff to twist off downwind as far as is ideal before impinging on the aft lowers. I solved all the problems of wooden jaws in one swoop by making a set out of carbon fiber. Using a paint can with a slightly larger diameter than the six-inch mast, a piece of wooden block and a lot of heavy vinyl tape, I made a form of sorts to start the jaws on. After getting the initial shape with glass and epoxy and trimming it to size, I built it up with carbon fiber biax and twill, and made it rack-proof by incorporating a strong bridge between the two legs. The low profile allows the gaff to be eased as far as a saddle would, while the whole setup weighs less than the old one and has given no trouble for many years.
The question of lines snagging behind the jaws—a real problem on some boats—is answered partly by curving the jaws upward so that in action they don’t stick too far past the mast, and partly by routing the lines to pinrails away from the mast. This not only removes the unseamanlike mast slap that makes bad neighbors in marinas and anchorages, but allows for better positioning when working with the halyards.