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sails & rigging

Amerigo Vespucci
Fig. 1  The Amerigo Vespucci, in Bermuda, 2000, dispalying the detailed masts, spars and rigging. (Tallships Race 2000)

In the 19th-century heyday of sailing ships, strict maritime usage limited the appellation ship to square-rigged vessels only those with three or more masts, each with a topgallant mast, and each crossed by at least five yards, the spars that held the great square sails that gave the ship her power and her singular beauty. Supporting and controlling sails and masts, hundreds of separate lines, cables, ropes, spars, blocks, tackles, and lifts were organized into a system of enormous complexity, but one that any sailor knew as well as the palm of his hand.  Along with the parts of the body of the ship itself, each mast, sail, cable, spar, and rope had its name, and thus nautical nomenclature is among the largest and richest of any technology.

Fig. 2  The Bluenose II, in Bermuda, 2000. (Tallships Race 2000)

Limitations in the available materials, of course, influenced the design and size of almost every part of the ship.  Trees that were large, straight, and strong enough to make a complete mast (some masts were more than 60 m/200 ft tall) were rare. Hence the mainmast ended in an iron and timber structure, the top, on which was mounted the topmast. The topmast in turn supported the topgallant mast, which could be lowered and replaced, if necessary, even at sea. The top-most mast used only on the largest ships, was called the royal.  The great square sails hung in ordered procession as many as five or six each for foremast, main mast and mizzenmast across each mast.  Each sail was suspended from its yard, and these were supported (in fact, raised and lowered when necessary) by a system of rope or chain braces, used to change the angle of the yards, and thus the sails, to take advantage of changes in wind direction.

Each square sail had its name: mainsail, topsail, topgallant sail, royal, skysail, and moonsail; each smaller as one looked upward. The sails were further identified according to the mast on which they were set (mizzen royal, main royal). There were special names for a few: the crossjack, or "crojack," was the lower square sail on the mizzenmast, and the corresponding sail on the foremast was the foresail, or forecourse.

The distinction between square sails and fore-and-aft sails is an important one. Early fore-and-aft sails, usually triangular in shape, were hung abaft the mast (that is, in the direction of the length of the ship; square sails hung athwart, or across the width of the ship) on gaffs that were suspended at an angle from the mast.  Fore-and-aft ships generally carried only two sails per mast.  Fore-and-aft schooners, and ships that used combinations of fore-and-aft and square sails  the brigantine, barquentine, and topsail schooner  did not require large crews to handle their relatively fewer sails.  Although, they were often slower than the square-riggers, they were easier to operate, and because they could sail closer to the wind, they were handier for coastal voyages.  The square-riggers used the steadier trade winds and plotted their routes to make the most of them.

Amerigo Vespucci
Fig. 3  The Amerigo Vespucci, in Bermuda, 2000. (Tallships Race 2000)

Modern sailboats still use these fore-and-aft sails and have kept their names: staysail, jib, and spanker, among many others.

Most ingenious of all the sails on a square-rigger were the studding sails (pronounced "stunsails"), which were small extensions hung at either side of a squaresail in light air to add extra drive and speed.  One is more likely to see ships under full sail, complete with studding sails, in bank calendar illustrations than in authentic old photographs, for these sails were difficult to handle and useful only in very special wind conditions. The "moonraker," set on a special pole above the topmast, was the most fancifully named sail of all, and the least often seen.

Around the world sails had been made from papyrus, palm leaves, straw matting stiffened with bamboo strips, animal skins, and canvas woven of flax.  Flax sails were on all the great explorers' ships, as well as on those of Admiral Lord Nelson and Captain Cook.  By the time the sailing ship reached its technological apex, however, most sails were made of cotton.  American ships of the mid-19th century advertised Yankee cotton to all the world.   For the finest yachts, however, sailmakers used Egyptian cotton, with its very long fiber.

The rigging that held the masts and controlled the sails in the age of great sailing ships and still does today on all sail-equipped vessels was divided into two main types: standing rigging and running rigging.

Generally speaking, standing rigging was more or less permanently in place, holding the masts and sometimes the bowsprit, the large spar projecting over the bow of a vessel.  Rope shrouds supported the masts on each side (with cross ropes called ratlines, by which the crew could climb), and stays held the masts fore and aft. When standing rigging was made of rope it tended to stretch and shrink, depending on the strains put upon it, the wetness or dryness of the weather, and the materials from which it was made.  To tighten the shrouds, sailors used wooden blocks called deadeyes.  A pair of deadeyes, rigged with lanyards, could be hauled tight, or "set up," to tighten the shrouds.  Later, when iron and steel wire rigging was manufactured, turnbuckles or rigging screws proved to be an infinitely more efficient system.

Running rigging controls the smaller spars and the sails.  Halyards ("haul yards") were originally used to lift the yard.  On today's sailboats they hoist the sails. Downhauls and lifts do what their names suggest.  A buntline is a rope used to pull up the bottom of a topsail, thus spilling the wind the sail is holding.  A furling, or gasket, line wraps around a furled sail, tying it to its mast or yard.  Reefing halyards were used to rotate the yard, rolling the sail around it and reefing (shortening) it.  A square sail and modern conventional sails, use reef points, short ropes attached along the sail's width to tie it to the yard or boom when reefing it.

* Maritime Museum, South Australia

* The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
Tall Ships Information File

* Tall Ships 2000 Official Glabal Race Site

* The Maritime History Virtual Archives