A LANDLUBBER’S GUIDE TO TALL SHIPS

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:17

In an episode of The Onedin Line, Captain Baines (who should have known better), after looking up at the foremast-head, made a remark concerning the top-gallant rigging. His ship, lacking a top-gallant mast, had none. To help fellow non-nautical ship-lovers to detect similar errors, and to enable them to avoid making mistakes when referring to the Tall Ships, I offer the following information.

The first essential, of course, is to be capable of recognising the kind of vessel under discussion. To avoid undue complications, I shall restrict this article to seven types – schooners, topsail-schooners, brigs, brigantines, barques, barquentines, and ships. The main factors which differentiate one type from another being the number of masts and whether the vessel is square-rigged or fore-and-aft rigged; the former having sails attached to yards that point across the breadth, and the latter having their sails on booms and gaffs that point from bow to stern.

A schooner has two or more masts, all of which are rigged fore-and-aft. The Thomas W. Lawson, an exceptional case, had seven masts. Schooners should not be confused with ketches and yawls. These have two masts, a main and a mizzen, but the after mast is much shorter than the main and, in a yawl, is stepped behind the tiller.

A topsail schooner differs from the above by being partly square-rigged, with one, two, or (infrequently) three square sails, sometimes on its fore-topmast only, sometimes on its other masts. Sixty-odd years ago a fleet of five-masted topsail schooners appeared. Each carried three square sails on its fore and mizzen topmasts.

To be designated a brig, a vessel must have two masts, both of which are fully square-rigged. Our own Royalist comes into this category. A variation, one I have never seen, is the snow brig which has a short third mast (or pole) behind and almost touching the main-mast. This carries a fore-and-aft sail called a spanker or main-trysail. The vessel’s name comes from the Dutch sneeuw.

A brigantine also has two masts, but it is fully square-rigged on the fore-mast and fore-and-aft rigged on the main-mast. It usually has a couple of square sails on its main-topmast. In the past a similar ship that set no square sails on the main was known as a hermaphrodite brig. The term is now obsolete, and the vessel is classed as a brigantine.

A vessel with three or more masts, all of which with the exception of the aftermost are square-rigged, is a barque. In the days of sail, three and four-masted barques were quite common. Barques with five masts were not unknown. During the nineteenth century various sail combinations were tried out but, for the sake of clarity, details of hermaphrodite barques, jackass barques, and jigger barques will not now be given.

Any vessel possessing three or more masts and being fully square-rigged on the fore-mast only is a barquentine.

Considered as a species of the genus ‘sailing vessel’, the term ‘ship’ refers to a vessel which has three or more masts, all of them fully square-rigged.

Taking a four-masted barque for an example, the masts reading from bow to stern are the fore, the main, the mizzen, and the jigger. Each mast is made up of sections, the number of which has varied. For many years the number in most sizeable vessels was three – the fore (or main or mizzen) i.e. the bottom portion, a middle part called the topmast, and above these the top-gallant-mast. The sections overlapped, and the two upper parts were supported on platforms called fids. Later vessels (circa 1920) sometimes combined the lower part and the topmast in one spar. The height of a mast could be anything up to 180 feet, and in John McCulloch’s book, A Million Miles In Sail, we are told that the outstretched arms of three men would be required to embrace a mast.

When preparing this piece, I drew a diagram of a four-masted barque and without difficulty listed over two hundred items. This, however, is not as daunting as it might seem, for things which apply to the fore-mast are similar on the main and mizzen. Each of the square-rigged masts, for instance, has six yards, three of which are able to move up and down. Each yard has a metal jackstay to which its sail is attached. Out of a total of thirty-three sails, eighteen are connected with the yards. Starting from the fore-mast we have, in ascending order, the foresail (or forecourse) the fore lower topsail, the fore upper topsail, the fore lower top-gallant sail, the fore upper top-gallant sail, and the fore royal. For the main-mast substitute ‘main’ for ’fore’, and for the mizzen, with one exception, replace ‘main’ with ‘mizzen’ –  the anomaly being that the lowest sail is the cro’jack or crossjack.

The jigger mast carries a fore-and-aft sail known as the spanker, and over this a gaff-topsail. Other fore-and-aft sails are the four forward of the fore-mast. From the bowsprit in, they are the flying jib, the outer jib, the inner jib, and the fore-topmast staysail. Between the remaining masts are nine other staysails in sets of three. Between the fore and the main, in descending order, we have the main royal staysail, the main top-gallant staysail, and the main topmast staysail. Similarly, between the main and mizzen there are the mizzen royal staysail etc.; but between the mizzen and the jigger this varies to jigger top-gallant staysail, jigger topmast staysail, and jigger staysail.

Incidentally, the late Captain Morgan of Northwood told my father that on his first voyage he was surprised at the eagerness displayed by men sent aloft to gain a position at a yard’s extremity. He soon learnt that those near the mast, having the bunt (or middle cloths) of the sail to cope with, had much more work to do.

Visitors to a Tall Ship are often astonished by the size of things which, from a distance, looked quite insignificant. Ropes that were thought to be of small diameter are large enough to knock from a yard anyone hit by one blown by a strong wind. I have been told the former Cowes Harbourmaster, the late Captain Goodenough, was dislodged by a swinging bunt-line. I imagine he must have fallen into the sea. Had he hit the deck, I doubt if he would have survived.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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