The Anatomy of a Wooden Ship: Part 1- The Sails


Here is a painting of the USS Constitution, affectionately known as “Old Ironsides,” due to its prowess during the War of 1812 where it defeated 5 British warships. Built in the 1790s, this heavily armed frigate is the world’s oldest commissioned naval ship that’s still afloat. Though today it sits in Boston Harbor as a museum piece taking part in ceremonies, educational programs and historic reenactments with a US Navy crew of 60.

You see these ships in hit swashbuckling pirate movie as they float like castles on the waves with their intricate wooden facades and graceful sails blowing in the wind. But while movies tend to glamorize life on a wooden ship as full of glorious naval engagements, swashbuckling pirates, bold explorers, and trips to exotic islands with either nubile native women or cannibals, the reality of living on these ships wasn’t as fun as movies make it out to be. For one, life on a wooden ship often included bad food filled with weevils, unsanitary conditions, nasty diseases, rat infestations, lots of shit, hours of boredom, horrifying injuries and medical care, sexism, classism, and not a woman in sight. Not to mention, voyages could last years, punishments were harsh with keelhauling or flogging, lots of drinking and impressment, and other hellish things. Oh, and the pirates, well, they’re basically gangsters raiding merchant ships who were drunks who didn’t bathe or shave for months and were more often than not riddled with STDs and bad teeth. From the early modern period to the mid-19th century, wooden sailing ships dominated the waves in an era called The Age of Sail. Harnessing the power of winds and current, these ships helped kick start an age of exploration, globalization, colonialism, international trade, great naval battles, smallpox, racism, and slavery. Yet, even so, we all muse about the glorious sailing ships across the sea in their full sail glory while the men onboard seem to have a knack for adventure.


The HMS Victory was launched in 1765 and is first rate ship of the line with its 104 guns. It’s best known as Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 which has gone down in history as one of Great Britain’s greatest Royal Navy victories. While the Victory survived the battle since it’s been on drydock as a museum ship since 1922, Lord Nelson did not.

I kick off this wooden ship series with the defining sails from a wooden sailing ship. And boy, did these ships have a ton of them tied to the masts and help propel the ship with the wind. Now sailing along the water has been around at least since the 6th millennium BCE with archaeological remains found from excavations into Cucuteni-Trypillian culture and of the Ubaid period in Mesopotamia. Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians used square rig boats as early 3200 BCE and it’s believed they established sea trading routes as far as the Indus Valley. Yet, for much of ancient times and the medieval period, many of the large sailing ships were man-powered galleys a la Ben Hur. Triangular fore-and-aft rig were invented in the Mediterranean as single-yarded lateen sails and began as a convention in southern Europe as the gentle climate made its use practical. And in a few centuries in Italy before the Renaissance, it began replacing the square rig which had dominated Europe since the dawn of sea travel. Yet, despite having seen it in trade and during the Crusades, Northern Europeans were resistant to adopting the fore-and-aft rig. But the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration changed this. From 1475, their use increased and within a century, the fore-and-aft rig was commonly used on boats on rivers and estuaries in Britain, northern France, and Low Countries. Though square rigs remain standard for harsher conditions of the open North Sea as well as in trans-Atlantic sailing. Yet, even those had some fore-and-aft sails for navigational purposes.

The Sails:

Bonnet- extra canvas strip fixed to the foot of a fore-and-aft sail.

Bunt- middle of a square sail.

Clew- corner sail with hole attached to ropes.

Course Sail- the largest and lowest square sail on a mast.

Cringle- a sail’s corner loop where lines are attached.

Cross Jack- the lowest square sail or the mizzen mast’s lower yard.

Drabler- an additional ship canvas attached to the bonnet’s foot of a fore-and-aft sail.

Driver- a large sail suspended from the mizzen gaff. Can also be a jib-headed spanker.

Flying Jib- the outermost triangular fore-and-aft sail. Extends beyond the jib and is carried on a stay attached to a flying jib-boom.

Foot- a sail’s bottom edge.

Fore-and-Aft-Sail- a triangular sail behind mast, attached to a gaff and boom parallel with a keel.

Foresail- lowest sail set on the foremast on a square-rigged ship.

Gaff-Topsail- a triangular topsail with its foot extended upon the gaff.

Genoa- a large jib overlapping the mainsail.

Head- top edge of a 4-sided sail. Can also be the area in front of the forecastle and beak. May be proper term for a ship’s toilet.

Headsail- sail set forward of the ship’s foremast.

Jackyard Topsail- a triangular topsail set above the mainsail in a gaff-rigged ship.

Jib- a small triangular fore-and-aft sail carried on a stay near the ship’s front stretching from the top foremast to the bow or bowsprit.

Lateen Sail- a triangular fore-and-aft sail, set on a long yard at an angle to a relatively short mast. Sometimes supported with boom.

Leech- a square sail’s vertical edge and a fore-and-aft sail’s afterside.

Loose-Footed- a fore-and-aft sail set without a boom such as most jibs.

Luff- a fore-and-aft sail’s leading forward edge. Also to bring a ship’s bow closer to the wind, usually to decrease the headsails’ power.

Lugsail-a quadrilateral sail lacking a boom, has a foot larger than the head, and is bent to a yard hanging obliquely on the mast.

Main Sail- the ship’s principal and largest sail. In square-rigged ships, it’s the lowest sail on the Main Mast.

Mizzen- sail behind or on top the ship’s main sail. Can also be a 3-masted ship.

Moonraker- a small light sail set above the skysail on a square-rigged ship.

Peak- the upper far corner of a four-sided, gaff-rigged, fore-and-aft sail.

Reef Band- an extra canvas strip attached across a sail to strengthen it where the reef points are located.

Roach- curved cut in sail’s edge to prevent chafing.

Royal- a small sail on a royal mast just above the topgallant sail. Normally the fourth sail in ascending order from the deck.

Sail- a cloth or canvas piece or combination of pieces cut and sewn together to the desired shape and size attached to a ship’s spars and/or rigging. Used for catching wind and propelling the ship. Often repaired at sea or at anchor in a secluded bay thousands of miles from home. Could be quite a patchwork of different material pieces.

Skysail- a small square sail above the royal on a square-rigged ship. Normally the fifth sail in the ascending order from the deck.

Skyscraper- triangular sail above the skysail in fair weather.

Spanker- a fore-and-aft sail on the aftermost mast, bent with a gaff and boom.

Spinnaker- a large triangular sail opposite the main sail.

Sprit Sail- a square or fore-and-aft sail extended by a sprit.

Square Sail- a four-sided sail set from a yard and hanging symmetrically across the mast.

Stay Sail- a triangular fore-and-aft sail set by attaching it to a stay.

Studding Sails- square sails rigged to extra yards that are lashed and extra further out from the primary yards. Typically extended the width of the sails on a square-rigged ship.

Stun Sail- a light auxiliary sail to the principal sails’ sides.

Tack- the lower forward corner of a fore-and-aft sail. Can be the rope used to hold the lower course corners and staysails on the weather side of a square-rigged ship or a line used to pull a studding sail’s lower corner to its boom. Or can be to change course on a ship by shifting the helm and sails’ position.

Throat- the upper foremost corner of a fore-and-aft sail.

Topgallant Sail- the sail set above the topsail and third sail in the ascending order from deck on a square-rigged mast. Later 19th century ships may carry a lower topgallant sail and an upper topgallant sail.

Topsail- a square sail set above the lowest sail on the mast of a square-rigged ship and is the second sail in ascending order from the deck. Can also be a triangular or square sail set above the gaff of a lower sail on a fore-and-aft-rigged ship. But while it’s usually the second sail in ascending order from deck on a fore-and-aft rigged ship, it can sometimes be the third.

Trysail- a small fore-and-aft sail used during storm conditions and placed instead of the regular sail. Usually hoisted on a lower mast.


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