The Anatomy of a Wooden Ship: Part 2- The Masts


Built in 1784 and acquired by the British Royal Navy in 1787 for a botanical mission, the HMS Bounty was sent to the Pacific Ocean under the command of Captain William Bligh to acquire breadfruit for transport to the British West Indies. But the mission was never completed due to a mutiny led by acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian in an incident known as the Mutiny on the Bounty. Christian, the mutineers, and their native allies would later burn the Bounty after mooring it on Pitcarin Island.

Well, we’re off to a good start in this series. While the sails make the ship go with the wind, they’d fly of the ship if they weren’t strung to long, tall masts. These are tall poles erected more or less vertically on the ship’s centerline. These are meant to carry sails and spars while giving necessary height to a navigation light, look-out position, signal yard, or signal mast. Large wooden ships had several of these with size and configuration depending on their styles. Until the mid-19th century, all ship’s masts were made out of wood formed from a single or several pieces of timber, mainly consisting of a conifer tree trunk. From the 16th century, ships were often built of a size requiring taller and thicker masts than could be made from a single tree trunk. On these larger ships, to achieve the necessary height, the masts were built from up to 4 sections (also called masts), known in order of rising height above the decks as the lower, top, topgallant, and royal masts. Giving the lower sections sufficient thickness necessitated building up separate wood pieces. Such section was known as a made mast as oppose to masts formed by single pieces of timber known as pole masts.

The Masts and Poles:

Bibb- a wooden bracket supporting trestle trees.

Bonaventure Mizzenmast- small and furthest from the mizzenmast that’s often seen on larger galleons.

Boom- a horizontal pole along the mast’s bottom edge to where it’s fastened. Used for holding and extending the sail as well as changing its direction.

Cap- wooden mast top through which the mast is drawn when being stepped or lowered. Often made of elm.

Crow’s Nest- a small platform near the top of a mast, sometimes enclosed, where a lookout could have a better view when watching for sails or land.

Crosstree- a light oak timber spreader fixed across the trestle trees at the lower mast and top mast’s upper ends. Supported the topmast and topgallant mast shrouds.

Fid- a bar of wood or iron taking the topmast weight when it’s stepped on the lower mast. When a topmast hole corresponds with one in the lower mast, the fid is driven through to hold them together.

Fish- a wood piece, somewhat resembling a fish, used to strengthen a mast or yard.

Forebitt- post for fastening cables at ship’s foremast.

Foremast- the ship’s front mast located nearest to the bow.

Futtock Plates- plates of wood or iron where topmast shroud deadeyes were secured.

Gaff- a swinging spar where the head of a 4-sided fore-and-aft sail is attached and used to extend it away from a mast supporting it. When a gaff is hoisted, it carries up the sail with it. Normally takes 2 halyards to hoist a gaff-rigged sail.

Gooseneck- a fitting attaching the boom to a mast of fore-and-aft rigged ship, allowing the boom to swing sideways. Or the join between the whipstaff and the tiller.

Heel- the mast’s lower end. Also the keel’s back end.

Hoop- wooden ring securing a sail’s luff to a mast that slide up and down when it’s hoisted or lowered in a fore-and-aft rigged ship.

Horn- fixture securing a gaff to a mast but could slide up or down.

Hound- a large timber support bracket location directly below the masthead that supports the trestle trees and top.

Jack-Cross-Tree- a single iron cross-tree at a topgallant mast’s head.

Jack Staff- a short staff at ship’s bow from which the jack is hoisted.

Jackstay- an iron or wooden bar running along ship’s yard to which the sails are fastened.

Jackyard- spar used to spread the foot of a gaff-topsail.

Jib Stick- a spar used to hold out the jib when sailing almost directly downwind or in light airs when the jib may otherwise flap or collapse. The outboard end may have a U shape to take the jib to take a jib sheet or a point to go into the clew. The inboard end may be fastened or held at some convenient point such as a side stay or a purpose made fitting.

Jury Mast- a temporary or makeshift mast erected whenever the mainmast had been destroyed.

Lower Mast- the main mast body rising up from a ship and the complete mast’s first division.

Lubber’s Hole- the floor opening of the fore, main, and mizzen mast tops of square-rigged ships, giving access to the topmasts from below.

Main or main mast- the longest and primary mast located at the ship’s middle. On a 2-masted ship, it’s always the tallest mast.

Mast- a large vertical pole set in a ship used to attach further yards and spars to carry sails. A mast is taken through the hole in the decks and fitted onto the keelson step.

Made Mast- a mast made in sections from separate pieces of timber.

Mast Cheek- one of a pair of support brackets directly below the masthead’s trestle trees.

Masthead- mast top.

Mast Step- an often-strengthened socket used to take the mast’s downward thrust and hold it in position. May be on the keel or the deck on a smaller ship.

Mizzenmast- usually the third and/or furthest mast on a square-rigged ship or a 3 masted schooner. Also the furthest mast on a 2-masted ship like a ketch or yawl.

Pole-Mast- an uninterrupted single spar mast. Has no topmast nor topgallant mast.

Royalmast- the mast next above the topgallant mast and the fourth division of a complete mast.

Sheer Pole- a horizontal rod parallel to ratlines attached to the shrouds’ base just above the deadeyes to keep shrouds from twisting while they were being set up and tensioned.

Spar- a wooden pole used for supporting the rigging and sails such as a boom, gaff, yard, mast, or bowsprit.

Spreader- a metal bar used in a square-rigged ship’s foremast to give more spread to the fore sails’ tacks.

Sprit- a long spar stretching diagonally across a fore-and-aft sail to support the peak.

Top or fighting top- a masthead platform used to extend the topmast shrouds to provide the topmast additional support. Early tops were often enclosed and basket-like while later tops were always open. Was a great platform for look-out and for snipers and archers to take aim from.

Topgallant Mast or l’gallant- the mast above the topmast on a square-rigged ship. The third division of a complete mast.

Topmast- the mast above the lower mast. The second division of a complete mast. Highest mast in a fore-and-aft rigged ship.

Trestle Tree- oak timbers horizontally fixed back and forth on a lower and upper masthead of a square-rigged ship. Used to support the topmast or topgallant mast, the lower and upper crosstrees, and the top. Normally rests on the lower mast’s cheeks or a topmast’s hounds.

Truck- a wooden top of a mast, staff, or flag pole.

Vangs- braces supporting the mizzen mast gaff to keep it steady. Connected to the gaff’s outer end, they reach downwards to the ship’s furthest side, where they’re hooked and fashioned. They’re slackened when the wind is fair and drawn in when the gaff’s position is unfavorable to the ship’s course.

Yard – a long tapering spar on a square-rigged ship slung to a mast and spread the head of a square sail, lugsail, or lateen and forward from the shrouds. Each square sail hangs from its own yard. Seamen furl the sails by bending over the yard as they use both hands hauling the sail. The sail is trimmed to the wind by braces leading from the yard arms back or forward to another mast or down to the deck.

Yardarm- the main yard across the mast holding up the sail or either end of the yard on a square sail. The yardarm is a vulnerable target in combat and a favorite place to hang prisoners or enemies. Also a yard’s outward end.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s