Constitution’s Sail Power
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
A ship today is driven by steam, diesel, or gas turbine engines buried deep in her hull. The only outward indication we have of their presence is the size of the bow wave as the vessel moves through the water. In the early 19th Century, steam power was only beginning to be tried out at sea, and a ship displayed her “horsepower” in what was an often awesome cloud of canvas rising above the hull. In Constitution’s case, it meant nearly an acre of canvas up in the breeze on a relatively calm day when she might set most of the three dozen sails she carried.
One of the ways sailing ships were classified was by the number of masts they had and the type of sails they had and where they carried them. The sails themselves were divided into two types. The “square” sail was rarely square, but it was hung from a spar that, at rest, was set across a mast, perpendicular (“square”) to the length of the ship. “Fore and aft” sails were just that: they normally hung parallel to the ship’s centerline when at rest.
Ship types fell into four broad categories. The smallest generally were the “sloops,” ships fitted with a single mast and rigged with fore and aft sails. Next up in size, and forming the most numerous group of sailing ships were the “schooners” and “brigs.” Schooners had two masts and nearly all fore and aft sails. (Later in the century, schooners were built with up to seven masts, all of them rigged identically with fore and aft sails.) Brigs also had two masts, but the bulk of their sails were “square.” The fourth group, the ships of the largest size, were termed “full-rigged ships,” or just “ships,” for short. These had three masts, each fitted mainly with square sails. Like the brigs, the ships carried a few fore and aft sails near the bow and the stern.
Let us consider Constitution’s suit of sails, going from bow to stern.
Forward of the foremast, suspended on “stays” running from that mast out and down to the jib boom and flying jib boom projecting out ahead of the ship, were the triangular “head sails.” These were the flying jib, the jib, and the fore staysail. They provided assistance to the helmsman who steered the ship in that the lateral pressure on them helped counteract wave and swell action on the hull.
The lowest sails on the fore and main masts were the foresail and mainsail, also known as the “courses.”
(There was no course on the rearmost mast, the mizzen, because it would have interfered both with the wind pattern blowing on the mainsail and with the helmsman, who was located just ahead of that mast.) These large sails were used under fair wind conditions to drive the ship at a good rate of speed. In battle, the courses usually were brailed up to their yardarms to lessen the amount of damage they suffered from shot flying across the ship at their level.
Above the courses, and at the same level on the mizzen mast, were the “topsails.” These were the work horses among the ship’s suit of sails, being used both to drive the ship and to maneuver her in most situations. The main topsail was the largest single sail in the ship. It, and the fore and mizzen topsails, provided the main propulsion for the ship in battle, being somewhat above the zone of flying shot and therefore less likely to be shredded.
At the next level up the three masts were the “topgallant sails” (pronounced “t’gants”). Somewhat smaller than their respective topsails, these sails were second only to the topsails in their usefulness. By adjusting them, an easier job with them than with their larger, lower cousins, a conning officer could get a fine adjustment to the motion provided by the topsails. These sails, too, usually were set in battle.
The topmost sails in general use on full-rigged ships were the “royals,” set above the topgallants on all three masts. These sails were quite small, and came into use when the wind was light and the skipper wanted to keep his speed up as much as possible. Unlike their lower cousins, which were set from or furled to their respective yardarms, the royals were set or furled by raising or lowering their yardarms with lines from the fighting tops (the platforms high on the lower masts). This made it unnecessary in most situations for sailors to climb the nearly 200 feet to the top of the mainmast, and nearly as far on the each of the other two masts.
During some periods in her career, Constitution also was fitted with skysails, tiny scraps of canvas set yet again above the royals. These were used only when wind was almost non-existent and the skipper desperate to move.
Behind the mizzenmast was rigged the largest of the foreand-aft sails, called the “spanker” or “driver.” A quadrilateral sail, it, like the head sails, helped the helmsman keep the ship on course while also contributing to forward motion. It was suspended from a gaff and had its foot, or lower edge, spread by a boom. Above the spanker, between the gaff supporting its upper edge and the mizzen topmast, was rigged the triangular “gaff topsail.”
Constitution carried two other categories of sail for use in particular situations, the “staysails” and the “studdingsails.” The staysails were made of very heavy canvas and were used mainly in stormy weather when most other sail had to be taken in. They helped the skipper keep the ship heading in a direction calculated best to let her to ride out the storm safely. The fore staysail was the innermost of the three headsails. Main staysails were rigged on “stays” (taut lines) between the main and fore masts, and took their names from the mainmast sail above which its stay was attached, e. g., the main topsail staysail. Mizzen staysails likewise were rigged on stays between the mizzen and main masts.
The “studdingsails” (pronounced “stuns’ls”) were long, narrow sails that could be set on outriggers extended from the ends of the yardarms on either side at every level up to and including the royals. (Booms were fitted on either side of the ship to hold down the lower edges of the fore and main stuns’ls; there were no lower mizzen stuns’ls.)
A special stuns’l was fitted to the spanker: it was called the “ringtail.” These sails, which took considerable effort to rig, were used only in the lightest of airs. They might also be used in somewhat stronger breezes if a situation warranted, e.g., being chased by an enemy.
Sails were “set” either by unfurling them from their yardarms, or, in the case of fore-and-aft sails, raising them into position on their stays.
Sails could be removed from use or reduced in efficiency either by “furling,” “brailing,” “clewing up,” or “taking a reef.” “Furling” meant having men on the yardarms hauling the sail up into a neat package tied off all along the yardarm. This was the usual procedure after anchoring. “Brailing” was used on the spanker to reduce its effective area by pulling on lines (“brails”) attached to its outer edge and led through blocks on the gaff and supporting mast so that it was pinched in. “Clewing up” meant to haul in on the “clewlines” running from the lower corners of a square sail up and through blocks attached to the mast near where the yardarm crossed the mast. This reduced the area of a sail drawing the wind. To “take a reef,” a square sail was drawn up until one of several lines of “reef points,” short lines sewn into the body of a sail, was brought to the yardarm where they were tied off, thereby reducing the effective sail area. “Taking a single reef” meant drawing up the sail just to the first row of reef points; a “double reef” meant taking it to the second.
The large topsails also were fitted with “buntlines,” ropes attached to the “foot” (bottom edge) of each sail and running up through blocks on the yardarm and down on deck. Using these lines, the wind could be quickly spilled out of the sails and power reduced thereby.
The major lines used in sail handling were the “braces,” “halyards,” tacks,” and “sheets.” “Braces” were attached to each end of each yardarm, and were used to turn that spar so that its sail was better able to catch the wind. “Halyards” were the ropes used to haul the sails to the yards (yardarms). A “tack” was the line on the lower corner of a square sail used to draw it forward. A “sheet” also was attached to the lower corner of a sail, and used to hold the sail down and provide a counterbalance to the tack. These are the most numerous of the many lines that made up a ship’s “running rigging,” the lines used to manipulate the sails to propel the ship in accordance with the Captain’s orders. (The various ropes used to hold the masts in place are known collectively as the “standing rigging.”)
Manipulating the sails in response to the Captain’s orders required the teamwork of scores of men. Today, when the Captain of one of our newest warships orders a speed change, someone pushes a lever or turns a knob, and it happens. Something has been lost.
Bathe, Basil W., ed. The Visual Encyclopedia Of Nautical Terms Under Sail. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.
Harland, John. Seamanship In The Age Of Sail. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM