Sailing a Square Rigged Ship

For my first blog post I thought I would start where Plymouth Colony started, with the Mayflower. Rather than dwell on common questions often asked of the voyage, “How many passengers were on the ship?” (102) and “Did they really land on Plymouth Rock?” (It’s complicated, likely no, but maybe yes.) or “What ever happened to the Mayflower?” (The ship returned to England in the spring of 1621 and after the death of master Jones it was declared “in ruins” in 1624), I thought I would focus on the ship itself and the mechanics of sailing what was, in the 17thcentury, one of the most complicated machines as yet devised.            

There is a whole dictionary of terms one could learn in order to discuss a ship’s rigging and sailing in general. (A very early one and especial good for the sailor historian is John Smith’s “Sea Grammar” first published in 1627.) Spend just a few minutes with a sailor and you are likely to come away puzzled at what they are saying. To understand this blog post you need only know the basics.  The basics include these terms:

Spars – The masts (vertical poles) and yards (horizontal or angled poles)

              Mayflower has three masts, from front to back, foremast, mainmast and mizzen mast. 
              Also, the bowsprit with its spritsail yard. Think of the bowsprit as a sharply angled 
              over mast.
              A square-rigged ship refers to the direction of the sails, hanging square to the center
              line of the ship, rather than the square shape of the sails.                        

Rigging – Lines, blocks, fairleads, and belaying points

                        Lines – A rope with a specific function. (And yes, there are several “ropes” on a 
                        ship including, bolt rope, bell rope, etc.)
                        Blocks – pulleys
                        Fairleads – Shaped pieces of wood with smoothed holes through which a line’s
                        direction of travel can be controlled.
                        Belaying points – cleat, pin, or rail to which a line is secured
 Sails – Named in conjunction with the yad from which they hang in relation to a specific
            mast, i.e., the foresail hangs from the fore yard, maintop sail hangs from the maintop 
            sail yard, etc.

Image 1
A quick look at the rigging of the ship shows the network of lines, blocks and spars that together control the sails and hold the masts in place. In the case of merchant ship like Mayflower the function of all this stuff is to allow for the management of six sails so that for any given sea state and wind condition the ship, loaded with goods, will travel efficiently and safely to a desired destination. For the 1620 voyage Mayflower’s passengers occupied the lower deck where goods were normally stowed and the destination was the “northern parts of the Virginias.”            

The intended destination was in general, the mouth of the Hudson River on the East Coast of the North American continent. This is not a discussion of the Pilgrim’s motives and whether they intended to deceive or mislead their backers or the King, but rather to say generally the direction of travel for the ship was from the western side of the Atlantic to the eastern side.

Travelling across the Atlantic at any time of the year is a challenge, but going from west to east adds the complication of traveling against the prevailing winds of the North Atlantic. The winds, in general, travel in a clockwise fashion in the northern hemisphere. That is, the wind blows up along the east coast of the United States, across the Atlantic towards England then curves south toward Africa then west across the ocean again toward the Caribbean.

Because of the shape of the sails, and the shape of hulls in the 17th century, the most efficient way to sail the ship is with the wind coming from behind. A quick look at a map of the Atlantic would show that a ship taking advantage of the wind pattern leaving England would turn south, travels along the coast to Africa, before plunging across the Atlantic to make landfall on the east coast then travel along that coast before reaching their intended destination. A long voyage indeed. For Mayflower’s Master Jones, given that it was so late in the year, (September 6th, the very height of the hurricane season), the ship was overcrowded and likely undersupplied, and the southern round-about route would be so long, it is no wonder he likely chose the northern, shorter route in order to make his way across the Atlantic as quickly as possible. This decision, however, would require a great deal of tacking in order to travel against the prevailing winds.            

What is “tacking” you ask? Well aside from being the point of this blog post, it is the process by which any sailing vessel makes headway in a direction toward which the wind is blowing. In a small sunfish sailboat for example, moving the tiller, shifting the sail and hopping from one side of the boat to the other will allow the sailor to zig-zag their way up wind. In a vessel like Mayflower the process is slightly more complicated. As stated at the start, a square-rigged ship is a complicated machine requiring a well-choregraphed and the timely execution of specific actions to get the beamy, bluff bowed vessel to travel up wind.

Here’s how it happens:
We start the process with the ship sailing close-hauled. (1 in image 3) All that means is that the ship’s yards are braced over sharply so that the sails catch the wind and the ship is pointed as close to the eye of the wind as possible. Now, another commonly asked question about Mayflower is “How close to the eye of the wind can the ship sail?” Well, not very is the answer. In terms of degrees Mayflower sails at most 65° off the wind. So, if 0° is where the wind is coming from (the destination), and 90° is directly abeam, Mayflower will sail only 35° toward the destination.                                                                                  Image 2
The zig-zag track on image 2 is drawn to scale, more or less, with each arrow 65° off the wind. If the length of each arrow is a mile, the ship, tacking its way from start to end would travel five miles to cover about two miles of actual distance to the destination. This is a hypothetical track with no account for wave height (which would push a ship sideways) or leeway of the ship (drift of the ship sideways do to wind or current) so the actually distance traveled is likely greater. You can start to see what the Mayflower is up against in making it across the Atlantic.

Image 3
Now, back to tacking: With the ship close hauled Master Jones decides it is time to tack. He will give the command, likely to the mate who will be the one who actually yells out to the crew:
“Ready About” – This is a command akin to “heads-up,” but with more authority. It means the sailors, who will know what is coming, are to get to their positions throughout the ship and make sure the lines they are responsible for are ready as well. The helmsman should pay attention here, too for the next command.

“Helms alee” – (2 in image 3.) The helmsman puts the helm down, (doesn’t me he lets it go). It means the tiller is pushed to leeward, that is the side away from which the wind is coming. The mechanics of this is different for ships with wheels, or in the case of the Mayflower the whipstaff (perhaps the subject of a future blog post) but the result is the same. In its simplest terms, push the tiller to the right, the ship will turn left and vice-versa. At helms-alee the ship will start to head up into the wind.

A good way to think of the ship is as a weather vane shaped like an arrow. The feathers in the back will feel the wind evenly on both sides as the tip is pointing directly into the wind. If you look at Mayflower from the side you would see two things right away, the very tall aft castle (the whole back end of the ship) and the huge cloud of sails all over the ship. That aft castle acts like the feathers of the arrow on our weather vane. The sails can add or subtract surface area anywhere along the length of the ship.

So, at “helms alee,” the crew knows the ship is going to point up into the wind. The aft castle will do this on its own but by taking the forward most sail away, (in this case the spritsail) and centering the after most sail (the mizzen sail) will help get the ship to point up into the wind more quickly. (3 in image 2)When that has happened, the next command is given:
“Mainsail Haul” – (3 in image 3) There are lines that control all parts of the sail and help shape it to catch wind. These lines are in pairs, one on each side of the ship, often referred in the moment as the “windward or leeward” lift, brace, sheet, or tack. When “mainsail haul” is called, sailors haul on braces, that move the main yard, and sheets and tacks that control the lower corner of the sail, loosening the windward line and taking in the leeward line. The Maintopsail is treated the same.

Now the wind is backwinding the mainsail so that the sail is actually causing the ship to continue to pivot. The sails on the foremast are still not catching any wind. 

Also, at this time the mizzen sail is brailed up, (pulled up to its yard with, you guessed it, “brails”) If it were left set amidships it would want to keep the ship pointed up into the wind like a weather vane. The mizzen yard is dipped from one side of the mizzen mast to the other in preparation for the new tack. The helm is also shifted over now as well.

At this point, the ship is slowly heading away from the eye of the wind but still not far enough off the wind so all sails will draw. It is at this point the foremast comes into its own in the process. These forward sails are starting to backwind, the sail is catching the wind on the front of the sails causing the sail to billow out backwards. Given that these sails are still braced around for the previous tack, backwinding these forward sails has the effect of pushing the bow away from the eye of the wind (a good thing). When the ship has pivoted off the wind enough that the master judges all the sails will catch the wind on the new tack the next command is given.
“Let go and haul” – (5, image 3) The same process happens with the fore mast sails that happened with the main mast sails. Braces, sheets and tacks are “let go” on one side and “hauled” on the other. There are other lines, bowlines, that help control the vertical edges of the sails and lifts that control the horizontal angle of the yards that need attention. The helm is steadied on the new course and the last command is given:
“Reset All” – (6 in image 3Now the mizzen sail can be reset and the spritsail is reset and the sailors can coil all the lines keeping them neat and ready for the next tack while they enjoy some hard tack and beer.

With calm seas and moderate wind this tacking process can happen in minutes. As the wind increases and wave heights grow the ability to tack becomes more difficult. There is a process for going around the other way, so that the wind crosses the stern of the ship rather than the bow, when the waves are too great or there are other reasons tacking won’t or doesn’t work. It is called wearing around. Let’s save that for another time.

We can see from the above description that getting a ship like Mayflower to sail against the wind over the course of a months-long voyage is time consuming, prone to danger to crew, and requires a master and crew well practiced in the process. This description also illustrates yet another reason we can only marvel that making it safely across the stormy North Atlantic was not a straightforward proposition nor a guaranteed success for those who sailed aboard the Mayflower.

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