On Ships and Nautical Affairs: Sails

Have you ever been confused about what exactly the different sails on a ship are and do? And why they matter to sailors? Well, the most obvious answer is that they are essential to the ship actually sailing. But how?

All sailing ships have four basic elements: the body, the masts, the rigging, and the sails. Okay, this is an extremely simplistic list. There is far more to it. But for our intents and purposes here, I’m sticking with these four. The rest fall under these main categories and are essentially supports or details of this list. At the most basic, a ship can have one deck and one mast – and these are usually fore-and-aft rigged with a singular triangular-shaped sail. (For more on rigging, see my last blog here.)

There are actually several different types of sails and even sail shapes for flexibility, but in general only three are referenced, depending on the rigging: I’m going to call these three types ‘categories’ because all other sail types fall under them in some way. These are: mainsails, jib or headsails, and spinnakers or downwind sails.

The mainsail is always the lowest and largest sail attached to the main mast, regardless of rigging and ship-type. As ships range in number of masts and sizes, the increased number of sails is then named after the mast on which they are attached, and the position of the sail. So for example, on a square-rigged vessel with three masts and four levels of sails, the lowest and largest on the main mast would be called the mainsail, the next up the main mast would be the lower mainsail, the next the middle mainsail, and the topsail (note the lack of ‘main’ in the name, which wasn’t the case for other masts).

The headsail is the sail set in front of the foremost mast. Not all ships have a headsail, but typically ships with two or more masts did. The headsails, or jibs, often helped with side-to side maneuverability and were typically fore-and-aft rigged.

Spinnakers are only used when downwind to help the ship catch the most air and propel it forward. Technically, they could be considered headsails by their location out in front of the other masts, but as they are only used in downwind situations, they get their own category.

Sails are also typically named after their rigging, as opposed to the rigging being named after the sail shape. At first, I thought the latter was the case and soon discovered otherwise through my readings. Square-shaped sails are actually more trapezoidal in shape and are made to help the wind’s impact on the ship. Because of their shape and design, square sails are used when a ship is sailing with the wind and allow large ships to have maximum potential speed by catching the airflow and billowing outward which propels the ship forward. However, square sails are not as helpful when sailing against the wind or at an angle to it.

This is where the triangular sails of fore-and-aft rigging come into play and the reason why the square-rigging of most large ships is accompanied by fore-and-aft rigging. Triangular shaped, or commonly called lateen, sails could be used in both square and fore-and-aft riggnig depending on the ship and its size. For example, on a single-masted ship, the mainsail could actually be a large triangular-shaped sail square-rigged and attached to the main mast. However, in most cases, if a ship has lateen sails, they are fore-and-aft rigged. In most ship designs during the Age of Sail, and even in modern times, lateen sails have remained incredibly popular because of their aid in sailing against the wind. The shape, as well as the fore-and-aft rigging, allow the sails to catch the wind and redirect it which then helps the ship propel forward regardless of wind direction.

Ultimately, the sails and rigging go hand-in-hand. A ship can’t have one without the other. But I felt both deserved their own articles. They are equally important! Especially for sailors who had to know the names and types of sails in case they needed to coordinate in a storm and know what needed to happen and where. In the books, the actual shapes of the sails aren’t often referenced, but I think knowing a bit about them helps to visualize the ships used throughout the tale.

Next, I’ll bring this all together by sharing some of the actual ship types I’ve learned about and then in upcoming articles, I’ll begin discussing some of the details of life at sea and the differences for merchants, soldiers, and pirates. I’m looking forward to it!


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