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This article is about the rigging of ships, and is based on the detailed article in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, now in the public domain. For a more concise treatment, see mast (sailing), full rigged ship and sail. For other uses, see rigging (disambiguation).

Rigging of ships

Rigging (Anglo-Saxon wrigan or wrihan, to clothe), the general term, in connection with ships, for the whole apparatus of spars (including both masts and yards), sails and cordage, by which the force of the wind is utilized to move the hull against the resistance, and with the support, of the water. (See also sailing ship, and shipbuilding; sail-plan has an analytic description of terms and rigs).

The word is often used as meaning the cordage only, but this is a too-limited, and even an irrational, use of the term. A ship is not rigged until she is provided with all the spars, sails and cordage required to move and control the hull.

The straight or curved pieces of wood or metal, called davits, from which the boats carried along the bulwarks are hung, belong to the rigging. All are fastened directly or indirectly to the hull, and all are required to complete her “clothing.”

Vessels of all classes, from the smallest sailing-boat up to the largest ship, are classed according to the particular combination of their spars, sails and cordage. “Cutter,” “brig,” or “ship,” are only convenient abbreviations for “cutter-rigged,” “brig-rigged,” or “ship-rigged.” They are of such or such a “rig.”

It is strictly correct to speak of the rigging of a mast or a yard, or of a boom, when all that is meant is the special set of ropes, of whatever size or material, required to keep them in their place, or withdraw them from it, when they have to be moved in the ship. In such cases the part is looked upon as a whole, and is mentally abstracted from the total of the vessel’s rigging.

The basis of all rigging is the mast (q.v.), whether it be composed of one or of many pieces of wood or metal. The mast is held up and controlled by ropes, which are classed together as the “standing rigging,” because they are “that part (of the whole rigging) which is made fast, and not hauled upon” (Admiral Smyth, Sailor’s Word-Book). This must be understood subject to the restriction that in the case of a mast composed of several parts, including topmast and topgallant mast, these subdivisions may be, and often are, lowered. The backstays, and other ropes which keep the top and topgallant masts in place, are therefore only “comparative fixtures.” The bowsprit, though it does not rise from the deck but projects from the bow, is in fact a mast.

The masts, including the bowsprit, support all the sails, whether they hang from the “yards,” which are spars slung to the mast, or from “gaffs,” which are spars projecting from the mast, or, as in the case of the “jibs,” are triangular sails, travelling on ropes called “stays,” which go from the foremast to the bowsprit, and are suspended by halliards. The bowsprit is subdivided like other masts. The bowsprit proper corresponds to the lower fore-, main- or mizzen-mast. The jib-boom, which is movable and projects beyond the bowsprit, corresponds to a topmast; the flying jib-boom, which also is movable and projects beyond the jib-boom, answers to a topgallant mast.

The whole body of ropes by which the yards, booms and sails are manipulated constitute the “running rigging,” since they are “in constant use, to trim yards, and make or shorten sail” (Admiral Smyth, op. cit.). The rigging must also provide the crew with the means of going aloft, and with standing ground to do their work when aloft. Therefore the shrouds (see below) are utilized to form ladders of rope, of which the steps are called ratlines, by which the crew can mount. Near the heads of the lower masts are the tops—platforms on which men can stand—and in the same place on the topmasts are the “crosstrees,” of which the main function is to extend the topgallant shrouds. The yards are provided with ropes, extending from the middle to the extremities or arms, called horses, or footropes, which hang about 2 or 3 ft. down, and on which men can stand. The material of which the cordage is made has differed, and still differs greatly. Leather has been used.

Fig. 1, Picture of a frigate's rigging
Figure 1 — The Spars and Rigging of a Frigate. References are not repeated for each mast where the names and functions are identical 1, bowsprit; 2, bobstays, three pairs; 3, spritsail-gaffs, projectinig at each side of the bowsprit- the ropes at the extremities are jib-guys and flying jib-guys; 4, jib-boom; 5, martingale-stay, and below it the flying-jib martingale; 6, back-ropes; 7, flying jib-boom; 8, fore-royal stay, flying jib-stay and haliards; 9, fore-top-gallant-stay, jib-stay and halliards; 10, two fore-topmast-stays and fore-topmast staysail halliards; 11, the foretop bowlines, stopped into the top and two fore-stays; 12, two fore-tacks; 13, fore-truck; 14, fore-royal mast, yard and lift; 15, top-gallant mast, yard and lift; 16, fore-top mast, topsail-yard, lift and reef-tackle; 17, foretop, fore-lift, and topsail-sheet; 18, foremast and foreshrouds, nine-pairs; 19, fore-sheets; 20, fore-gaff; 21, fore-topmast backstays and topsail tye; 22, royal and top-gallant backstas; 23, fore-royal braces and main-royal-stay; 24, fore-topgallant braces and main-topgallant stay; 25, standing parts, or fore topsail-braces, and main topmast-stays; 26, hauling parts of fore-topsail-braces and main-top-bowlines; 27, fore parts of fore-braces; 28, mainstays; 29, main-tacks; 30, main-truck; 31, main-royal-braces; 32, mizzen-royal-stay and mizzen-royal-braces; 33, main-topgallant braces and mizzen-topgallant-braces; 34, standing parts of main topsail braces and mizzen topmast stay; 35, mizzen topsail braces; 36, hauling parts of main-topsail-braces, mizzen-top-bowlines and cross-jack braces; 37, main-braces and mizzen stay; 38, standing part of peak halliards; 39, vangs, similar on each gaff; 40, ensign staff; 41, spanker-book; 42, quarter-boat’s davits; 43, one of the davit topping-lifts and wind-sail; 44, main yard tack, 45, a bull-rope

During historic times, however, the prevailing materials have been hemp or esparto grass (Machrocloa, or Stipa tenacissima), chain and wire. In more recent days, polyester (Dacron (TM)) and stainless steel have been preferred. High performance racing yachts may use low-weight crystallized hydrocarbons (Spectra and Kevlar (TM)).

As the whole of the rigging is divided into standing and running, so a rope forming part of the rigging is divided into the “standing part” and the “fall.” The standing part is that which is made fast to the mast, deck or block. The fall is the loose end or part on which the crew haul. The block is the pulley through which the rope runs. “Standing” in sea language means “fixed“ — thus the standing part of a hook is that which “is attached to block, chain or anything which is to heave the hook up, with a weight hanging to it; the part opposite the point” (Smyth, sub voce). “Tackle” is the combination of ropes and blocks; the combination of cables and anchors constitutes the ”ground tackle.”

The function of all cordage may be said to be to pull, for the purpose either of keeping the masts in their places, or of moving spars and sails. The standing rigging which supports the masts must be adapted to resist two kinds of pressure, the longitudinal, whether applied by the wind or by the motion of the vessel when pitching (i.e. plunging head and stern. alternately into the hollow of the sea), and the lateral, when the wind is blowing on the side and she is rolling. The longitudinal pressure is counteracted by the bobstays, stays and backstays. A reference to fig. 1 will show that the bobstays hold down the bowsprit, which is liable to be lifted by the tug of the jibs, and, of the stays connecting it with the fore-topmast. If the bowsprit is lifted the fore-topmast loses part of its support. In the case of a small vessel, the lifting of a bowsprit would wreck her whole system of rigging in an instant. If fig. 1 is followed from the bow to the mizzenmast, it will be seen that a succession of stays connect the masts with the hull of the ship or with one another. All pull together to resist pressure from in front. Pressure from behind is met by the backstays, which connect the topmasts and topgallant masts with the sides of the vessel. Lateral pressure is met by the shrouds and breast-backstays. A temporary or "preventer" backstay is used when great pressure must be met.

Seamen have at all times had recourse to special devices to meet particular dangers. When Dundonald , then captain of the Pallas frigate, was chased by a French squadron in stormy weather, he fortified his masts by ordering “all the hawsers“ (large ropes a little less strong than the cables which hold the anchor) “in the ship to be got up to the mast heads, and hove taut,”i.e. made fast to the side. Thus she was able to carry more sail than would have been possible with her normal rigging.

The running rigging by which all spars and sails are hoisted, or lowered and spread or taken in, may be divided into those which lift and lower - the lifts, jeers, halliards (haulyards, halyards) — and those which hold down the lower corners of the sails — the tacks and sheets.

A long technical treatise would be required to name the many combinations of cordage and spars which make up the total rigging. All that is attempted here is to give the main lines and general principles or divisions.

The vessel dealt with here is the fully rigged ship of three or more masts. But she includes all the others and the principles are the same.

The simplest of all forms of rigging is the dipping lug, a quadrangular sail hanging from a yard, and always hoisted on the side of the mast opposite to that on which the wind is blowing (the lee side). When the boat is to be tacked so as to bring the wind on the other side, the sail is lowered and rehoisted. One rope can serve as halliard to hoist the sail and as a stay when it is made fast on the weather side on which the wind is blowing.

The difference between such a craft and the fully rigged ship is that between a simple organism and a very complex one; but it is one of degree, not of kind. The steps in the scale are innumerable. Every sea has its own type. Some in eastern waters are of extreme antiquity, and even in Europe vessels are still to be met with which differ very little if at all from the ships of the Norsemen of the 9th and 10th centuries. For a full account of these varieties of rigging the reader may be referred to "Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia" (London, 1906), by H. Warington Smyth.

When the finer degrees of variation are neglected the types of rigging may be reduced to comparatively few, which can be classed by the shape of their sail and the number of their masts. At the bottom of the scale is such a craft as the Norwegian herring boat (fig. 2).

Fig 2. Picture of a Norse Herring Boat.
Figure 2 - Norse herring boat.

She has one quadrangular sail suspended from a yard which is hung (or slung) by the middle to a single mast which is placed of a fully clothed mast.

Fig. 3. picture of a Nordland Boat.
Figure 3 - Nordland boat.

A very similar craft called a Ilumber keel is used in the north of England. The lug sail is an advance on the course, since it is better adapted for sailing on the wind, with the wind on the side. When the lug is not meant to be lowered and rehoisted on the lee side, as in the dipping lug mentioned above, it is slung at a third from the end of the yard, and is called a standing lug. A good example of the lug is the Chinese junk (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. picture of a Four-masted Junk.
Figure 4 - A four-masted Junk.

The lug is a “lifting sail,” and does not tend to press the vessel down as the fore and aft sail does. Therefore it is much used by fishing vessels in the North Sea.

The type of the fore and aft rig is the schooner, fig. 5. The sails on the 3 masts have a gaff above and a boom below. These spars have a prong called the jaws,” which fit to the mast, and are held in place by a “jaw rope” on which are threaded beads called trucks. Sails of this shape are carried by fully rigged ships on the mizzen-mast, and can be spread on the fore and main. They are then called try - to the great one.

Fig 5. labelled picture of a schooner.
Figure 5 - Schooner. 1, bowsprit, with martingale to the stem; 2, fore-topmast-stay, jib and stay-foresail; 3, fore-gaff-topsail; 4, foresail and mainstays; 5, main-gaff-topsail; 6, mainsail; 7, end of boom.

The Lateen (Latin) sail (fig. 6) is a triangular sail akin to the lug, and is the prevailing type of the Mediterranean.

Fig. 6. picture of a Lateen Rig.
Figure 6 - Lateen Rig.

These original types, even when unmodified by mixture with any other, permit of large variations. The number of masts of a logger may vary from one to five, and of a schooner from two to five or even seven. A small lug may be carried above tbe large one, and a gaff topsail added to the sails of a schooner. A small-masted fore-and-aft-rigged vessel may be a cutter (fig. 7) or sloop. But the pure types may be combined, in topsail schooner, brigantines, barquentines and barques, when the topsail, a quadrangular sail hanging from and fastened to a yard, slung by the middle, is combined with fore and aft sails. The lateen rig has been combined with the square rig to make such a rigging as the xebec — a three-masted vessel square rigged on the main, and lateen on the fore and mizzen.

Fig. 7. Labelled picture of a Cutter Yacht.
Figure 7 - Cutter Yacht. 1, bowsprit and martingale; 2, jib -- behind it is the foresail; 3, cross-trees and topmast-shroud; 4, pennant designating the club of which she belongs; 5, gaff-topsail; 6, peak of gaff, hoisted by peak and throat halyards; 7, mainsail; 8, end of boom and topping-lift.

Triangular sails of the same type as the jibs can be set on the stays between the masts of a fully rigged ship, and are then known as staysails. But it can only be repeated that the variations are innumerable. Studding Sails are pieces added to increase the breadth (spread) of sails, and require the support of special yards, booms and tackle.

The development of the rigging of ships is a very obscure subject. It was the work of centuries, and of practical men who wrote no treatises. It has never been universal. A comparison of the four - masted junk given above with the figures of ships on medieval seals shows at least much similarity. Yet by selecting a few leading types of successive periods it is possible to follow the growth of the fully rigged ship, at least in its main lines, in modern times.

The Santa Maria, the flagship of Columbus, has only the fixed bowsprit, with a yard and a sail hanging from it, the spritsail yard and spritsail. The foremast has one course, the mainmast a course and topsail, the mizzen a lateen sail.

Fig. 9, A picture of "Sovereign of the Seas", a British warship of 1637
Figure 9 - Sovereign of the Seas

Sovereign of the Seas, British warship of 1637, has only the fixed bowsprit, but a small upright mast has been erected at the end, which serves to spread a sprit topsail. In some cases at left a sprit topgallant sail was used. The mizzenmast still carries a lateen sail, but topsails have been added, and the whole rigging has multiplied and developed.

Between the Sovereign of the Sea and the fully developed ship, given in fig. 1 the most apparent differences are in the rigging of the bowsprit and the mizzenmast.

There is no sprit topmast, and instead there is a jib-boom. The square spritsail , which could not be trained fore and aft, and was of feeble effect in keeping the ship’s head from turning to windward, has been replaced by the jib. The spritsail yard (which continued in use till after 1850) has disappeared and has been replaced by the spritsail gaffs, two fixed spars which slope downwards and help to support the “jib-guys,” the lateral supports of the booms. For a time, and after the use of spritsails had been given up, the spritsail yard continued to be used to discharge the function now given to the gaffs (see Smyth, Sailor’s Word-Book, sub voce).

The changes in the mizzen have an obscure history. About the middle of the 18th century it ceased to be a pure lateen. The yard was retained, but no sail was set on the forearm. Then the yard was given up and replaced by a gaff and a boom. The new sail was called the Spanker. It was, however, comparatively narrow, and when a greater spread of sail was required, Studding Sails (at first called a “driver “) were added. At a later date "spanker” and “driver” were used as synonymous terms, and the studding-sail was called a “Ringtail .”

The studding-sails are the representatives of a class of sail once more generally used. In modern times a sail is cut of the extreme size which is capable of being carried in fine weather, and when the wind increases in strength it is reefed — i.e. part is gathered up and fastened by reef points, small cords attached to the sail. Till the 17th century at least the method was often to cut the courses small, so that they could be carried in rough weather. When a greater spread of sail was required, a piece called a bonnet was added to the foot of the sail, and a further piece called a drabbler could be added to that. It is an example of the tenacious conservatism of the sea that this practice is still retained by the Swedish small craft called "lodjor" in the Baltic and White Sea. It will be easily understood that no innovation was universally accepted at once. Jib and sprit topsail, lateen, mizzen and spanker, and so forth, would be found for long on the sea together.

The history of the development of rigging is one of adjustment. The size of the masts had to be adapted to the ship, and it was necessary to find the due proportion between yards and masts. As the size of the medieval ship increased, the natural course was to increase the height of the mast and of the sail it carried. Even when the mast was subdivided into lower, top and topgallant, the lower mast was too long, and the strain of the sail racked the hull. Hence the constant tendency of the ships to leak. Sir Henry Manwayring, when giving the proper proportions of the masts, says that the Flemings (i.e. the Dutch) made them taller (“taller” and “taunt“ were for long used to mean the same thing) than the English, which again forced them to make the sails less wide. A tall sail could not be cut so wide as a lower one without putting an excessive strain on the mast. He says that the Flemings found an advantage in working to windward, but that they ”wronged“ (i.e. racked) their ships. The English preferred a less lofty mast and a wider spread of sail.

It is very difficult to say what changes in the proportions of masts and yards took place in English ships between the early 17th and the 19th centuries. The difficulty arises not only from insufficient knowledge of the earlier period, but from the fact that a scale was fixed only after trials, and by degrees. Manwayring, for instance, when giving the proportion of the topmasts to lower masts, says: “The topmasts are ever half so long as the masts into which they belong; but there is no absolute proportion in these, and the like things, for if a man will have his mast short, he may the bolder make his topmast long.” In some respects the change was certainly slight. In the early 17th century, in England at least, the length of the mainmast was fixed by taking four-fifths of the breadth of the ship and multiplying by three. Two centuries later the method was to take the length of the lower deck and the extreme breadth, add them together, and divide by two. If we take a 74-gun ship of about the year 1820, which was 176 ft. long on the lower deck and 48 ft. 8 in. wide, she would have, by the system then used, a mainmast of 112 ft. Manwayring’s system would have given her one of 117 ft. But in the proportions of the masts to one another there was a change. In the 17th century the foremast was four-fifths of the main, and the bowsprit was of the same length as the foremast. In the 19th the foremast was eightninths of the mainmast, while the bowsprit was seven-elevenths of the mainmast in the largest ships, and three-fifths in the others.

When we come to the relative proportions of masts and yards the difficulty increases, for the standard was not the same. The seamen of the 17th century calculated the length of the mainyard not by the size of the mast but by the length of the keel. The mainyard, which was the standard for the others, ought according to “the best and most absolute” estimate to be five-sixths of the length of the keel. But Manwayring again explains that “the proportion is not absolute.” If it was followed, the yards of a 17th-century ship must have been rather longer than in a vessel of a hundred and fifty and two hundred years later, when the mainyard was eight-ninths of the mainmast, and,a regular scale was fixed throughout.

Even so Manwayring’s warning that “the proportion was not absolute” must be borne in mind. Changes were constant. The development of the famous American clippers made a considerable one. So has the growth of the vast four- and five-masted iron sailing ships of the 1880s. Individual captains have fitted ships according to ideas of their own. It has always happened that extra sails have been invented and set by ingenious devices for particular purposes. One large sail requires more men to handle it than several small ones. For this reason it is that in recent times the topsails of merchant ships have been divided into upper and lower, with a great loss of beauty, but an increase of convenience. To the same cause, the wish to economize in the size of the crew, is to be attributed the introduction of machinery for reeling sail from the deck, which is also an easier,and a safer process than going aloft to reef them by hand.

In a general way it may be said that the development of the rigging has been towards establishing a fair balance between the fore and after spread of canvas. Until the jib was invented in the 18th century, a ship which was sailing on the wind was subject to a disproportionate pressure aft. If she was at all given to “griping“ — that is to say, inclined to turn head to wind (and all ships are liable to have ways and manners which are mysterious in origin and not seldom incurable), the mizzen-sail could not be used, for if it had been she would never have been “out of the wind.” Therefore when close-hauled (sailing with the wind on the side and somewhat from before her centre) she lost the use of part of her sail. The spritsail which could not be trained fore and aft was no use “on the wind.”

A few words may be added concerning the tops. In the earlier form of ships the top was a species of crow’s nest placed at the head of the mast to hold a look-out, or in military operations to give a place of advantage to archers and slingers. They appear occasionally as mere bags attached to one side of the mast. As a general rule they are round. In the 16th century there were frequently two tops on the fore and mainmasts, one at the head of the lower, another at the head of the topmast, where in later times there have only been the two traverse beams which make the crosstrees. The upper top dropped out by the 17th century. The form was round, and so continued to be till the 18th century when the quadrangular form was introduced. After 1870, the military tops of warships resumed the circular form.


The present writer is indebted to Admiral Sir Cyprian A. G. Bridge, G.C.B., whose practical acquaintance with the older type of sailing ship as well as with the modern steamship makes his authority specially valuable, for the correction or confirmation of the technical details in the above article. Among the literature of the subject, reference may be made to the following works: Sir Henry Manwayring, The Seaman’s Dictionary (London, 1644); Darcy Lever, The Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor (London, 1808); Sir George Nares, Seamanship (Portsmouth, 1882); ViceAdmiral Edmond Paris, La Musée de marine du Louvre (Paris, 1883). (D. H.)

Recommended recent works include James Lees, The Masting and Rigging of English Ships of War, 1625-1860 (Naval Institute Press, 1984), and John Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail (Naval Institute Press, 1984).

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