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The History of the Square-Rigger

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Originating with the Vikings, the square sail has become a great part of the history of mankind. The square-rigged ship has been in existence for over 1200 years; from the first Viking longship, to the more recent three-masted warships of the Napoleonic wars and the great clippers of the Americas.

The 15th and 16th Centuries

For many years, the sailing vessels of Asia and the Mediterranean used triangular sails, but when the triangular sails were replaced by the square sail in the mid-14th Century, ship builders embarked upon a quest to create great ships. The northern Europeans first used the square sails, and when they came to the Mediterranean to fight the crusades the shipbuilders there began to see the benefits of the square sail.

The hulls of European and Mediterranean ships were different. The European ships were clinker-built - built with overlapping planks laid down, giving the hull a jagged appearance. The Mediterranean hulls on the other hand, didn't overlap; instead the planks were stacked one on top of the other facing out or carvel-built, appearing smooth. The shipbuilders began to produce larger ships, and the clinker hulls became obsolete, as they were not compatible with the greater length.

The 15th Century brought in the two-masted ship. At first, the majority of square-rigged ships carried only a single upright mast, but had a forecastle and aftcastle1 built on. These offered more space below decks, and were useful for offence and defence during combat. The single sail that was used on these ships (mainsail) was hung from a yard2 so that it could be raised, lowered and turned at will by braces, lines attached to the yardarm and the bowsprit, the quasi-mast that stuck out from the forecastle.

Later a second mast was placed on the aftcastle. The sail on this mast was a triangular sail, dubbed the mizzen, and thus the mizzen mast was made. This sail made steering much more efficient.

The development of the single rudder on the sternpost, the ridge on the back of the ship, increased steering and manoeuvrability even more. Before the single rudder ships often carried two or more rudders, which resembled oars, from the sides of the ship. The person in charge of steering, or helmsman, now had to stay below decks where the rudder was levered and receive commands from people above in charge of the sails.


The earlier hulls were rather inefficient, so a new design was created and all ships using these improved hulls were called galleons. This new hull offered a greater width, and better hydrodynamics in the flow around the ship. These new ships had also improved on the forecastle by moving it directly above the stem3, as opposed to behind it. This reduced the possibility of the wind swinging the ship around. Yet another addition was the head. This cabin extended under the bowsprit, and was used as the crew's restroom.

The Next Step in Galleons

Later galleons were smaller, more manoeuvrable and more heavily armed. These new developments showed weakness in the hull design, and thus hull frames were born. These frames widened at the bottom, but were narrower near the top to provide stability with weight distribution on the ship, concerning the cannons. The next advancement was the gallery. This was a balcony surrounding the stern that was later covered and turned into more officers' cabins and toilets.

All these new advances in galleon technology were paving the road to the great ships of the later years. New ideas such as the movement of the foremast, were introduced. Previously, it had been located ahead of the forecastle, but was completely moved so the rails of the forecastle were on its either side. The next invention was the topsail, located first on the mizzen mast. Ships bearing this latest advance were dubbed frigates (a term also used for warships with a complete deck of guns.) This final galleon design was the model for all future square-riggers.

The 17th Century

Naval warfare really began picking up during this century. The navies of the countries of the world were gaining strength and power. The British Navy formed a list of classes warships would fall into.

  • First Rate- over 90 guns (often flagships of fleets)
  • Second Rate- over 80 guns
  • Third Rate- over 54 guns
  • Fourth Rate- over 38 guns (often frigates)
  • Fifth Rate- over 18 guns
  • Sixth Rate- over 6 guns

The ships and their war plans grew and evolved. The ships now carried more guns, and were designed to be better for combat. The waist or decks in the middle, previously covered with nets for easy access to storage, was now covered with wood for walking on; sailing manoeuvres such as reefing4 were introduced, the size of the yards evened out (as the different masts had previously possessed varying sized yards), and the staysail was invented. The staysail is the sail between the bowsprit and the foremast.

The 19th Century

The 19th Century was the high-point of square-rigger history. In this century came the Napoleonic wars, where some of the most strategically brilliant naval battles took place. Few new sailing technologies were introduced or created, but the ships were all the more magnificent for their refinement during this time. All the British ships-of-the-line were well crafted and overly armed, while the French had smaller ships, with better guns.

The Clipper

The Americans had realised their need for speed after the war of 1812, where the British Navy obliterated that of the United States. Several men of the marine industry got together and planned out the Baltimore clipper, based on the best elements of the various other ships of the day.

The clipper, a behemoth among ships, was thought to be the perfect sailing vessel. These new ships were fast, something the cargo ships of the East India convoy lacked. The clipper could pull over 20 knots5, while the other cargo ships usually only did 5 or 6 knots because of their heavy arsenal of cannons.

Within years many other nations had started building clippers, resulting in the grain races and tea races which made, among others, the Cutty Sark famous.

It is hard to rival the last 400 years of ship building with any other technology. The great power and magnificence these ships showed over time ranks up there with wonders of the world, and will never be forgotten.

1The forecastle and aftcastle are large platforms on the front and back of the ship.2A long piece of wood attached horizontally to the mast.3The curved beam extending from the front of the deck to below the waterline.4Rolling and tying some of the sail so less is exposed to the wind.5A knot is one nautical mile an hour, while a nautical mile is 1852 meters.

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