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post #1 of 12 Old 02-24-2012 Thread Starter
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Questions regarding handling of traditional sailing ships

Hey all,

I'm doing research for a book in which a traditional square-rigged ship is preparing to dock, which got me thinking about a few questions:

1) How did traditional sailing ships come to stop? Clearly, they needed to reduce sail, but 2) were they able to reef and furl the sails full of wind? It is hard for me to imagine, without the equipment of today, fighting to furl a full sail. I thought instead that it was likely necessary to maneuver out of the wind before trying to slow...?

I want the description to be authentic of course, so I would love some insight into the process for bringing a square-rigger to a halt. Thank you.
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post #2 of 12 Old 02-24-2012
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They sure could reef. The men would climb the rigging and then go out on the arms and start hauling those sails up. I've done it, at dock with little to no wind of course, and they can be pretty heavy.

No doubt you'll get a much more detailed answer soon but the short answer is, yes, they could reef sails.


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post #3 of 12 Old 02-24-2012
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2) Yes, in all kinds of wind. They had a lot of(dispensable) men.I've read that it was harder on the crew in the last years of sail because the cost per man had become much higher, so they sailed short handed.
1) They undoubtedly first slowed down by furling more and more sails. I'm guessing now, but they may have been towed by row boats to the wharf if the wind was not favorable, or perhaps a line was taken ashore and the capstan used to pull the ship over. Time meant less back then. They could have waited at anchor until the wind was more favorable. After the steam tugboat was developed, it would have been different.
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post #4 of 12 Old 02-24-2012
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As good as we consider ourselves in the modern age, full rigged ship captains were amazing sailors, even the bad ones using the standards of the day.

The variety of yards and masts, fore, main, and mizzen allowed the crew to balance the wind such that a ship could be stopped, rotated, maintain position and even go in reverse. The sails were backwinded and filled, upper and lower yards systematically reduced sail to slow the ship or go in reverse. And as others have said, ships were sometimes rowed pierside or waited for wind. However, contrary to what another poster said, time did matter but manpower was cheap so they rowed a lot.

Patrick O'Brien and C.S. Forester have some detailed descriptions of ship maneuvers in their books. I might have some additional references in my library and will post them if I can find them.

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post #5 of 12 Old 02-24-2012
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Another excellent reference for life and sailing aboard these types of ships is "Voyage", one of a few books written by the actor Sterling Hayden.. this story takes place in the swan song years of the clippers..

These guys made maximum use of the tides when drifting/sailing in and out of harbours; tugs were used, they rowed their own ships' boats if needed and then threw messenger lines with 'monkey fists', pulled the hawsers across and were warped to the dock by shore crews.

Awe inspiring stuff.. I often imagine Cook or Vancouver, Shackleton, or John Paul Jones et al suddenly dropped on a modern yacht in modern times and wonder how they would react...


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post #6 of 12 Old 02-25-2012
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Wouldn't there be a big difference between the handling required for square-rigged men of war versus the much more lightly manned commercial ships in terms of how far ahead the captain and mates would have to plan their maneuvers and allocate their crew? A warship might have topmen swarming over every mast at once and dozens of waisters hauling away below, whereas a merchant crew be so small as to only handle maybe one sail at a time. Other special cases might be warping buoys, towing boats, sweep oars on small ships, kedging, etc. And always the tide.
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post #7 of 12 Old 02-25-2012
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Regarding docking a traditional ship, it was rare to actually sail into a dock. They tended to reduce sail as they got close to their destination and anchor off. Once they were anchored, they would warp over to the dock by rowing across large lines. In later years, tugs were use to help docking which sometimes meant that anchoring could be done away with.

Yes, they could furl or reef a sail with the yard braced so that is should be drawing. They would let go the sheets to take the pressure out of the sail and do it that way.

There are many square riggers out there sailing today and you can even sail aboard some of them (Europa, Picton Castle, etc). If accuracy is important, I recommend going sailing on one of these vessels. Nowadays, they dock using their engines but otherwise, they are sailed the same way that they always have been. Also, you might check out Irving Johnson's video Around Cape Horn which is available from Mystic Seaport. I am sure that there are many other good videos out there as well.
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post #8 of 12 Old 02-25-2012
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A good first hand read of sailing ship handling and plenty
of authentic insight read...
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr.
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post #9 of 12 Old 02-25-2012
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And there are still a few but rare "Watch Officer's Guide" for that time period that explained in detail on ship's evolutions while she is maneuvering. Midshipmen of those days practically had to memorized that particular book.

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post #10 of 12 Old 02-25-2012
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There has been a positive plethora of square riggers out in the eastern Caribbean recently and on at least one I have seen crew out on the yards furling sails the old fashoined way by pulling up the bunt and tieing it to the yard.

Here is a pic of the Stad Amsterdam coming into a tight anchorage in the Saintes under sail. After rounding up and furling everything she spoilt the effect with the use of engines and a bow thruster. Still it was pretty impressive.


Last edited by TQA; 02-25-2012 at 11:43 AM.
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furl , reef , square-rigged , traditional

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