blog, Lou is currently reviewing Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. This labor of love is a well done refresher and memory jogger for anyone who has read the series. For those who have only read a book or two, or none at all, there is no doubt that Lou’s posts will make you want to jump in with both feet. For me, the posts bring to mind my “first time”, if you will, and all the conundrums of “sailor speak” that came with tackling O’Brian. Something, I will say as an aside, you wouldn’t want to do physically; he was a fragile little man and things could easily get ugly.
One of the many hurdles to jump mentally was understanding the language of the sail. While I personally had been around sailing boats most of my life, the sails of a frigate or – even more daunting – a ship of the line could turn my head pretty quickly. Jib I understood, but topgallant royal or any kind of studdingsail were hard to place.
The best resource that I have found in this regard, and many others, is Dean King’s A Sea of Words. Written as a companion to O’Brian’s novels it also handles many of the historical details that may fly past the reader as they focus on the story, including the nuts and bolts of Napoleonic era sailing. The handy chart of sail above (a 19th century engraving similar to those found in King’s book) is just one example. While the above chart does not cover every possible sail from stem to stern, it does show those most frequently let out on a ship of frigate size. Here are the period correct names (approximately 1650 to 1875) for each sail pictured per the numbers noted:
1) flying jib, 2) jib, 3) fore topmast staysail, 4) fore staysail, 5) fore course (or foresail), 6) fore topsail, 7) fore topgallant, 8) main staysail, 9) main topmast staysail, 10) middle staysail, 11) main topgallant staysail.
Note that the cables known as stays, which hold the fore and aft sails, also serve the purpose of keeping the masts upright through tension which is then counteracted by back stays. Back stays, it should be noted, do not have corresponding sails.
12) main course (or mainsail), 13) main topsail, 14) main topgallant, 15) mizzen staysail, 16) mizzen topmast staysail, 17) mizzen topgallant staysail, 18) mizzensail, 19) driver spanker, 20) mizzen topsail, 21) mizzen topgallant.
With the knowledge of these sails firmly in the reader’s mind, just about any seafaring novel can be more readily understood, at least when one encounters issues of sail.
As a final note, if you’re wondering what those sails – often referred to as canvas – were made of it is probable that you already know the answer. After the medieval period, when linen was the favored fabric, sails rightly went by their moniker; they were almost exclusively made of cotton canvas until the modern era.
So topgallants and flying jib as well, if you please; fair sailing and good reading to you all.
Header: Mid-19th century engraving of a Royal Navy frigate with sails numbered via sporcle.com