A Short History of the Sailing Ship by Romola and R.C. Anderson last night, I came across a curious few paragraphs that brought into focus something I had never thought much about before. From the book:
... we begin to find 'staysails,' which were triangular sails of much the same shape as the lateen mizzen, set on the stays of the masts and topmasts. These begin to appear in pictures after 1658, though they can be found in lists of stores a few years sooner.
Stays, of course, are the large ropes that are attached high on masts and run down to the deck. These ropes keep apposing tension on the masts so that the don't simply crack and fall over under the strain of the sails. On large ships, stays may be attached at various points and even to other masts creating the web of rigging familiar to anyone with an eye for tall ships. The engraving above, of the Sovereign of the Seas commissioned in England in 1637, shows the intricate network of stays - both fore and back - that would be common in any large ship. Note, however, that despite her near full sail posture, there is not a staysail to be seen.
The Andersons go on to speculate that the use of the staysail aboard European vessels came not only from observation of lateen sailing ships in the Mediterranean, but also from the need to place a sail where ever one could when a ship was in distress:
Probably [the practice of setting staysails] began as a 'jury rig' - that is to say, an emergency rig after damage by weather or battle. A letter of 1639 speaks of setting a mizzen on the mainstay for this purpose...
Just as any port in a storm, so any sail in a pinch. We must assume, therefor, that once sailors saw the advantage of staysails not only in speed but in maneuvering, the thing stuck. A quick perusal of these paintings by master marine artist Geoff Hunt will show that the use of staysails - particularly on jib and bowsprit - became old hat by the 18th century.
Another simple but fascinating piece of the evolution of the sailing ship.
Header: Sovereign of the Seas engraving c 1637 via Wikipedia