Reply To: Tacking vs. wearing square-riggers — relative time and distance

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1500 – 1830 Tacking vs. wearing square-riggers — relative time and distance Reply To: Tacking vs. wearing square-riggers — relative time and distance

Frank Scott

    In addition to the books that you quote I would commend Patrice Decencière, ‘Three French sailing ship performance trials’, Mariner’s Mirror 94:3 (2008), 276-84, as well as two excellent articles by Sam Willis in The Northern Mariner, both available (free) on-line on the Canadian Nautical Research Society website:

    The first point is that a formation of ships in line ahead could tack in succession, while preserving their order, but risked problems if any vessel failed to tack (‘missed stays’). Although wearing was generally more reliable (see first article by Willis for a notable exception), if you tried to wear in succession that would mean that the leading vessels that wore would have to pass through the line of vessels on the original tack, which was clearly risky. If you wore, you wore ‘out of line’, as Nelson did at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, though even then he had to pass between HM Ships Diadem and Excellent to complete his manoeuvre.

    In tacking you only have to turn through about 12 points, to wear you have 20 points to cover, which will obviously take longer. Not sure where you have read that tacking was slower. In light airs it is possible to ‘wear short’, by backing the foremast at the start of the manoeuvre, but this would not make it any more suitable for a formation. If you wanted to make any ground to windward, tacking was the only option. It was bad enough to wear a single vessel, but a whole formation would lose inevitably a huge amount of ground.

    Another issue is that this was all much easier in a frigate (the Royal Navy of that era did not have corvettes), than it was in a ship of the line. Even frigates became less handy as Great War with France progressed, and navies competed to build bigger and bigger ones. With greater size came heavier guns, but the price was a reduction in manoeuvrability or handiness.

    Final point is that when tacking in succession each ship that was tacking would stop quite quickly at the start of the tack, and enough space had to be allowed between the ships to ensure that the ship astern had not caught up before the tacking ship had gathered way & made space. Thus for a line of ships changing tack you had to allow the time for each tack, plus what might be termed a ‘fudge factor’ to avoid collisions.

    None of the vessels would handle exactly the same, and the wind and sea conditions would never be exactly the same for each tack, so lots of imponderables. All difficult enough with coppered ships, what it must have been like with un-coppered squadron (some long out of dock), I dread to think.

    Frank Scott