Reply To: Sailing ship’s masts

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Frank Scott

    The answer to this involves both sail balance and simple geometry. I can only summarise some of the salient points here. For more detail and discussion see John Harland, Seamanship in the age of Sail (Conway, 1987) pp49-59, and Frank Scott, A Square Rig Handbook, 2nd edition, (Nautical Institute, 2001) pp35-39.
    The two power masts in a full-rigged ship are the fore and main, with the mizzen being a rather ‘stunted’ mast with smaller yards and much less available sail area, whose main roles are for balance and manoeuvre. The position of the fore has altered at times, being very far forward in early full riggers, and moving slightly aft in the 17th century.
    The fore and main masts will at times be braced in opposite directions (notably while tacking), so they must be far enough apart to avoid the yards clashing. By contrast, although the main and mizzen masts may not always be braced together, they will not be braced in complete opposition, and in any case the yards on the mizzen are quite short compared to the main.
    Frank Scott