Sailing ship’s masts

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    In the [three-masted] sailing ship, why was the mainmast nearer the mizzen than the fore?
    Charles Dawson

    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

    Malcolm Lewis

    Along with the need for bracing the yards on the foremast and the mainmast to sail the ship, as described by Frank Scott, being able to swing the yards independently without them conflicting with one another allowed the yards to be used for launching and recovering the ship’s boats. With stay tackles bent on to each yard and then to a cutter or launch the boats could be hoisted either from the chocks in the ship’s waist or recovered when alongside.
    The ability to lift heavy weights in this manner was essential to the functioning of the vessel. Not only could boats be handled using the yards but ship’s stores including water barrels and even live bullocks could be brought aboard in this manner. Shipping and unshipping gun barrels and their carriages was a regular task using the yards and stay tackles this way.
    Details of the manner in which boats were lowered and hoisted are described in John Harland’s ‘Seamanship in the age of sail’ pages 282-288.
    Malcolm Lewis

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