History of the Merchant Navy

There are very few sailing ships around nowadays and most of those are used for training purposes or, as here in the United Kingdom, for the enjoyment and pleasure of the disabled through the Jubilee Sailing Trust. Our sailing ships of note are the Royalist, the Lord Nelson, the Malcolm Miller and the Sir Winston Churchill, all built in recent years. The best known and only survivor of the days of sail is the Cutty Sark now permanently berthed at Greenwich, London as a living museum.

Before James Watt boiled his kettle to make a cup of tea and, with pure genius, decided that steam could be harnessed to drive ships the size of the Titanic and the first Queen Elizabeth, wind was the only method of propulsion apart from oars which were of no use for long voyages of discovery.

The use of sail over the years developed in line with the growth in size of the ships being built. In medieval time ships had one single square sail. The next step was to add extra masts, the foremast and the mizen mast. Fighting ships had a platform fixed to the top of the mainmast and it wasn’t long before this was converted to carry a topmast – a small upper square sail. This became the topmast and first appeared on the late 15th century carracks. In the very early 16th century a topgallant (t’gal’nt) mast and sail were added to the topmast and in 1637 a royal mast and sail were added to the topgallant as seen on the Sovereign of the Seas. Around 1812 a further sail was added, the skysail and a few East Indiamen and extreme clippers would set yet another sail which was referred to as flying handkerchiefs, skyscrapers, moonrakers, moonsails, stardusters or stargazers. The extra skysails were ineffective as far as adding to the speed of the ship but the studding sails (stuns’ls), which were set on booms run out from the yards, made a vast improvement when the wind was light and abaft of the beam. In the 1850’s as ships got bigger a labour costs increased the top sails were split in two to become the upper and lower topsails and eventually the topgallants followed the same trend. At the same time the skysails disappeared and, when stronger steel yards and rigging replaced rope, with studding sails were dispensed with. Finally, in the year of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, the upper-most royals were removed and the rig became known as the stump-topgallant rig, the bald-headed rig or even the jubilee rig.

Before the 19th century sailing vessels were classified according to their use, trade, hull type or to local practice so that there were many different types of ship; the flyboat, the frigate, the sloop-of-war etc. etc. Classification by sail arrangement occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries. A sailing vessel can have its sails either schooner rigged where the sails are set fore and aft along the vessel’s centre line, square rigged where the sails are set at right angles to the centre line of the vessel or a combination of both. Examples of some of the rigs are as follows:-

Square rigged ship < The Ship has three or more masts which are all completely square rigged

The Barque< The Barque has three or more masts all fully square rigged except for the stern-most one, which is fore and aft rigged. Although appearing at the beginning of the 19th century it only became popular after 1860.

The Barquentine< The Barquentine has three to six masts all schooner rigged except the foremast which is square rigged. The rig appeared in the 1840’s as it is more economical to run than a barque. Many barquentines were ships or
barques cut down for economy.

The Brig< The Brig has only a main and foremast both fully square rigged and was a successful coastal and deep sea trader during the 18th and 19th centuries being capable of calling at smaller ports with smaller loads.

The Hermaphrodite Brig< The Hermaphrodite Brig, sometimes called the brigantine, had the foremast square rigged and the mainmast schooner rigged. A useful rig for vessels of 60 to 120 feet in length.

The Topsail Schooner< The Topsail Schooner is basically schooner rigged but with one or more square rigged sails on the foremast.