Maritime History of the Great Lakes
The Square Rigger: Schooner Days DLXXIX (579)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 6 Mar 1943
Full Text
The Square Rigger
Schooner Days DLXXIX (579)

With acknowledgments to


WHEN P. W. Elkington, Worcester graduate cum laude and clipper ship apprentice in the gay nineties, told the Shellbacks about handling square-riggers he made no mistake in beginning right at the beginning. Because the Shellbacks Club, like most of the survivors of the schooner era on the lakes, had never had sailing experience in anything but the fore-and-aft rig, which is very different indeed. The square-rigger has been greatly publicized recently in films and fiction, roto section and radio, to the bewilderment of the public — and of script writers who may not have the foggiest idea of what they are doing.

So, while the square rig is only a departed collateral ancestor of Schooner Days, Mr. Elkington's exposition of its use may help to a better understanding of what those tough old salt-bitten masters of the microphone are unloading on the air in the fireside hour or when have you.

Square rig is so called because the yard or spar, from which the sail hangs like a curtain, is at right angles to the mast and horizontal. When the yard crosses the mast slantingly it is either the lug rig or the lateen. When there is no yard, and the sail is hinged, or hung, behind its supporting mast or stay—that's the fore-and-aft rig.



An old poem, "Tacking Ship Off Fire Island, somewhat garbled by much waterfront usage, composed by Walter F. Mitchell, Nantucket, Nova Scotians still sing it.


The weather leach of the topsail shivers.

The bowlines strain and the lee shrouds slack,

Our braces sing and the spanker boom quivers,

The waves are coming storm cloud black.


Open one point on the weather bow,

The lighthouse tall on Fire Island Head.

There's a shade of doubt on the captain's brow

And the pilot watches the heaving lead.


I stand at the wheel with an eager eye

To sea and sky as aloft I gaze,

When the muttered order "Full and by"

Is suddenly changed for "Full for stays!"


Now the ship bends lower beneath the breeze

As her broadside fair to the blast she lays,

And she swifter springs to the rising sea

As the pilot calls "Stand by for stays!"


Then silence all. It's each in his place

With the gathered coils in his hardened hand,

By tack and bowline, sheet and brace,

There both the watches patient stand.


As the light on Fire Island draws near,

A trumpet wings the pilot's shout.

From his post on the bowsprit heel I hear

His welcome cry of "Ready about!"


There's no time to spare. It's touch and go

As the captain growls "Down helm! Hard down!"

My weight on the whirling spokes I throw

As heaven grows black with the storm cloud's frown.


High o'er the knightheads flies the spray

As she meets the shock of the plunging sea,

And my shoulder stiff to the wheel I lay

With "Helm's a-lee, sir, hard a-lee."


With the swiveling lip of a startled steed

Our ship flies fast to the eye of the wind

A dangerous shoal on the lee perceived.

The headland white we must leave behind.


Our topsails shake and our jibs collapse,

They belly and tug at the groaning cleats,

The mainsail flaps and the spanker slats

As thunders the order "Tacks and sheets!"


'Mid the rattle of blocks and the tramp of the crew

Hisses the rain of the rushing squall.

The headsails are backed from clew to clew.

And now is the moment for "Mainsail haul!"


"Let go and haul!" is the last command.

Our headsails fill to the blast once more,

Astern and to windward now lies the land.

With its breakers white on a shingly shore.


No matter the reef or the rain or the squall,

I can steady the helm for the open sea.

The first mate bellows "Belay there, all,"

And the captain's breath once more comes free.


So now offshore let the good ship fly,

It's little I care how hard it blows,

In my forecastle bunk in my jacket dry,

Eight bells is struck, and my watch below.


Whilst the true sailor neither dreads nor romantically loves the sea — knowing it for what it is — there had been a tendency in recent years to underline the tough end of the life and to overlook the weeks of keen sailing in the fair weather of the trade winds. Speaking to a gathering of yacht sailors, Mr. Elkington suggested that there could not be one among them who would not thrill to the experience of handling the wheel of one of these great ships under full sail with a spanking breeze around the beam. Down at the bottom of the world below 40 deg. south things happened which were not nice; one was wet, cold, hungry for days; men went overboard; ships had been known to lose half a watch — nine to ten men — in the looting of a tremendous 60-ft. "greybeard." There was the danger of brouching-to, of a dismasting if the bobstay parted. It was perhaps that sort of thing which mettled men, and made our race of incomparable seamen. Soldiers are not made in street parades.

But hurricanes didn't happen every day, and when the goosewing of the lower topsail was too much for her it was time to get your prayer book out of your sea chest anyway. He and his fellow apprentices thought it great fun to race one another up the main rigging, pivot on their tummies over the truck or button at the head of the mast, and slide down the skysail backstay to the deck using a bit of oiled canvas, so that the wire did not burn their hands in the 160 feet descent at high speed.

In the ship he mentioned the truck was 160 feet above deck, so the race was like running up to the tenth floor of the Bank of Commerce and somersaulting over the stair rail.

He explained that the rigging was ratlined (laddered to you) most of the way up, all but twenty or thirty feet of the skysail pole, up which they had to swarm hand over hand; and all the rest of the way was down hill.

If the apprentices' half-deck was wet and cold, the passengers' cabins were accommodation superior to that in contemporary Steamers. The boys were proud of their ship and the profession they were learning, and reviewed the lessons of the voyage in a parliament of their own in masterly fashion.


The square sail developed from one piece into as many as seven strips, each extended by a yard crossing the mast. Masts grew in size and in numbers, until to qualify for the technical name ship a vessel had to have at at least three square rigged masts. Each ship-mast was in three parts, the lower mast, topmast and topgallant mast. The latest might include the royal and skysail masts or poles. These additions were usually parts of one long piece of timber. Lower masts and yards were of steel, from the 1870s onward.

The usual number of masts was three, the fore, main and mizzen, and the yards and their sails took their names from the masts on which they were used. The mainmast of the ship Mr. Elkington pictured, with all its narrow bands of canvas spread, looked like a Venetian blind. From truck to deck the sails were:



upper topgallantsail

lower topgallantsail

upper topsail

lower topsail


The course is the biggest and heaviest and lowest sail on each mast.


The main course in one of Mr. Elkington's ships which had two acres of canvas, was 90 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The yard which spread it was a steel tube like a water main. It weighed four tons. The sail itself with all its gear, buntlines, bowlines, clewlines, leachlines, blocks, crinkles, reef-tackles, earrings, bunt jiggers, tacks, sheets and their purchases, weighed over a ton. It was fairly easy to set. All one had to do was cast off and overhaul the gaskets and the sail from the yard with its own weight, and could be sheeted home. But to raise one clew or corner of it was hard work for three or four men. The spectacle irons in the clews were all a boy could lift. To reef or furl it up on its yard again was a job for all hands in [heavy] weather. A lower yard or a topsail yard would accommodate twenty or thirty men. At times the peril was appalling, to use the words of one of our great sea authors, but it just had to be done if you looked for dry burial in the future.

Other sails had to be hoisted with their yards and sheeted out to the yardarms below, but the lower topsails and lower topgallant sails were on standing yards, like the courses.

In addition to some twenty square sails on as many yards the three masted, square-rigged ship usually had four triangular jibs ahead of the foremast, and four, six or even eight triangular staysails between the masts, and a spanker on the mizzen. The spanker was a fore-and-aft sail like a yacht's mainsail, with gaff and boom. The mizzen course was known as the crossjack, pronounced crojick.

The advantage of the square rig was that by setting the proper sails at the proper angle the ship's head could be turned in the desired direction. Thus, when at anchor, setting the mizzen topsail or the crossjack (whose chief function was to keep the captain's head cool in the tropics) would bring her head to wind against the tide. Filling the foretopsail, or throwing it aback, would cast her head the way she had to go. The square sails all pivoted on the mast with one half of their area on each side of the ship, and were controlled by braces running to the yardarms or tips of each yard, and were therefore more amenable than fore-and-aft sails, which act like swinging doors.


Mr. Elkington went through the complicated business of getting his square rigger under weigh, taking her down the Thames with tugs, turning her over to the big ocean tugs and towing her out through the Downs and on through the English Channel to Start Point off Plymouth, where she usually took her departure. If she had a fair wind down Channel she might cast off earlier. She would set only her upper and lower topsails and jibs to help the tug, if the wind permitted, but if she let her courses fall she was apt to gather so much speed that she would overrun her towboat. His ship could make 15 1/2 knots which is about 18 miles per hour. The ocean tugs, though powerful enough to tow ships all the way home from Mauritius, were not fast enough to run away from them under any great spread of sail.


A dinghy will tack in three seconds, a schooner in from thirty seconds to there hundred, a square-rigger in half an hour - or may be a whole watch, four hours, it she misses stays.

Using an ingenious diagram Mr. Elkington made a real job of tacking his square-rigger, which was not to be undertaken lightly. The ship was, he assumed, able to steer east-north-east on the port tack, and wanted to go north, where the wind was coming from. She could not sail closer to the wind than six points off (A schooner sails four or five points off, and an America's cup yacht three. A point is 11 1/4 degrees).

The captain would come on deck about ten, observe that it was a fine day, and say to the first mate, "I think, Mr. So-and-so, we should 'bout ship at eight bells." The hour before noon would be spent getting the ropes properly laid out, taking the coils and braces off their pins and laying them out for free running, overhauling the gear of the courses so that their clews could be lifted at the proper time, getting the stoppers, rackings and shackles off such rigging as had to be made up semi-permanently, and assigning all hands to their required stations.

At "little one bell," the signal that eight bells are to be struck, the watch below would come tumbling up and the captain would say to the man at the wheel, "Let her run off rap full!" and call "Stations for about ship!"

This everyone would repeat lustily, and the mate would report properly, "All hands at stations, sir," for most of the stationing had already been done.

The helmsman would now have her going with the wind almost abeam, everything drawing full and the ship under maximum speed and steerage way. The captain would next order "Raise tacks and sheets!" and the clews or lower corners of the main course would begin to rise to the united hauling of such of the crew as were not engaged with the headsails. The yards could not be swung while the courses were not free of the deck, but the tack of the fore course was left to the last.

There would be a mighty thundering canvas and creaking and banging of blocks and chains, and amid it the captain would say quietly to the man at the wheel, "Put your helm down," and "Light up your head sheets! Light up! Light up!" would resound as the mates repeated his order to the forecastle head.

Her wake an arc as she turned towards the wind, the ship would now circle northward, twenty or thirty sails shaking in tremendous explosions. and the gear thrashing about like live serpents. The captain would watch cooly for the exact second when the flogging canvas on the foremast began to come between the wind and the flogging canvas on the main. As soon as it made the proper lee he would roar: "Main topsail haul!" and the cry would be taken up, "Main topsail haul! Little beggar and all! Run 'em around, boys! Clear the track, let the bulgine run!"


The lee braces for all the yards on the mainmast would be cast off, and they would run whining through their blocks while the slack of the weather braces was gathered in hand over hand. If the captain had guessed right, and all the gear had been laid out so that it ran free, it was child's play, the ninety-foot mainyard and the diminishing yards above it whistling around as though by their own volition, in the partial vacuum under the lee of the forward canvas. So, too, the "little beggar" and all, the sails and yards on the mizzen. But if the order came too soon or too late, it might be "all hell" getting the baulky yards to swing against the pitch of the sea and the spill of the wind. Some ships have been dismasted through missing stays and getting in irons, or locking their yards in tacking.

Meantime the ship has turned from east to north and lost mos. of her headway and is facing the wind. She may even have stern way on her and be backing away from it. In that case the helm has to be altered to keep her swinging.

All the sails on the foremast are aback. The fore tack is still fast and the yards are all braced the original way, whereas the yards on the other masts have been swung nearly 180 degrees, and their sails are trimmed for the other tack. The fore yards have been left to the last purposely; they are prying the vessel's head around after so that she can gather way. If she was steering east northeast on the port tack she will make about west northwest on the new starboard tack when she gets going. The newly braced yards on the main and mizzen keep their sails shivering, for their edges are to the north wind now and they have little power. But the sails on the foremast are full of wind from the forward side and are pushing her head westward helped by the jibs if these have been sheeted to windward again. When the after sails begin to draw the fore tack is lifted and "Lee fore brace!" is the order.

It may be hard pulling, but if the order is given at the right time the yards start swinging, gain momentum and come around quickly enough as the sails first spill the wind and then fill with it on the right side. As the yards are pivoted across the mast as evenly as on a weigh scales one-half of the sail area is always helping to balance the pressure on the other half. So, the ship gathering way at last on the new tack, come the last orders:

"Board tacks and haul aft sheets! Overhaul the jib and staysail sheets and send the hands to dinner!" If the maneuvre has been smooth and successful it wiL be 12.30 p.m., or one bell in the afternoon watch. If at hasn't been smooth and successful it will be dinner in the dogwatch, maybe. All hands must stay till the job of getting the ship about is finished.


It was a perfectly natural question a Shellback dinghy sailor asked at the end:

"Why wouldn't you jibe?"

Jibing is turning the ship around by running her off before the wind; a term used by fore-and-afters because their sails jibe over in the process. The square-rig term is wearing. Square riggers often have to wear around to get from one tack to another, but as the maneuver takes a couple of miles to execute, and those two miles are in the undesired direction, it is not a profitable one, although sometimes Hobson's choice.



A three skysail yarder that could sail from England to Australia in a hundred days—the HARBINGER, last of the clipper ships to carry passengers with steamer regularity. In the 1890's she had cabin accommodation for 100 and steerage accommodation for 200 more.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
6 Mar 1943
Language of Item
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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The Square Rigger: Schooner Days DLXXIX (579)