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The Bolt Ropes that are/were put around sails ...


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The Bolt Ropes that are/were put around sails ...

Dictionary definition of the bolt rope is usually something like "the rope sewn around the edges of a sail to keep it from fraying".
In that case I can readily imagine that historical, square-rig sails could well have been sewn with bolt rope all round.  They surely did need that all-round protection from fraying!

But my memory from my sailing days 70 years ago (England, just north of Thames Estuary) was that fore-and-aft sails would only have bolt ropes on the edges that were attached to something.  For example, a Bermuda or Gaff mainsail would have no bolt rope along the leech, except for a foot or so of tapered rope leading up from the clew and down from the peak or throat.  A jib would only have bolt rope along the luff, plus a little bit along each side of the clew.  This wasn't just on the sailing dinghies and large pleasure yachts, but also on the fishing smacks and (I'm pretty sure) even on the large spritsail barges I remember seeing in the Colne and Blackwater estuaries back then.

The boat I'm building now is the Bounty Launch.  When doing the sails for this little craft, my thinking had been to limit the boltrope to the head of the sail, plus the four corners.  Like this:

BUT ... would this be right?
Has anyone here ever come across any guidance about boltropes and how they were applied in history?

All comments and help gratefully appreciated, especially if it relates to the 1780-1800 period.

And oh, as an afterthought, the dictionaries also seem to mention that bolt-ropes were always placed slightly to the left of centre of the edge on which they were sewn, so that seamen could orient the sail by feel in the dark.  OK, but is that left of centre looking forrard? Or aft?   The boltrope on my dad's Bermuda mainsail was dead centre because it had to slide up a groove cut in the mast!

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From Darcy Lever, The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor:  

Sails are made of canvas, the number and strength of which, is determined by the size or use of the sail.  The strongest canvas is called No. 1, and it decreases gradually to No. 8.  Sails are surrounded by a rope called a Bolt Rope; but this is of different denominations according as it is sewn to the head, foot, or leech.  Thus that at the head is called the Head Rope, that at the side the Leech Rope, and that at the foot the Foot Rope.  The foot rope is the strongest, the leech rope somewhat less, and the head rope the least.


From Falconers Dictionary of the Marine: 

....Stay sails, whose heads are formed like an acute angle, have no head rope.....


And last, from R.C. Anderson, The Rigging of Ships in the Days of the Spritsail Topmast:

The bolt rope goes on the after side of square sails and the port side of fore and aft sails, but it is so near the edge that this is hardly noticeable.


Hope that helps!



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There's an extensive section in Volume 2 (The Art of Sail-Making) of David Steel's 'The Elements and Practice of rigging, Seamanship, and Naval Tactics'. It provides the list of the different sizes of bolt rope for each part of a sail, for each type of sail, and for each type of ship -- as well as how to make them.


Unfortunately the online version doesn't seem to have as comprehensive a section on bolt ropes and doesn't provide the table.


You can buy a copy of Volume 2 for about £16. It's published by Cambridge University Press (ISBN 978-1-108-02652-9) and has to be ordered from them or a bookseller as each copy is only printed when ordered. It takes about a week to arrive. I have the first three volumes and I'd say they're indispensable for most aspects of 18th Century ship building in terms of masts, rigging, and sails.



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Wow, Tony, what a superb pointer you've given me!

I just spent about an hour reading through Amazon's preview of David Steel's 'Art of Sailmaking' and it seems to have everything I wanted. And it's dated 1809, which isn't all that far removed from the days of Capt. Bligh and the Bounty.

Just as you indicated, they wouldn't let me see the particular table of bolt-rope info that I need, but the rest of the preview was so fascinating that I've ordered the book anyway. I was particularly interested to read that reefing cords were made out of log line, and were splayed-out and sewn on to the reefing seam (ie, not just passed through the canvas and knotted).


Anyone who wants to follow up on what I do as a result of reading the book can watch progress in my Bounty Launch build log (there's a link to it in my signature below)

Edited by probablynot
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This is some confirmation from John Leather in his Gaff Rigg Handbook.  I paraphrase here, but he says that traditionally hemp boltrope dressed in Stockholm tar  the bolt rope went all round the port side of the gaff rigged and jib sails on heavy commercial sails, but in yacht work and smaller working craft  it is usual to only rope the head and luff, carrying the roping a short distance down the leech from the peak in a head tail and along the foot from the tack in a tack tail.  



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Thanks for that, Allan.
I don't have John Leather's Gaff Rig Handbook, but Amazon indicates he covers historical aspects of the gaff rig in addition to dealing with more modern matters.  Was what you said in your post a general comment on what happens now (and maybe in recent history)?  Does what he says relate back to 18th/19th century practice?

Yes, I'd seen Stockholm Tar mentioned as a dressing for bolt rope.  As I understand it, Stockholm Tar is a pine tar - which presumably would be light in colour.  Ergo, it would be wrong to use a dark rigging thread?


Edit, after looking up how Stockholm Tar is made:
No, apparently it comes out of the Tar Pits pretty dark and mucky!  One description of it was 'liquid smoke'!

Edited by probablynot
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  • 4 years later...

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