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I have been researching topsail schooner rigging and sail plans. I found many questions, answers and comments on the Forum, but no one place that discussed the many variations. I decided to post information that I have found to help others who are interested in these ships.



This is a sail plan for a "typical" two mast topsail schooner with one topsail on the fore mast and no topsails on the main mast. Schooners with three or more masts normally repeated the sails and rigging shown here on the main mast.


The sails are:


1. Flying jib

2. Jib

3. Fore staysail

4. Fore gaff sail or fore sail

5. Main gaff sail or main sail

7. Main gaff topsail

9. Fore course

10. Fore topsail

11. Fore topsail studding sails


There were many different rigs for the fore sheets. Here are a few examples. Keep in mind that the sizes of the sails and the attachment points for the stays varied quite a bit from ship to ship. These are just general guides. The position of the fore mast and distance to the bow influenced how the fore stay was rigged, and therefore the fore staysail. Some vessels had the foremast far forward, just aft of the foot of the bowsprit and knights heads. Rigging the forestay to the forward end of the bowsprit (1) was more effective (stronger) and allowed a larger fore staysail than rigging it to the deck at the bow (2). But if the fore mast was positioned farther aft from the bow, as was common, configurations 2 and 3 provided adequate strength for the forestay and allowed a suitable sized staysail. Another variation seen on some schooners is a boom for the fore staysail that is anchored to a post on the deck at the bow or on the bowsprit and controlled with sheets similar to the main sail boom.


fore sheets 1.jpg

1. This arrangement was common on smaller ships, but some fairly large topsail schooners also used it. The fore staysail (3) is large and rides on the forestay attached at or near the bowsprit cap and to the lower fore top.


The jib (2) is also fairly large and rides on the jib stay attached near the end of the bowsprit and to the lower fore top. These sails and stays do not interfere with the fore topsail.


The flying jib (1) is shown dotted because not all ships carried one. It rode on a stay attached at the end of the bowsprit and above the working position of the fore topsail yard. If it was present it could be larger than shown here and rigged lower on the stay. There was a lot of variation in the flying jibs.















fore sheets 2.jpg


2. Here the fore staysail (3) is smaller, and rides on the forestay attached to the hull near the bow of the ship and to the lower fore top.


The jib (2) is smaller than in the first example and rides on the jib stay attached to the bowsprit cap and to the lower fore top.


The flying jib (1) is fairly large. It may ride on a separate flying jib stay attached to the end of the bowsprit and above the normal working position of the fore topsail yard, or it may ride on the fore topmast stay that attaches at the end of the bowsprit and near the top of the fore topmast.

















3. This rig was found on larger schooners that often had a topsail and topgallant.  The fore staysail (3) rode on the fore stay attached to the hull at the bow and the bottom of the fore top.


The jib (2) rode on the jib stay that was attached near the bowsprit cap and to the upper foretop.


The outer jib or fore topmast staysail (1a) rode on the fore topmast stay that attached near the end of the bowsprit and near the top of the fore topmast above the working position of the topsail yard or topgallant yard.


The flying jib (1) rode on a stay attached at the end of the bowsprit and near the top of the fore topmast.


Larger ships also carried a flying jib boom (not shown) attached to the jib boom that extended farther forward, and the flying jib stay was rigged to the end of the flying jib boom. Up to five jibs (main jib, second jib, third jib, storm jib and spitfire jib) could be rigged forward of the fore staysail (but not all at once) , even on small ships like a single mast cutter!















These ships were called topsail schooners because unlike pure fore-and-aft schooners they carried spars and square sails on their topmasts. The arrangement of square sails on the foremast were also found on the main mast of some topsail schooners, raising the question of whether they were actually brigs or brigantines.




Smaller ships carried just the fore topsail (10) on the fore mast. They may also have used studding sails (11) to increase sail area for speed. Larger ships may have carried a fore topgallant (12) above the topsail. Up through the early 1800s the topsail was typically taller than the topgallant. In the mid to late 1800s some ships carried lower (10) and upper (12) topsails that were about the same height. Both arrangements can still be found on modern topsail schooners. Studding sails may also have been carried for the topgallants.


The topsail and topgallant yards were not attached to the masts with trusses, slings or parrals, but were supported entirely by halliards and in some cases by lifts. The course yards often were also not attached to the mast. This allowed the yards and attached sails and rigging to be lowered to the deck and raised again without requiring crew to go aloft. While this may sound strange this practice was also used on large square rigged ships for topgallants and royals. The sails could be rigged to the yards on deck, complete with halliards, lifts and braces, and then hauled aloft. It was a quick way to set sail or reduce canvas as needed. A consequence of this is that some schooners did not have rat lines on the shrouds. When necessary to go aloft the crew climbed the hoops for the gaff sails or were hoisted aloft in a sling or bosuns chair.


The courses (9) were not always flown. They were effective when sailing with a following breeze (wind from astern). It seems to me that if a ship was flying both fore course and main course it would be a brig.


In some cases a "bonnet" was attached to the lower edge of the sail. This was a rectangular sheet that increased the sail area of the course. On very large ships an additional rectangular sheet called a "drabbler" was attached to the lower edge of the bonnet to increase sail area further. However, I have seen no reference of a drabbler being used on schooners, and I'm not sure bonnets were often used on schooners.


There was a consequence to adding square sails to the schooners. Pure fore-and-aft schooners have rather slender light-weight masts because there isn't much weight high on the masts and the force of the wind was distributed on the lower masts. When the topsails were added the masts had to be more robust to carry the added weight of the sails, spars and rigging. The standing rigging had to be heavier to take the added force from the square sails.


Ships with square sails on the fore mast only often had fore masts of significantly larger diameter than the main masts. Another consequence, quite pronounced in the Baltimore clippers, is that the beam was widest forward at the foremast instead of midships as in other vessels. The amount of load a hull can carry is related to the amount of water displaced, so the wider beam forward produced more lift for the heavier mast. On ships with topsails on both masts the masts were the same diameter and the beam was widest midships between the masts.




The largest sails were the fore and main gaff sails, also known as the fore sail (4) and main sail (5). These were suspended from gaffs or booms that attached with jaws to the lower masts just below the tops. The gaffs typically were angled upward to increase the sail area. The gaffs could be lowered to reef the sails. The sails were laced (bent) to the gaffs and attached to the lower masts with rope loops or wooden hoops.


The main sail (5) was always bent to the main boom, a horizontal spar that attached to the lower mast with jaws at the lowest position that allowed the boom to swing free from side to side without striking objects on deck, railings or bulwarks. The fore sail (4) sometimes was attached to a boom - this was common on fore-and-aft rigged schooners. But many topsail schooners did not carry a boom for the fore sail (as shown above), and the clew (lower aft corner) was rigged with port and starboard sheets to positions on the deck or bulwark aft of the main mast. This allowed the sail area to be larger than if a boom was used. When the sail was shifted from side to side the windward sheet was loosened and the lee sheet was tightened to control the sail.


A "ringtail" (8) was sometimes hoisted to the aft edge of the mainsail to increase sail area in the same way studding sails were attached to the spars. The ringtail boom attached to the main boom with hardware that allowed it to be pulled back when not in use or run out to carry the ringtail. The ringtail yard was hoisted to the end of the main gaff, raising the ringtail sail with it.


It was possible to attach a bonnet (rectangular sail to the bottom edge of the sail or boom to increase sail area. The lower corners were controlled with sheets. I do not know if bonnets were actually used on the gaff sails. Another method was to attach a triangular "watersail" to the lower edge of the sail or boom, with a single sheet controlling the loose corner. Yet another version of the watersail was rigged like a horizontal studding sail, with the yard attached to the aft end of the boom and hanging vertically. The sail was bent to the yard and the loose corners were controlled with sheets. I have seen pictures of watersails used on schooners but I do not know when these came into use, or if it was very common.





Some schooners carried a fore gaff topsail (6a) behind the fore topmast (this sail was also rigged as in 7c below). The top corner attached to a halyard near the top of the mast. The clew (lower aft corner) attached to a sheet at the end of the fore gaff. The throat (fore lower corner) was pulled down with a tack line. It has the advantage that it swings outboard with the fore gaff sail when the ship is running with the wind and increases sail area. The main top stay interferes with it, so it would be raised after the ship set a course. I have seen a few sail plans showing the fore gaff topsail on 19th century vessels, but it is not common on modern ships. Other ships carried a main top staysail (6b) that rode on the main top stay. A halliard raised the upper aft corner, a tack pulled the lower fore corner to the fore mast, and a sheet pulled the lower aft corner to the main top. This is a much simpler rig and is the most common configuration on topsail schooners from the 18th century to modern times.


The main mast also carried a gaff topsail (7), but there were at least six different types of gaff topsails.





The simplest version (7a) was the same as the fore gaff topsail (6a) described above. It was a "flying" sail with no attachments directly to the gaff or main topmast. It could be raised and lowered from the deck. The second type (7b) was the standing gaff topsail, also called a "shoulder-of-mutton" type. It attached to the topmast with lacing or hoops. It used the same halliards, sheets and tack as the flying sail to control it, but it had to be reefed by crewmen in the top.






Another version (7c) had the sail laced (bent) to a yard or spar that was hoisted to the top of the topmast with a halliard. The lower corners were controlled with sheet and tack like the flying gaff topsail. The American version (left above) had the halliard attached below the midpoint of the yard. This raised the upper part of the sail above the top of the topmast to catch higher breezes. The lower fore corner had to be pulled down hard with the tack to keep the spar upright. The sail was approximately triangular. This rig was very common on Baltimore clippers. The European version (7d), called a "lugsail" type, allowed the spar to hang more or less horizontally, like a studding sail or ringtail spar. The sail was trapezoidal or rectangular. Both versions 7c and 7d could be raised and lowered from the deck.





A fifth version (7e) is similar to the shoulder-of-mutton (7b) except the top of the sail is bent to a small gaff that rides on the mast with jaws. The forward edge of the sail is attached to the mast with hoops. The lower corners are rigged like the shoulder-of-mutton sail. The final version (7f) is similar to the American version (7c), but the lower end of the spar was attached directly to the fore top cap. The sail was laced to the spar. A halliard was attached above the center of the spar to raise it erect. A variation of this had the spar attached to the gaff near the jaws. With arrangements 7e and 7f  the sail could not be lowered to the deck so crewmen had to go into the top to furl the sail. Version 7f was uncommon, and may have been used only in 20th century racing boats. I have seen no evidence it was used on 18th or 19th century topsail schooners. I included it just to emphasize the variety in the configuration of gaff topsails.




Remember that these examples do not cover all possible variations in the rigging of topsail schooners, but they do show the more common rigs. If you are building a model of one of these ships, and you are having trouble interpreting the plans (or if you don't have plans), maybe these drawings will help.





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I'm working on it. But if you can't wait - and it may be some time before this is continued - I recommend Lennarth Petersson's Rigging Period Fore-and-Aft Craft.


He includes very good drawings and deck plans showing the rigging of an American topsail schooner, including belaying points. Just about all of the sail variations I have shown have rigging similar to his example.

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Very nice.   Just a note:  Some topsail schooners used a horse (?) in front of the fore mast that the fore course yard rode up and down on so it didn't  get in the way of the fore gaff.  It was a rope set up in the top and a deadeye on the deck, this allowed the gaff to be lowered easily.  found this in Chappelle's book on Baltimore Schooners.   Almost ready to rig U.S. Schooners Enterprise and Experiment.  I'm still not sure how I'm rigging the Main Stay, a double stay rigged to the deck with block and tackle.   Interesting subject - Hal 

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I remember reading about that method of controlling the fore course yard, presumably in Chapelle's The Baltimore Clipper. It would help control the yard as it was being raised or lowered while the ship was rolling.


There has been a fair amount of discussion and speculation about the double main stays on schooners on the forum. The best came from someone experienced in sailing one of the existing ships. Right now I don't remember who or where this post is.


The problem is that a stay that runs from the main top to the deck forward near the base of the fore mast, as is common on square riggers, will interfere with the swing of the fore sail (and fore sail boom if there is one) when the ship changes course. It is desirable to swing the sail out over the side to catch the wind, either running with the wind or when tacking into the wind. With a fixed main stay when the ship changed course it would be necessary to lift the fore sail and boom over the stay and that would be a slow process.


It wouldn't be as much of a problem on ships that did not have a fore sail boom. The clew of the sail would have double sheets, one port and one starboard, and the sail could be pulled over the main stay with the appropriate sheet. I have also seen photos of ships with brails near the foot of the sail that could be hauled in to loosely furl the sail (no fore boom) close to the mast. These could be used to haul up the sail for lifting over a fixed main stay.


One solution was to have two main stays, port and starboard. The stay on the windward side was drawn taught to take the forces of the wind and ship's motion, while the lee side was slacked to allow freedom of motion of the fore sail (and boom). When the wind changed to the opposite side the stay on that side was drawn taught and the new leeward side stay was loosened. This was a much faster process that working around a fixed stay. Many of the drawings and plates in The Baltimore Clipper show this rig, dating back to 1800 or earlier. Several modern topsail schooners also have this rig.


However,  Lennarth Petersson's Rigging Period Fore-and-Aft Craft (page 80) shows a double fixed main stay anchored to bitts aft of the fore mast on the Experiment. His drawings were made (mostly) from a model of the Experiment in a Swedish museum.


Another solution was to rig the main stay from the main top to the fore top. Then the fore stay took the load for both masts. In this case the fore gaff swung below the main stay. I have seen a few drawings showing this configuration. But the gaff peak halliard rigging would also have to be below the main stay and this would require the gaff to be some distance below the stay, resulting in smaller sail area.

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This is a very interesting and useful topic. Thanks for getting it started, Phil.


I'm working on the original, Pen Duick racing yacht, which is a gaff rigged cutter, and the Artesania Latina plans and instructions are minimal when it comes to the rigging and sails. In addition to Lennarth Petersson's book, Rigging Period Fore-and-Aft Craft, I have found the following two books very helpful also:


The Gaff Rig Handbook by John Leather 

Hand, Reef and Sail 2nd Edition, Traditional Sailing skills for Classic Boats by Tom Cunliffe

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