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Harvesting the wind

Aug 31, 2016

Sail-handling efficiency on the square-rigger James Craig

The Tasman Sea has a deserved reputation for nastiness. The Sydney-Hobart race is a touchstone of macho mettle, and even huge commercial vessels can be challenged by conditions in those waters. It hardly seems to be the kind of place for a volunteer crew in an antique square-rigger, but we are heading south from Sydney, because the barque James Craig is a serious sailing machine.

Of course, there isn’t a scrap of carbon fiber or Kevlar in sight, there’s only one steering wheel on the quarterdeck — for that matter, there is a quarterdeck — and the rig doesn’t exactly shout “aerodynamic efficiency,” but set aside your modern prejudices for a moment and consider that this vessel has been making its way under sail for more than 140 years, on every ocean in the world, in all conditions. It couldn’t have done that with salty style alone.

There is such an accretion of history and nostalgia around square-riggers that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, like all sailing vessels, they are in the business of absorbing and redirecting energy. The energy is from the wind of course, and its energy is caught by the sails, channeled down through standing and running rigging to the hull, and thence to the water. In modern vessels, efficiency is achieved by concentrating a maximum amount of energy into a minimum number of highly loaded pieces (more on this later). This entails the use of fabulously strong, light, inelastic materials; highly refined aerodynamics; powerful load-handling machinery and a lot of money. 

James Craig comes from a time when most of the materials, aerodynamic knowledge and machinery we use today did not yet exist. Its designers worked with what they had, creating a machine to capture the same wind energy we do on a fairly large scale and with a sharp eye on cost/benefit ratio. They laid out shrouds and stays on vectors nicely calculated to match the loading of the sails; their stability numbers were impressive, given the immense weight of the rig, and they proportioned and positioned the many sails to provide at least a likelihood of helm balance, in a variety of combinations, to suit specific conditions and points of sail. 

The crew as leverage
Our seagoing predecessors, it is widely acknowledged, laid the foundation for the technically refined sailing machines we enjoy today, but they also did things we do not. On commercial vessels, they didn’t put a lot of emphasis on going-to weather. They put the highest loads down low on the masts, whereas we put them at the top. Their sails look like ours but turned on their sides. And so forth. But perhaps the biggest difference in their approach was the extent to which they made people part of the machinery. The most significant form of mechanical advantage employed aboard James Craig is the leverage built into the bodies of the crew. Oh, there is no shortage of pulleys aboard, but they only get the loads down to a point where human beings, working in close coordination, can get the job done. Any more purchase added beyond that point would make things needlessly slow, expensive and complicated. 

The Australian-flagged barque James Craig with all sails set.

To give you an example, the upper topsail yards weigh about a ton each, sails included. The compound halyard purchase makes it just possible for six strong well-coordinated people to raise that yard. This would be about half the available deck crew in the days when Craig was hauling freight. The other half of the crew was thus left free to perform other feats of strength and/or agility.

As ships got bigger and crews shrank, various forms of powered winches made their way aboard ships — but even then, concerted, skillful and thoughtful physical effort remained a hallmark of square-rig sailing. Interestingly, by making people part of the ship’s machinery, you don’t depersonalize them; you make them into a coherent unit, a family, a tribe. You give them a sense of purpose and of achievement, which is why, to this day, square-riggers are still favored for training future merchant and military officers, as well as civilian adventurers. 

On the engineering side, breaking the aerodynamic gear into human-manageable chunks introduces redundancy and versatility into the system. So while square rig might be primitive by some standards, it is deeply elegant by others.

In a performance-oriented modern rig, with a relatively high aspect, most of the sails’ power is over the hull’s balance point. You can still affect helm balance with the sails, but it is usually possible to sail with just the main or just the jib. As a result, tacking is largely a matter of using a relatively large rudder, plus the boat’s momentum, to come around on a new heading; even if you were to let the jib sheet go, the main isn’t sufficiently far aft to lever the boat around quickly. Hull design has evolved accordingly, giving us boats that, among other thing, pivot quickly and easily. In sum, the sails in a conventional modern rig are easy to balance, so the boat sails efficiently, but also hard to unbalance, so they can’t help us tack.

In a multimast rig, the power is spread out fore and aft, and the parts furthest from the center of effort can have a tremendous effect on helm balance. On a three-masted, square-rigged ship like James Craig, many of the sails are very far from the middle; in order to get a balanced helm you have to harmonize the leverage of all the sails, all the time, to a fairly high degree of precision.

Eleven of James Craig’s crew work aloft at furling the fore course. Square-rigged ships require plenty of crew-members to manhandle sails.

But wait, there’s more: All of the most powerful sails in this rig are square sails, set on yards, with much of the material projecting far outboard, port and starboard (Craig’s course yard, its longest, is about 65 feet long), even when the yard is braced up as close to fore-and-aft as it will go. This adds still more potentially helm-upsetting leverage. In a modern rig, the closest equivalent to this is the spinnaker. Like a square sail, the spinnaker is skill- and energy-intensive to use, is intended for off-wind sailing, and is set on a kind of yard. And like a spinnaker, a square sail can get you into a lot of trouble if it is not properly handled. Now imagine a thousand-ton vessel that flies 10 very large spinnakers, along with a like number of staysails, all at once. Imagine doing this with a crew of just 16 in all weathers and without a winch, a snuffer or a roller furler in sight. 

Balancing and unbalancing
In sum, then, a square rig can be tricky to handle and to balance, but by the same token you have the ability to play with all that power, to make radical shifts in the center of effort in order to unbalance the rig, making it easier to tack. This is a significant feature, as square-riggers tend to be ponderous things, reluctant to come about.

This brings us to one particular sail aboard James Craig, the key to making the whole assemblage work. It is the “spanker,” a gaff sail set on the mizzenmast, right back at the stern. It is a small sail, but since it is so far aft of the hull’s balance point, it exerts a strong leverage; when sheeted in, the little spanker is a key component in driving the boat around on a new tack. The spanker has other names — jigger, driver, pusher — and they all reflect this vital function.

But the spanker can’t do it all by itself. The ship, even when close-hauled, will be sailing about 70 degrees off the wind and is carrying a great deal of momentum. There are 19 other sails at work, all trying to keep the ship on its current tack; coming about is a dance of letting go headsails, swinging the huge yards around, backing sails here and luffing them there, all in precise order at closely-timed intervals with each step calculated to cajole the vessel a little further onto its new heading, but without losing an erg of precious momentum. The process can take several minutes, with periods of manic crew activity punctuating long moments of waiting. It is a ridiculously skill-intensive exercise, a process of metering and managing energy through 15,000 square feet of sail area. 

Brion Toss at work hanging from the crosstrees while seizing a backstay in place.

Energy management
Tacking is a particularly dramatic process, but every sail evolution aboard a barque is about energy management. We say that new crew are “learning the ropes,” but it is more accurate to say that they are novice energy input managers, and the ropes are the valves. With those ropes, and with the strenuous, semi-acrobatic activity of working aloft and below, these crewmembers will determine how much energy comes into the system, and where, and at what vectors, to achieve specific performance results. They will reconcile aerodynamic and hydrodynamic characteristics, relating both of these to limiting factors like adjacent landmasses, water depth, wave height, etc., in order to focus energy to get the boat where they want it to go. This is their true work; dealing with lines is just the means to the end.

But oh, there are so many lines — about 200 on a boat like this one. Every crewmember needs to be able to find every one of those lines instantly and understand its function. Ideally, they also learn how that function relates to that of all the other lines so that they can make the correct changes in the correct order. Added to this considerable mental challenge is a daunting physical one: In a given evolution, the hands will very likely need to make adjustments on port and starboard along the entire length of the boat. And they need to be able to do it even in the dark, operating by feel and mental map, hastening along the pitching deck, at least until it is time to climb up 100 feet or more to continue their duties while sidling out over the water on the proverbial swaying yard (see sidebar on what’s involved in striking a single sail). 

If all this sounds a bit difficult and dangerous, well, it is. In fairness, though, I should point out that square-riggers are usually designed for long tradewind passages; once the sails are set, they require minimum crew input unless the course or the conditions change. Nowadays James Craig’s crew, running daysails and short trips, gets a lot of sailtending action, but their historical predecessors might go for days, or even weeks, without much exertion. 

Optimized for the task
This speaks to how well these ships were optimized for their intended use, which was the moving of goods along predictably offwind routes in all seasons. Life aboard was famously hard, but if these ships had been anything but supremely efficient, life aboard would have been impossible.

To get an idea of how efficient they were, let’s look at the question of speed. These were heavy displacement hulls and though some, like the clippers, were relatively racy, even they were a compromise between freight-carrying capacity and sailing ability. Nevertheless, it is only in recent years that contemporary race boats have managed to break passage records set in the 1800s. And I think it is fair to note that the boats that set the original records were constrained not just by primitive technology, but by the fact that they set those records while carrying hundreds or thousands of tons of freight.

The complex arrangement of sails on a square-rigger can make the helmsman’s and captain’s jobs challenging.

Still, vessels like Craig are hopelessly outclassed by today’s vessels in terms of sheer efficiency. Remember, this is Australia — a sailing-mad nation — and many of the Craig’s crew are avid sailors of contemporary craft. They can and do sail in boats that can equal or better this old square-rigger’s top speed of 14 knots, can point far higher (sailing a barque much above 90 degrees requires some serious tweaking), that don’t need miles of running rigging and don’t require the crew to leap aloft in the normal course of events.

Why, then, do ships like this one retain any appeal? Nostalgia might play a part, but that would hardly be enough to account for the tremendous outlay of expense, time commitment, risk and effort that is intrinsic to sailing a square-rigger. If you ask the crew why they do it, you’ll get a lot of shrugs, but when pressed they will talk about the glories of working with a team to accomplish something difficult. Pressed further they will allow that being pushed toward one’s limits and working in scary circumstances is good for the soul. But, pressed still further, they almost invariably will speak of how beautiful the ship is, how all of the pieces, including the people in the crew, make a thing possessed of grace and strength and purpose — qualities hard to find in such concentration these days. So this vessel has survived, not because it is a sailing machine, but because the act of operating the machine requires people to be more able, more aware, more realized than they otherwise might be.

Leaving Broken Bay, on the east coast of Australia. Crew aloft to set main course, fore course and fore lower topsails in their gear. On deck they brace the fore yards around sharp on port, main yards on starboard, rudder hard over to starboard. The idea is that, when the anchor comes up, the vessel will be driven backwards with the stern veering to starboard and the bow to port. Before the barque makes too much sternway, the fore yards are braced around to match the main, the rudder is put over and we sail away into the Tasman Sea. It works as it has always worked.

Brion Toss is a rigger, sailor and author of The Rigger’s Apprentice. 

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