Tall ship sail handling

On a Russian tall-ship the crisp command, “Paruznj avral! Paruznj avral!” means one thing only. “All hands on deck!” It doesn’t matter whether crew are off watch and sleeping, or having a meal, in the heads, or peeling spuds. “Paruznj avral!” usually means the wind direction or velocity has changed and all hands are required, immediately, to alter the set of the sails.

Sedov is a four-masted barque 117.5 meters (385.5 ft) in length. With all canvas set she carries 18 square sails and 14 fore and aft sails: an area of 4,192 square meters (45,106 sq. ft.). Under full sail she can cross oceans at 16 knots.

I’ve been privileged to sail as a crew member on Sedov in the Mediterranean and on the Atlantic. I’ve also sailed the Baltic and North Seas on the Ukrainian three-masted barque Tovarishch. Each voyage has emphasized to me what square-rig sailors have always known: windjammers do not perform well to windward. The best angle a square-rigger can make towards the eye of the wind is about 60°. That equates to sailing two miles for every mile made to windward. In fact, almost any maneuver on a square-rigger requires time, skilled manpower and considerable effort from all hands.

On Sedov that’s more than 100 men. In direct contrast, I have a 33-ft. Yorktown sloop, Retreat which I sail out of San Pedro, Calif. Retreat can be tacked or gybed efficiently by two people, or even one person, without great effort, and each operation takes only a few seconds.

On a windjammer a single tack can take close to half an hour, or more, with all hands hard at work. And for much of that time bedlam reigns. Orders bellowed by stentorian voices are relayed from station to station. Crewmembers add their shouts, exhorting each other to greater effort. Whipped by the wind, sails crack like gunshots; pulley blocks rattle annoyingly against masts and yards; the ship creaks and groans. Often howling wind, heavy rain and darkness add to the apparent disorder.

As on all sailing vessels, the tacking procedure on Sedov follows the command “Ready about” shouted from the open bridge deck. At their assigned stations, crew ease the sheets to allow the ship to pay off the wind and pick up a little speed. The command “Tack ship!” is shouted and the helm goes to weather. Sedov ponderously turns into the wind. The mizzen spanker is hauled to weather to help the rudder force the stern around, maintaining steerageway and keeping momentum going. With the sails aback, the ship’s bow is pushed steadily through the eye of the wind. On deck, bracing crews haul the main course yard around to fill the sail and maintain forward motion. Jibs are sheeted in as she pays off to leeward. Yards and sheets are trimmed, and Sedov slowly gathers way on her new tack.

In winds of less than 10 knots, a large sailing ship may not have enough momentum to complete the exercise and can end up “in irons”or stopped dead in the water. At the other end of the scale, in strong winds the foremast carries a vast frontal load when the sails are aback. Because the masts are braced from behind, that enormous pressure has the potential to snap a mast. In strong winds and heavy seas, therefore, when tacking could be dangerous, a square-rigger is put on the opposite tack by turning her away from the wind through 240°, effectively gybing her. This is known as wearing ship, an easy maneuver that requires plenty of sea room but loses a lot of hard won ground. Wearing ship, in its simplest terms, means sailing a large downwind loop.Square-sail development Tall ships, naturally, evolved from small ships. The earliest sailing vessels carried a single square of sail. As shipwrights’ and sailing skills increased, so did the size of the ships. As vessels got bigger, simply making a proportionately larger single square sail became an impossible burden. Additional masts were added, and one sail became multiple sails. Effectively that one large sail was cut into smaller rectangles and rigged one above the other. Fore and aft sails followed. Experimentation showed that a triangular sail, or sails, rigged from bowsprit to the foremast, gave the vessels greater stability and made them easier to handle in winds blowing from forward of the beam. Later, staysails were rigged between foremast and mainmast, and, in larger ships, between first mainmast and second mainmast, plus between second main and mizzen. Performance again improved.

Prevailing wind patterns were the motivating force behind the development of square sails. With a following wind, from anywhere abaft the beam, the square rig is virtually unbeatable. A Marconi-rigged sloop, on the other hand, usually has to depend on the use of a large spinnaker for downwind performance.

During the great age of sail, the most comfortable sea route from European ports to the rich trading grounds of the Orient was via the Cape of Good Hope. Thanks to the Earth’s rotation, the wind and ocean currents of the Southern Ocean worked in unison with square sails to speed the ships eastward. This constant momentum is so strong that, as an example, Australian square riggers plying the coastal trade were known to sail east aboutaround the Horn and almost round the worldfrom Sydney to Perth, rather than beat into wind and seas for 2,000 miles. To save time and, consequently, money, European and U.S. east coast shipping was often compelled to attempt to round Cape Horn. The voyage from 50° south to 50° south, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is arguably the most arduous and dangerous of ocean passages. Some square rigged ships took as long as three months to battle their way against the wind driven waves around the notorious foot of South America. Many such vessels were lost in winter passages through these waters. HMS Bounty, captained by William Bligh on her voyage to infamy, failed to round the cape in 1788 and turned about for the Cape of Good Hope. As we have seen, problems inevitably occurred when square-riggers tried to sail to windward. Not so with fore-and-aft-rigged vessels.

Famed British sailor Chay Blyth set a record back in August 1971. He had cast off from Southampton the year before aboard British Steel a 59-foot LOA steel ketch. Blyth’s goal was to sail solo, non-stop, around the world in a westerly directionthe “wrong way” around. British Steel passed Cape Horn on Christmas Eve without incident and continued to beat through the Southern Ocean to return to the Atlantic. He succeeded in his quest, taking 292 days for the circumnavigation. It is unlikely a square-rigged ship could equal Blyth’s historic voyage from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope, although one would certainly make a race of it up and down the Atlantic with fair winds.

In a confined area, where maneuverability is essential and tacking a large ship virtually impossible, windjammer skippers employ a tactic known as box-hauling to change direction. Box-hauling, although rarely used, combines the tack and wear to change from a zig to a zag in a restricted space. The ship is turned into the wind until the square sails backfill. Before the bow can swing through the wind, the yards are pivoted so the ship turns quickly back to its original heading; then around to a point where a wear will complete the exercise. On the desired new heading and under way, she should be roughly at the point where she began the maneuver.

Unlike a fore-and-aft-rigged vessel, which performs well on a beam reach, on a square-rigger the heeling effect causes the yards to tilt with respect to the sea. This is known as a “cockbill.” Airflow over tilted yards and sails gathers turbulence, diminishing aerodynamic efficiency; consequently, the ship’s speed suffers. To avoid this situation yards are trimmed parallel to the horizon.

Wind is fairer aloft

High in the royals actual wind speed can be up to 10% stronger than in the lower courses. True wind speed increases with respect to a ship’s speed so, as far as a sail is concerned, the relative wind direction moves further aft. The higher the sail, the more it can be set sideways to take advantage of the increased velocity and improve upwind speed. This sideways set puts a progressive twist, known as “fanning,” in the sail positions. Both the fan and the cockbill are removed as tacking begins.

“Paruznj avral!” Sedov is cork-screwing her way across the Bay of Biscay towards Brest, after battling winds Force 8 to 10 off Cape Finisterre. It’s late at night. My watch, all asleep until interrupted by the disembodied voice, slide off bunks into half-dry clothes: pull on deck shoes and tuck laces in out of the way. Dressed, we race for the mizzenmast. The sea is white with spray, and it is black and menacing. Spindrift is flying in all directions. No stars are visible above. On deck the action is intense. We are ordered to trim the yards and furl upper topsails. Cadets and crew take up their stations on deck; others scramble up the ratlines. Sheets are let off, buntlines and clewlines hauled. Out on the yards we shuffle sideways along the foot-ropes. Once shackled onto the jackstay with a safety line, we grab hold of the billowing sails and roll them, pummeling them with our fists to release trapped wind, before tying them neatly along the yard with rope gaskets. The task completed to the bosun’s satisfaction, we are ordered back to the deck. On fine days we tend to linger as long as possible to savor the view and the experience. On this stormy night, with rain stinging our eyes and the wind trying to tear us from our precarious perches, we can think of little, except getting back to the solidity of the deck and the warmth of our berths. Hanging up our safety belts we blow on icy fingers and wait for new orders.

Three times during that long night we are called to duty. Finally, at 0600, with Brest on the invisible horizon and the Bay of Biscay maintaining its wild reputation, we are subjected to one last sailing alarm.

Summoned to the deck in pouring rain, with the wind whistling loudly in the rigging, we listenmore than half asleepto orders shouted through a brass megaphone, “Furl sail and square the yards!” We react as a well-conditioned crew must. We have done it all before.

By Ocean Navigator