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March 27, 2011 11:45 AM   Subscribe

SchoonerFilter: For a bit of fiction in the works.... Could four men sail an 1807 version of a schooner like this. Plus another schuestion.

For a piece of fiction I'm writing: I need to know whether it is plausible that four men (3 sailors and one "lubber") could sail a topmast schooner like the Pride of Baltimore... although an 1807 version. They don't need to sail it well... just make for open sea.

Also: How big would the anchor of the period craft have been? How would it have been raised? and How many men would it take to raise it? Did it have a chain, or a rope?
posted by ecorrocio to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes, depending on conditions. If the ship was not prepared for sailing it would take the four of them quite long to prepare it. If the wind and tide were just right they wouldn't need to do much expect let their anchor(s) slip (I gather that this is a somewhat hasty departure in which case they probably wouldn't bother raising the anchor.) and make what sail they can and the wind and tide would take them out. Should the wind be less favorable they would have a much harder time of it, being short-handed for tacking and such manoeuvre.
posted by Authorized User at 12:23 PM on March 27, 2011

From Wikipedia...
There was no set number of masts for a schooner. A small schooner has two or three masts, but they were built with as many as six (e.g. the wooden six-masted Wyoming) or seven masts to carry a larger volume of cargo. The only seven-masted (steel hulled) schooner, the Thomas W. Lawson, was built in 1902, with a length of 395 ft (120 m), the top of the tallest mast being 155 feet (47 m) above deck, and carrying 25 sails with 43,000 sq ft (4,000 m2) of total sail area. It was manned by a crew of only sixteen. A two or three masted schooner is quite maneuverable and can be sailed by a smaller crew than some other sailing vessels. The larger multi-masted schooners were somewhat unmanageable and the rig was largely a cost-cutting measure introduced towards the end of the days of sail.

Further reading on Wikipedia reveals that the 'Brig', another type of two masted ship from the nineteenth century, also had a minimum crew of ~15 men. I would say based on the data about the Thomas A. Lawson, which I know is almost a whole century later than your 1807, it might be possible. This is believable if they weren't worried about full speed, rapid turning or grace. It would not be easy or pretty to watch, but it seems possible.

Referential data about a 19th century Anchor. 800lbs sounds about right for a ship the size of most of the smaller 19th century America ships, of which most Topmast Schooners seem to be.
posted by schade at 12:44 PM on March 27, 2011

You might find some interesting reference data in The Sea Wolf by Jack London - the sealing schooner Ghost in that story is operated very short-handed towards the end of the story. Also, there's a tradition of relatively short-handed crews on fishing schooners (c.f. Kipling's Captains Courageous, maybe?), and whalers left their ships with skeleton crews while they were out in the boats hunting whales.

Also, there's no rule that says you need two people on a jib - a single crewmember could cast off the lazy sheet, allow the sails to flog, and then retrieve and trim the working sheet. Furthermore, there's no rule that says you have to use every sail.

I think the bottom line is that yes, it could be sailed by a small crew, but it would be operating at reduced efficiency. Pride of Baltimore II, which you referenced in that photo, sails with a crew of 15 or so. Everything would be harder and take longer; bad weather would be more dangerous. Some tasks would be impossible. Perhaps they would stick to the fore-and-aft sails due to crew limitations? Once at sea, people gots to sleep sometime, so it would be operating with one or two hands on watch most of the time, waking the others when necessary.
posted by richyoung at 12:52 PM on March 27, 2011

I crewed a schooner about half that size, with two foresails and no yardarm topsails, out of Provincetown during summers when I was in college. We sailed with the captain and just two crew, and we were tacking constantly and raising and dropping the sails every two hours. We just let the jib back while we tacked the staysail – there's so much canvas up astern that the boat barely notices. So once under way (I like the first answer's suggestion that they would just cut the anchor free) I think four people could sail that boat.

But the hardest part of sailing a gaff schooner shorthanded is probably raising the mizzen and main sails, since each has two halyards for the throat and peak ends of the gaff and they have to go up together, and the wooden gaff and canvas sail are quite heavy. There are blocks which afford mechanical advantage but also mean you have to pull a lot more rope – we would enlist the paying passengers to get them most of the way up, then cleat the peak low while we two raised the throat the last bit together, then topped up the peak.

It was a lot of work even with the passengers' help – and a boat twice as long has four times as much sail! For fictional purposes, that would be the challenge: to raise one sail two men have to pull up two halyards that are probably 300 feet long, getting heavier as the sail goes up. By the time all the sail's weight is aloft they're each pulling against something like 30 pounds of resistance*, so imagine pulling a 3-year-old boy by rope up the side of a 30-story building – twice!

And then as the sail goes taut and raises the boom, you're pulling much more weight – at that point on the Olad we would put the halyard around one horn of a cleat and tighten it a few inches at a time, one man repeatedly pulling the halyard out away from the mast and then letting the other pull the slack around the cleat until it creaked, then finally cleating it off.

* assuming 2500 ft² = ten bolts of #5 canvas + a 100 lb gaff at 1:6 advantage / 2 halyards
posted by nicwolff at 3:18 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sure, but it ain't going to be going very fast very quickly.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:44 PM on March 27, 2011

This is a topsail schooner. So though you can definitely sail a gaff-rigged schooner with four or five and a lot of hard work, on a topsail schooner you would have to reduce efficiency, as mentioned above. It takes forever to set or furl sail on a yard with only one or two people.It can be done, but it takes a long time because the one or two individuals have to climb aloft, undo or redo the gaskets on each side and then move along the yard working with each section of sail separately to prepare it for setting or the much longer task of furling. To do this crisply you need at least four people and six are better. It's likely with only four aboard they would simply not have used the topsails. which would reduce maneuverability and overall speed with this rig. Most likely to avoid driving her bow into the water they'd have to strike the main gaff topsail so as not to overbalance and run with just the main and fore and the headsails, which that size crew could handle if they weren't tacking a lot.

As for the anchor, on a vessel this size I have manually handled an anchor (with a crew) of about 700 pounds. A schooner would carry two anchors and oftentimes have them both out, depending on the current, so as not to swing around wildly on one point of connection. I'm not 100% sure, but I would be surprised if they used rope (cable) instead of chain for a schooner. Schooners, being designed to go in and out of ports continually or to fish, anchored more often than deepwater ships and needed more rugged anchoring gear that could stand up to regular chafing. I suspect chain, but I have seen mentions of schooners that have one chain for the best anchor and one cable for the port anchor, saving some money there.

Anyway, the way you would handle it would be with the brake windlass. If you think of the Bugs Bunny-type railroad handcar that works by pumping a pair of opposing handles up and down in a seesaw rhythm, that's basically the pumping method that generates the motion; and in the case of a brake windlass these long pumping bars are attached to a horizontall windlass or winch, basically a rotating drum, which moves around a few inches with each pump, and gradually winds in the chain or cable as you pump. Little by little. As part of the windlass, there is a mechanism which acts like a brake, dropping into place after each pump to prevent the winch from unwinding. I uploaded some pics to my Flickr so you can see an early 20th century version - windlass, pumping down, pumping up.

Taking in or letting out the anchor is a multi-step process accompanied by lots of commands and requiring focus and coordination. Because of the weight and line tension involved it's actually one of the more dangerous jobs aboard.

The anchors are carried a bit aft of the bow and secured there when not in use. To start using them, crew first has to lift the anchor's weight up enough to remove all but one of its temporary holding lines, usually using a gantline or other temporary line to lift, then slowly lower it down so that it's hanging alongside the vessel, free of other stopper lines, and they have to protect it from popping a hole in the side of the vessel by shielding its flukes with a long board called an anchor spoon.

Once it's free and dangling under the bow straight up and down, the temporary gantline is removed, and the anchor and some of its chain are now being held up by just that one last remaining holding line, attached to a cleat on deck. Meanwhile, the crew has been using long-handled hooklike tools to flake out lengths of anchor chain, laying it it neat parallel lines, so when the anchor drops the chain will run out smoothly (instead of tangling nastily, taking out a bunch of people and deck gear as the anchor tears a piece out of the vessel).

You have to lay out a whole lot of chain, because you don't just drop the anchor to the bottom and be done with it. It's not the anchor itself, but the anchor plus the weight of the chain that keep the ship in one spot, so you need a lot of chain out there. You also give your anchor scope, room to sway on the length of chain - this gives not only a better grip but also allows for tidal and wind variation so your vessel is never struggling against the anchor while at rest. The more anchor rode you put out, the better the anchor will hold. So generally schooners would put out at least five times as much anchor chain as the distance between the boat's keel and the bottom of the waterway - more conservative approaches would have you put out as much as seven to eight times the length.

All that line going out means work for later. It runs out very quickly when you first drop the anchor, of course. When it's time to raise the anchor is when you wish you didn't have to put out so much anchor rode.

So in order to weigh anchor, the crew goes to the windlass, gathers up any slack in the chain, and then starts pumping. The first long length of time you pump, all you are really doing is bringing in chain, which actually means you are slowly dragging the boat along the chain until you are at a point directly over the anchor itself, with the chain straight up and down. While bringing in chain you are not even yet dealing with the weight of the anchor, which continues to just sit on the bottom. On a schooner this could take anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, depending on conditions.

When you're "up and down" over the anchor, meaning the anchor chain is now vertical and showing the strain of the anchor weight, the really hard work starts. The worst part is at this point, when you have to break the anchor out from the mud or sand where it's now dug in good and tight. Each pumping motion becomes a lot harder and you really have to muscle into it. While one side of the windlass crew is pushing down and the other pushing up, the "up" side may actually get raised off their feet by the intensity of the pushing from the opposite side.

Once you've broken it from the mud, you're basically using a little mechanical advantage to lift the 6 or 700 pounds an inch at a time or so with each pump. Lots of pumping. This part can take another half hour, and due to the weight, which you can feel in the windlas,s is the most miserable part of the job.

Once the anchor is out of the water and hanging off the front of the bow, another series of commands happens. The crew transfers the weight of the anchor back to that temporary gantline, then gets out a large hook to loop through the anchor ring and drag it back to its storage position. They then throw out a whole 'nother bunch of that chain they just fought so hard to get in, in order to give the anchor enough chain to move backward to its storage area. And then, using the windlass again or maybe just sweating (one person holding the anchor line, running it around a pin, throwing their body weight back to get some slack in the rope, and then passing it around the pin to a backup person who is 'tailing' or gathering in the slack), the crew works to pull the anchor up the last few feet to its position.

As you can tell, weighing anchor is not a quick or easy process and could not happen fast. If you need your vessel to get out fast, as some have noted you can just slip anchor. However, that's not such an easy decision either. Slipping anchor means letting the whole anchor and chain go - leaving it at the bottom of the ocean and paying out the entire, maybe 1000-foot-long or longer anchor cable, one of your most expensive pieces of gear and one essential to safety. It's something any vessel owner or captain would be extremely loath to do. So it would be a serious choice to make and only taken under extremity.
posted by Miko at 8:58 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

For comparison: Pride of Baltimore has an overall length of 157', length on deck 96'6". She draws 12'4" and her mainmaist is 109' above the keel. She has over 10,000 feet of sail area. She's really a lot bigger than most daysailers and the forces multiply in keeping with that.

This writeup on another Baltimore Clipper, the Vigilant, says her normal crew complement was eight. That I could believe.

If they're supposed to be privateering or anything, though, they'd have carried more people for the fighting and boarding raids and stuff.
posted by Miko at 9:11 PM on March 27, 2011

Further reading on Wikipedia reveals that the 'Brig', another type of two masted ship from the nineteenth century, also had a minimum crew of ~15 men.

The big difference there is that on a brig all the sails are square-rigged. On this kind of vessel it's just the topsail. This makes an enormous difference. The more square sails you have, the more personnel you need. The fore-and-aft-rigged sails - everything but the topsail here - can be handled (set and furled) mainly from the deck. With square sails you have to send people aloft to set and furl and it's a bear of a job. Ideally you want a separate bunch of people for each mast so you don't have to do weird stuff at the helm while one mast gets struck, and fifteen minutes go by before the next one is.
posted by Miko at 9:15 PM on March 27, 2011

there's a tradition of relatively short-handed crews on fishing schooners (c.f. Kipling's Captains Courageous, maybe?)

It seems counterintuitive but they were actually overmanned during those days, because the determining factor was wanting to put more dories out - more men, more dories. Fishing schooners could carry between 18 and 30 people usually, way more than they needed to sail the boat. Shorthanding crews is more common today than in the 19th century.

and whalers left their ships with skeleton crews while they were out in the boats hunting whales.

They did, but they weren't actively sailing when the whaleboats were out. They hove to by putting one set of sails before the wind and one set behind, so they were held in pretty much one place, and sat tight. There wasn't a need for many people to be around for that since there was no maneovering or sail handling going on. Whaleship crews usually numbered around 35 but again, you could sail the boat with fewer people, but they wanted a full complement of six whalers for each of the five whaleboats, so whaleships were also overmanned in terms of their sailing need.
posted by Miko at 9:22 PM on March 27, 2011

Miko, I seem to recall that the men who stayed aboard to mind a whaler were sometimes expected to make sail to gather the scattered whale boats if the chase had led them far from the ship. Not sure of the source, or its veracity - you obviously know more about this stuff than I.

In both cases, I was thinking of the operation of the vessel when most of the crew was out harvesting [$marine_life]. But yeah, mostly it was probably heave to, sit tight - they were well-crewed when sailing, and tended not to sail when they were short-handed.

And nicwolff, I was thinking it would be pretty hard to raise those big gaff sails, but I didn't know like you do. That sounds like a pretty fun job, in a glutton-for-punishment kind of way.
posted by richyoung at 10:45 PM on March 27, 2011

I would say based on the data about the Thomas W. Lawson, which I know is almost a whole century later than your 1807, it might be possible.

Anything to do with the Lawson doesn't apply, because she was one of the most modern vessels of her day, with steam-driven winches to do all that annoying rope-pulling stuff.
posted by Lebannen at 4:58 AM on March 28, 2011

Miko, I seem to recall that the men who stayed aboard to mind a whaler were sometimes expected to make sail to gather the scattered whale boats if the chase had led them far from the ship.

That would be very unusual. That's because often the whale hunt took boat crews out of visual connection with the ship, and of course there was no radar, no GPS, no way at all then for the ship to find the scattered boats after they had moved out of sight. If the ship crew tried to go after them, they would just be searching randomly for them on a vast sea. So the standard was to keep the main vessel in one place, and for a member of each boat's crew to take compass headings and do quick and dirty dead reckoning as they chased the whale, so they'd be able to find their way back to the main ship. Each boat carried a box compass like this one for the purpose. If there was a whaleboat still out and the ship moved, that would basically mean abandoning the crew of that boat. I have read that there was a standard of three days' wait for all boats to get back, but after three days it was understood that the ship would cruise and the whaleboat crew would be assumed dead. Occasionally, whaleships would come across lost whaleboat crews, since they were all trolling the same grounds.

That's not to say the four or five people aboard at the start of a hunt wouldn't need to work the sails occasionally. They would definitely need to trim the sails and occasionally set or take in a sail as wind conditions changed in order to stay hove to. It would definitely take a lot of time for ore or two people to set or furl a sail on a ship rig, but that wasn't so important because they were staying put waiting for the whaleboats anyway, and just making small adjustments. I doubt they would ever make a significant amount of sail with a crew of four or five as if to get underway. Just thinking about it, it seems incredibly logistically difficult.

you obviously know more about this stuff

In my career I have been required to master a lot of totally arcane and relatively useless information. As you can see, it's delightful when it actually becomes useful for a few minutes!
posted by Miko at 8:56 AM on March 28, 2011

*So I was wrong when I said "no manouevering or sail handling going on" - not any major work, but yes there would be some sail handling and helm adjusting, so my apologies for giving the wrong impression.
posted by Miko at 8:58 AM on March 28, 2011

Response by poster: You people are FANTASTIC!!! Thank you so much for this wealth of detail. My story requires four men to steal a two-masted schooner. It certainly seems possible, especially if I opt for a smaller ship than the Pride of Baltimore. Maybe not a top-mast schooner, but straight gaff rigged. Nicwolfe, maybe about the size of the ship you show.

The anchor... glad to hear rope may have been used, and Authorized User's comment about letting it slip... right on. My plan is for them to attempt to raise it, but realizing it would take too long, cut it loose.

I'm writing about it... but I'm no sailor (born and raised about as far as you can get from sizable water... in Colorado), so this stuff really helps.

Miko, thanks for everything... I'm sending you MeFi Mail with a question.
posted by ecorrocio at 2:59 PM on March 28, 2011

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