Why multi-masted schooners?
April 24, 2013 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Many early sailboats were fore-and-aft rigged, e.g. Egyptian Nile sailboats of antiquity. But soon enough, boat designers moved to square-rigged ships. Then, just before the end of the Age of Sail, at the beginning of the 20th Century, come these ships with multiple schooner-rigged (fore and aft) sails, for example the seven-masted Thomas Lawson and all of these six-masters and all of these five-masters. What was the advantage of the many-masted schooner, and why did it come so late in the development of the commercial sailing vessel?
posted by musofire to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You are very rarely "running before the wind" - you are usually tacking or jibing so the ship wears at an angle to the wind... you're either close-hauled or reaching. Multiple masts presents more sail to the wind when the ship is sailed this way, which means more force applied to the ship to propel it, allowing for faster speeds, heavier cargoes or both. Also, it allows for a longer hull and shorter masts - tall masts are difficult to build, and longer hulls let you carry more cargo.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:39 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you asking what the advantage of a schooner over a square rigged ship is, or why so many masts?

Schooners sail upwind better than square rigged ships do, which really don't sail upwind at all. Conversely, a square rigged ship sails downwind quite well, but that limits where you can go.

Why so many masts on some of those schooners? Well, the Thomas Lawson that you linked was a 475 ft boat with 13,000 tons displacement. It's going to take a lot of sail to get that boat moving, and you need somewhere to hang it. There are limitations on how tall you can make a wooden mast, and other advantages to shorter masts anyway: you can fit them under more bridges, and they keep the force exerted on the sails down low, which keeps the boat from heeling as much.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:44 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Slap*Happy: "longer hulls let you carry more cargo."

Long hulls also decrease the Froude number thus reducing drag on the hull.
posted by notsnot at 9:49 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wikipedia provides another bit of the answer:
"Square rigs allowed the fitting of many small sails to create a large total sail area to drive large ships. Fore-and-aft could be sailed with less crew and were efficient working to windward or reaching, but creating a large total sail area required large sails, which could cause the sails and cordage to break more easily under the wind. Despite the large overall sail areas, and even when sailing on their best points of sail, large warships were slow, for example 6–8 knots. Some clipper ships that had square rigs and for whom speed was critical could be much faster; for example Cutty Sark could make 17 knots. The late windjammers were as fast as the clippers, being much bigger." (Article on 'Square rig'). By the late 19th century the commercial imperative was to build bigger, so that meant fore and aft rig to keep the size of the crew manageable. More sail on a bigger hull meant more masts since they must already have been pretty close to the practicable limit, and timber for masts wasn't getting ant commoner--easier to find and make lots of short masts than a few tall ones.

Looking at the article on the Thomas Lawson, it seems that she must have gone pretty close to the limits of the time, and beyond what was commercially realistic.
posted by Logophiliac at 9:59 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the central question here is, why were multiple-masted ships initially square-rigged, when their single-masted predecessors and were rigged fore-and-aft, right?

Large ships were designed to maximize their speed under full sail before the predictable trade winds they rode across oceans. The square rig lets you put up more sail area per mast, so if you are sailing with the trade winds behind you, you can catch more wind and go faster. Once steam engines became preferred for long-distance voyages, the advantages of the fore-and-aft rig in sailing upwind and maneuvering, and the smaller crew they require, became more compelling.
posted by nicwolff at 9:59 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've found the answer to my question, I think: Wikipedia is now telling me that it was a cost issue: "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."

I gather that fore-and-aft rigged ships required much less crew than square rigged ships. By 1900, if you had a cargo ship with sails, you were trying to save money, and crew is a cost. If you wanted to get somewhere fast, you paid for a steamer.

Unless someone else has a different rationale?
posted by musofire at 10:32 AM on April 24, 2013

Despite the general silliness of the site, a nice explanation of the differences and respective advantages here.
posted by Shoggoth at 5:26 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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