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Clipper Rigs

During the reconstruction of the Cutty Sark in 1957, the master rigger for the restoration as a boy he had sailed as late as 1924 in a smart little Barque, rigged with main sky sail yard and stunsails. This was the iron-hulled E J Spence built in Sunderland in 1871 and trading between Mauritius and Australia. Although not a tea clipper, she was probably the last vessel of that era to sail with such a rig on a purely commercial basis.

Sail Plans

The era of the Tea Clippers saw important changes in the sail plans of ships. Early in the 19th century 3-masted ships had each mast divided into 3 parts, the lower mast, the topmast and the topgallant mast. The mizzenmast before this time set a spanker, which was a development of the old triangular lateen with the portion before the mast omitted, and was loose footed with no boom. A boom was later fitted, but the mizzen lower yard or crossjack was used only to spread the topsail, carrying no sail itself. The French called it la vergue seche-the barren yard. It was not until the mid 1830s that an American skipper decided to set a sail on this yard, a move received with a little derision at 1st by his British counterparts as it was considered to have little effect, but by the next decade most American packet ships were carrying this sail, and eventually the British. The topmasts carried only 1 sail, huge and difficult to handle, on the fore and main masts. It carried usually 3 rows of reef points, 4 on some of the largest American clippers. This single topsail had to be reefed or furled by men laying out on the yard, a task which could take up to 1/2 an hour.

In 1841 an American, Captain Forbes, devised a means of dividing this sail horizontally into 2 parts. The doubling of the lower and top masts was made longer than usual and an extra yard was added below the cap which could then be raised or lowered on its parral between the cap and the top. Above this the now shortened topsail was lowered to the cap as before. This was the origin of the double topsail, later to be followed by the double topgallant. Donald McKay fitted this arrangement on the famous Great Republic. This simple division of the sail was easier to work, and quicker, than the old single topsail as the upper topsail yard could be lowered from the deck and its sail then fell in front of the lower portion and was blanketed by it, the men then going aloft to furl it. 

Another American shipmaster, Captain Howes, next brought out an improvement on this arrangement in 1853. In his version the new lower topsail yard was fixed to the lower mast cap with a movable crane and was additionally supported by an iron bar from the top. It would not move up or down however. The upper topsail on its still hoisting yard had its foot cut without any roach and was laced directly to the jackstay on the lower topsail yard without any gap, thus presenting an appearance as of a single topsail. The upper sail could be lowered quickly, thus saving the arduous task of reefing as with the single topsail, although it still had to be taken in and furled. This was but a step from the true double topsail 1st adopted in British clippers in 1865 with the Ariel, whereby the 2 sails were separate entities, with a slight gap between them.  In Howes' rig, when the upper portion was furled on its own yard, its foot was still laced to the lower yard. With the true double topsails however, the upper was furled completely on its own yard. Occasionally some captains still laced their upper topsails down as close as possible to the lower yards.  The double topsails and double topgallants were the arrangement which persisted until modern times.

Aside from the developing double topsails, quite a number of ideas came out following on Howes' rig, all with the idea of making the large single topsail easier to handle. These were self-reefing sails on rolling spars, the best known being Cunningham's and Coiling & Pinkney's, both British.

The general idea of Cunningham's invention was to reef and furl the single topsail on a revolving yard. The yard turned in 2 hoops at the yardarms which took the usual lifts and at the centre the mast parral also had a cogged sheave arrangement around which passed a chain tie. The 2 ends of the chain passed through sheaves at the topmast head and then down to the deck. By hauling on either one the yard could be made to rotate either way, being lowered or raised (parbuckling). The gear in the middle of the yard required the sail to be split into two halves down as far as the cap level, where across reef band was fitted. The gap was covered by a vertical strip of canvas (bonnet) which was laced to cross-battens at 12 in. intervals. The batten ends were grooved to fit around doubled rope bindings on each vertical edge of the sail. The bonnet could thus slide in the gap and bunch up like a Venetian blind. Battens tapered in an opposite direction to the yard taper enabled the sail to roll up on a parallel diameter.

An additional spar about 1/3rd the diameter of the yard was fitted parallel to it and just clear behind it, held by brackets from the yardarm hooks and at the middle sheaves. This spar did not revolve but took the footropes and stuns ail booms, and could take the reef points for more security when the yard was lowered to the cap. The appearance of this sail when set was like a normal single topsail with a reef band at cap level and the vertical strip or bonnet looking like a ladder above it. It can be seen in the illustrations of the Fiery Cross and Lahloo and is often seen in old prints. The sail could only be close reefed, and to furl completely it needed men on the yard as usual.  Coiling & Pinkney's differed chiefly in that the rolling spar to take the sail was not the actual yard but a lighter one supported in front of it by yardarm attachments, the revolving action coming from a sheave arrangement at each end with chains up to the masthead working in a similar parbuckling action as Cunningham's.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013