I’m reading a book* on colonial life and ran across this surprising, and somewhat ambiguous statement:
If I’m reading that right, he’s saying that a square-rigger like Nelson’s Victory could only sail with the wind 30 degrees or more abaft the beam (i.e. at 120 degrees the wind is 30 degrees abaft the beam, at 90 degrees you’re sailing with the wind right on your beam perpendicular to your heading, and at 60 degrees the wind is 30 degrees forward of the beam). (I tried to draw an illustration of this, but I couldn’t make it come out right on preview).
If I am reading the sentence right, is it true? If the ship can’t sail closer to the wind than 30 degrees abaft the beam, then it can’t make progress to windward at all, and it can’t tack into the wind. I always thought that the square-rigged ships were able to make some progress into the wind by tacking back and forth, but for that to work they had to be able to make at least a little headway with the wind forward of the beam. If they had to sail with the wind abaft the beam, they would always be driven downwind; the best they could do was slow the rate at which they lost ground. Such a ship could not reach an objective dead ahead even if the wind were on her port beam, much less against her; she would have to tack at least 30 degrees to starboard to make headway, and then could not tack back to port to reach the objective as that would put the wind forward of her port beam and stop her dead.
Something tells me that the old square-riggers couldn’t have been that limited; if they were, everybody would have used caravels and sloops and other fore-and-aft rigs.
*Dale Taylor, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1997.