How close to the wind could the old square-riggers sail?

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.

This is impossible to answer with a yes or no or a number because ships behave very differently depending on their hull, sails and wind and sea conditions. Still, the quote seems made by someone who knows little to nothing about sailing. “120 to 240” makes no sense while 60 to 120 would mke much more sense and 80 to 160 (2/3) would probably come closest to being the general truth. A ship is symmetrical so anything more than 180 makes no sense.

Actually, I think this is about right. I ran across a similar explanation in the Aubrey/Maturin series and was rather astonished. But apparently square riggers could not make any progress when the wind was directly foul of their course. This meant that they could spend days or weeks in harbor waiting for a fair wind.

The advantage of the square rigger was the huge amount of sail that they could raise, so for blue sea sailing where winds were generally favorable and you didn’t have to tack much, they made good progress.

they could drop the anchor and sit there - this way no ground is lost.

I have to believe that the phrase “from the wind” indicates that the author is orienting the ship to the stern, rather than the bow. If 0° was dead astern, this would mean that the ship could only get within 30° of heading into the wind. The problem with the accepting 120° to 240° fom the bow is that it means the ship could not even tack directly across the wind (90°) and that is simply not accurate.

According to “Sailing and Seamanship” ( US Coast Guard Axil. ), “This is a major improvement over the old square-rigged sailing vessals of the age of sail. They could only sail about 200 of the 360 degrees (of a circle)”. Meaning that they could go to weather, but only by (about) 10 degrees. And if they weren’t gentlemen.

Chapman’s only comment to how square-rigged vessels go to weather is “not well”.

The figure I’ve always heard for the old square-riggers was about 60 degrees off the wind. It will vary by a lot of factors, as other posters have noted.

Fore-and-aft rigs can point higher into the wind, which is why some of the large ships during they age of sail tried compromises with “hermaphrodite” rigs to gain an ability to point higher without completely losing the downwind power advantage of square rigging.

A lot of the commercial square riggers were intended to sail across the Atlantic in certain latitudes where the wind usually came from a specific direction. Luckily, the Atlantic is equipped with latitude bands going both directions (the so called “trade winds” and “westerlies”).

Although not a sailor, I’ve read a lot of Hornblower and Aubrey-Maturins, as well as played some of the old boardgames like Wooden Ships & Iron Men. In other words, I’m a lubber with a little too much information and therefore dangerous.

So I’m somewhat confused by the sentence: “Square rigs are the traditional picture of the tall ship and could only sail from about 120 to 240 degrees from the wind.” With 360-degrees representing a full circle, a ship could be no more than 180 degrees away from the source of the wind (that is, the wind would be dead ahead and the ship unable to make any headway). I’m not sure where he’s getting the 181-240 degrees from. (Is he meaning 120 degrees total from the wind; that is, 60 degrees from one side and 60 from another?)

It seems to me that his statement is incredibly all-encompassing in terms of how well square-rigged ships can sail. It’s like discussing all auto models, from the Model T to a Porsche, and sayd “Automobiles are capable of reaching top speeds of 60 to 200 m.p.h.”). Square-rigged ships had been in use for hundreds of years, and numerous small changes had been made to its rigging to improve its sailing qualities.

For example, the spars are not fixed to the masts, but can be pivoted, toward the front or the rear of the ship. This allows the ship to sail closer to the eye of the wind. No ship could sail directly into the eye, no matter what, so they had to tack into the wind by gaining momentum, then reshifting the sails at the critical moment when the wind is coming from the other direction. Failure to do so could leave the ship “in irons,” and the crew would soon feel the wrath of an irate captain and his officers for screwing up.

While it’s possible for a ship to reach its objective by tacking, it should be understood that its progress is incredibly show, and if the wind will not cooperate, it may not be possible at all. There are numerous instances in the A-M series where an island could be seen but unreachable because of the wind direction and speed.

(Let’s see if I remember right: for the HMS Surprise, a sixth-rate frigate, it was considered running well if it made 200 miles in a day, which meant that at top speed it would be going little over than 8 miles an hour. So a drop in the wind would reduce headway to a crawl. That’s not much margin for error.)

One more point: as for anchoring, it should be noted that an anchor needs good ground for it to hold. Dropping an anchor in the sea does no good. The A-M books talk about sailors fearing “the perils of a lee shore” for good reason: when the wind is driving you onto the rocks during a storm, anchoring is not going to help, and you’ll be fish food very very soon.

Now that I’ve muddied the waters, an expert can come by and make the corrections.

I think the question is more whether the phrase “from the wind” means the direction the wind is blowing toward or the direction the wind is blowing from. The way you’re reading it, it means the direction the wind is blowing toward. I.e., in this illustration below:

                      270°         Wind blows toward 0° ----->
               240°    |
                 \     |
                  \    |           Ship can sail
                   \   |
                    \<------------ from this course
                     \ |
       180° ------------------------ 0°
                     / |
                    /<------------ to this course (240° arc).
                   /   |
                  /    |
                 /     |
               120°    |

The above illustration would also match with what yabob said, that a typical square-rigger could manage approximately 60° off the wind.

The way I was reading it, “from the wind” means “the direction the wind is blowing from.” As in the illustration below:

                      270° <------ Wind blows from 0°
               240°    |
                 \     |
                  \    |
Ship can sail      \   |
                    \  |
from this course --->\ |
       180° ------------------------ 0°
to this course ----->/ |
(120° arc).         /  |
                   /   |
                  /    |
                 /     |
               120°    |

While illustration 2 sounds to me like what Taylor was saying, you’ve got to be right that it can’t be accurate. Surely square-riggers could sail at least 90° to the wind, as you say. I also see that neither interpretation matches bashere’s source.

I guess the question is, should I conclude that illustration 1 is really what Taylor meant, or should I conclude that he didn’t know what he was talking about?

I am baffled by this statement. Anything from a brig on up not only carries the “squared” sails, but also enjoys the use of the “fore-and-aft” staysails. While much less efficient because of their smaller surface area, they still allow for movement into the wind.

We know this is the case because the Spanish Armada (1588) was one of the last fleets that could not make headway into the wind, due in part to the large surface area of their superstructures. Due to the cutting of their anchors and the prevailing winds, the Armada had no choice but to try to round Scotland in order to return home. The “race [or raze] built” British vessels which opposed the Armada did not have this problem, and they set the standard for design for centuries to come.

However, IIRC, the Suprise could sail within “three points” of the wind. Unfortunately, I have yet to learn what a point is. If a “point” is twenty degrees, I suppose it adds up. I was always under the impression that it was far less.

Sofa King,

There are 8 points in 90 degrees, so 3 points equates to just under 34 degrees. This is pretty darn good for a sailboat.

From what I remember of sailing theory, a sailboat should be able to sail within 90 degrees of the wind just from lateral resistance of the keel and lift provided by the motion of the curved hull through the water. To point higher than 90 degrees, the sails have to be trimmed like an airfoil so that they are achieving “lift” as the wind blows along them. Square-rigger sails don’t do this very effectively – they are designed more for acting like a big parachute.

From what I’ve read, true square riggers usually could not tack through the wind (where the bow of the wind passes through the oncoming wind). Instead, they would “wear away”, by falling off the wind and gybeing (where the stern passes through the wind). This techinique loses a lot of ground and is not very effective when you are trying to make your way upwind, especially in narrow seaways.


Sofa King, the compass is divided in 32 points so, one point equals 360/32 degrees.

At any rate, it is quite true that square riggers could really not make much progress to windward but that is not such a big deal (unless you happen to want be going directly to windward). Commercial routes took advantage of prevailing winds and if you look at Columbus’ track you can see he knew well the winds. He went South to go west and later north to go east which is how the winds and currents go. For sailing the high seas not being able to go to windward is really not such a big deal if you know your winds and currents. It is more important for small coastal vessels which are always much closer to land and need more maneuverability. The schooner’s fore and aft rig also requires a smaller crew.

Square rigged ships could not make much progress to windward but they definitely could sail directly across the wind without losing ground, or even making some very small progress to windward. On the other hand, one of these ships, with the wind abaft the beam (which was the case most the time) would beat any vessel with a fore and aft rig by a long shot. Fore and aft sails are not good for sailing downwind.

In summary, I am quite sure the square rigged ships of old could sail a bit closer to the wind than 90, depending on the ship, maybe 70. But, with any rig, sailing to windward is not an attractive proposition (unless the alternative is drowning) and usually, masters would choose courses which did not require it.

Thanks for clearing that up, folks. By the way, Patrick O’Brian’s fictional Suprise is capable of doing a great many improbable things, so I probably shouldn’t take his word as gospel.

Samuel Bellamy’s pirate ship, the Whydah, was caught in a storm off Cape Cod and driven toward the shore. The pirates dropped anchor, but the anchor dragged instead of catching; they were broken on the rocks and all but two hands drowned.

I’ve heard of some 18th-century sailing vessels deliberately cutting away their masts in violent storms. Why do that? Is cutting away your masts more effective than just taking in your sails?

The HMS Surprise had a length on deck of 126’ (please don’t ask for a cite - I have one, but I’m embarrassed by it). That would give a topspeed of between 14 and 15 knots, depending on actual waterline. When she was commanded by Captain Hamilton, she was refitted with a mast and yards from a 36 gun frigate, and I believe that O’Brian has the fictional surprise set up the same way.

Other than that, what Sailor and Sofa King said.

Well, remember that even if the ship is on a course at 90 degrees to the wind, it’s likely to be making some vicious leeway, particularly with the surface area presented by the hulls and mast.

This surface area is probably one of the reasons why a ship in distress on a lee shore would cut its masts – even under bare poles, a ship generated a fair amount of thrust. It’s also possible that a mast and rigging might act as a sea anchor, although that probably wasn’t the main reason.

Just WAGing here, but assuming that sailing under bare poles won’t affect you so much with regards to the wind, I could only assume that the storm was so violent, and the ship in such deadly peril, that the men refused to go atop. (I’m also assuming that they cut away their masts from the deck, not the spars from the masts).

Considering that men were willing to go aloft in all weather and temperatures, keeping their footing on ropes while trying to haul in sails and tying them off, the situation would have to be extreme for cutting away to happen. Perhaps they were unable to raise the sails which were performed by hauling on ropes from the deck?

In any event, it had to be a life-and-death question for that to happen. Sure, they would raise a jury-rig once the storm was over, but they would be unable to go as fast as before, and was therefore risky.

Great answers to the question, too. Haven’t listened to the books in a long time, but maybe it’s time to start again.

::goes off to hunt for tapes::

>> I’ve heard of some 18th-century sailing vessels deliberately cutting away their masts in violent storms. Why do that? Is cutting away your masts more effective than just taking in your sails?

Danimal, could you provide specific examples? I doubt you will find any. There may be specific instances where cutting a mast would be advisable but it would be extremely rare. It may make sense if it was already damaged and in danger of falling or some such rare case. Taking masts down, of course, reduces weight aloft, which may be desirable but it also reduces your ability to sail which is definitely not desirable. Cutting down a mast is something which is not done easily. It would take hours of work and a lot of rigging would also have to be cut. Other masts would probably fall with it. And a falling mast can wreak havoc. I doubt this was done except under very extreme and particular circumstances.

>> The HMS Surprise had a length on deck of 126’ … That would give a topspeed of between 14 and 15 knots, depending on actual waterline

bashere, you are thinking of hull speed which is dependent mainly on waterline length and also on hull shape but this is a theoretical maximum speed and in no way indicates the ship will go that fast or even close. Hull speed is the maximum speed a displacement hull can do through the water before it has to climb over the bow wave and start planing. Overcoming this barrier requires more power than displacement vessels can provide.

>> Well, remember that even if the ship is on a course at 90 degrees to the wind, it’s likely to be making some vicious leeway, particularly with the surface area presented by the hulls and mast.

Finagle, we are talking of course made good, not course steered. Any sailship should be able to make good a course at right angles to the wind by pointing a bit higher and allowing for leeway.

I’d have to agree with sailor. The only instances I’ve heard about cutting away the masts have been when the masts have already come down and are still attached to the ship by all the rigging. Then it might be necessary to chop it free and get it away from the ship before it causes more damage to the hull and crew.

David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag, New York: Random House, 1995, p. 79-80, tells the story of the pirate ship Mary Anne (one of Bellamy’s consorts) in the same storm that wrecked the Whydah. *Mary Anne was a pink.

At some time between ten and eleven at night the Mary Anne found herself among breaking waves and ran aground. The crew cut down her masts to reduce the strain on the hull, but the wind and the waves simply drove the vessel further up the beach.*

Pirate captain Edward Low was off the Leeward Islands when a hurricane blew up. (p. 81).

Robert Dangerfield was off the coast of Carolina when a violent easterly swept his ship ashore.

I had forgotten that in each case where the masts actually were cut down, the ship had actually run aground. I don’t really get the part about “reducing the strain on the hull,” though.