Sail Ship Masts

A mast (0ld Engglish maest; a common Teutonic word, cognate with Latin males; from the medieval latinized form maslus comes French mat), in nautical language, is the name of the spar, or straight piece of timber, or combination of spars, on which are hung the yards and sails of a vessel of any size.

Masts are the wooden spars extending vertically from the deck. From these, fixed horizontally, are the yards, from which the sails would be suspended. Mast and sail arrays could be exceptionally complex, held together by a labyrinth of rigging, and could be trimmed into a number of configurations to maximise speed. They could also allow ships to maneuvre even when the wind was opposing their course.

The basis of all rigging is the mast, whether it be composed of one or of many pieces of wood or metal. The mast is held up and controlled by ropes, which are classed together as the standing rigging, because they are that part (of the whole rigging) which is made fast, and not hauled upon. This must be understood subject to the restriction that in the case of a mast composed of several parts, including topmast and topgallant mast, these subdivisions may be, and often are, lowered. The backstays, and other ropes which keep the top and topgallant masts in place, are therefore only comparative fixtures.

The masts, including the bowsprit, support all the sails, whether they hang from the yards, which are spars slung to the mast, or from gaffs, which are spars projecting from the mast, or, as in the case of the jibs, are triangular sails, travelling on ropes called stays, which go from the foremast to the bowsprit and suspended by halliards. The bowsprit is subdivided like other masts.

The bowsprit, though it does not rise from the deck but projects from the bow, is in fact a mast. The bowsprit proper corresponds to the lower fore-, main- or mizzen-mast.

At the head, or outer most part of the bowsprit is an extension called the jibboom, from which the jib sail would fly. The jib-boom, which is movable and projects beyond the bowsprit, corresponds to a topmast; the flying jib-boom, which also is movable and projects beyond the jib-boom, answers to a topgallant mast. The jib, combined with the flying jib, is the outer most sail. The flying jib sail is the forward most sail. The innermost part of the bowsprit, from which the forestaysail flies, is called the heel. All sails that fly off the bowsprit are triangular in shapes. These sail combine together to help use the wind to turn the ship.

Mast positions vary on different plans. Sometimes the mizzen mast is nearer the stern than to the mainmast, and sometimes the mainmast is only just behind the Middle Line.

Mast History

It has been ingeniously supposed that man himself was the first mast. He discovered by standing up in his prehistoric dugout, or canoe, that the wind blowing on him would carry his craft along. But the origin of the mast, like that of the ship, is lost in times anterior to all record. The earliest form of mast which prevailed till the close of the middle ages, and is still in use for small vessels, was and is a single spar made of some tough and elastic wood; the conifers supply the best timber for the purpose.

In sketching the history of the development of the mast, it is important to distinguish between the increase in the number erected, and the improvements made in the mast itself. The earliest ships had only one, carrying a single sail. So little is known of the rigging of classical ships that nothing can be affirmed of them with absolute confidence. The Norse vessels carried one mast placed in the middle. The number gradually increased till it reached four or five.

All were at first upright, but the mast which stood nearest the bow was by degrees lowered forward till it became the bow-sprit of modern times, and lost the name of mast. The next from the bows became the foremast, called in Mediterranean sea language mizzana, in French inisaine. Then came the main-mast -- in French grand mat; and then the mizenin French, which follows the Mediterranean usage, the artimon, i.e. next the rudder, timon. A small mast was sometimes erected in the very end of the ship, and called in English a bonaventure mizen. It had a close resemblance to the jigger of yawl-rigged yachts.

By the close of the 16th century it had become the established rule that a ship proper had three masts fore, main and mizen. The third takes its name not as the other two do, from its place, but from the lateen sail originally hoisted on it, which was placed fore and aft in the middle (Italian, mizzo) of the ship, and did not lie across like the courses and topsails.

The masts of a warship were more lofty than those of a merchant ship of the same tonnage. In sailing merchant ships, the masts became more lofty with time. A merchant ship of 1300 tons, in 1830, had a mainmast 179 ft. in height; a vessel of the same size would have a mast of 198 ft. by the end of the 19th century.

The history of the development of rigging is one of adjustment. The size of the masts had to be adapted to the ship, and it was necessary to find the due proportion between yards and masts. As the size of the medieval ship increased, the natural course was to increase the height of the mast and of the sail it carried. Even when the mast was subdivided into lower, top and topgallant, the lower mast was too long, and the strain of the sail racked the hull. Hence the constant tendency of the ships to leak. The Dutch made them taller (taller and taunt were for long used to mean the same thing) than the English, which again forced them to make the sails less wide. A tall sail could not be cut so wide as a lower one without putting an excessive strain on the mast. The Dutch found an advantage in working to windward, but that they wronged (i.e. racked) their ships. The English preferred a less lofty mast and a wider spread of sail.

With the development of very large sailing clippers in the middle of the I9th century a return was made to the practice of carrying more than three masts. Ships and barques are built with four or five. Some of the large schooners employed in the American coast trade had six or seven, and some steamers have had as many.

Mast Construction

The mast was for long made out of a single spar. Thence the Mediterranean name of palo (spar) and the Spanish arbol (tree). The typical Mediterranean mast of lateen (Latin) vessels is short and bends forward. In other classes it is upright, or bends slightly backwards with what is called a rake. The mast is grounded, or in technical language stepped, on the kelson (or keelson), the solid timber or metal beam lying parallel with, and above the keel.

As the 15th century advanced the growth of the ship made it difficult, or even impossible, to find spars large enough to make a mast. The practice of dividing it into lower, and upper or topmast, was introduced. At first the two were fastened firmly, and the topmast could not be lowered. In the 16th century the topmast became movable. No date can be given for the change, which was gradual, and was not simultaneously adopted.

When the masting of sailing ships was fully developed, the division was into lower or standing mast, topmast, topgallant mast, and topgallant royal. The topgallant royal is a small spar which is often a continuation of the topgallant mast, and is fixed.

Increase of size also made it impossible to construct each of these subdivisions out of single timbers. A distinction was made between whole or single-spar masts and armed and made masts. The first were used for the lighter spars, for small vessels and the Mediterranean craft called polacras. Armed masts were composed of two single timbers. isIade masts were built of many pieces, bolted and coaked, i.e. dovetailed and fitted together, fastened round by iron hoops, and between them by twelve or thirteen close turns of rope, firmly secured.

Made masts are stronger than those made of a single tree and less liable to be sprung. The general principle of construction is that it is built round a central shaft, called in Engliah the spindle or upper tree, and in French the mkche or wick. The other pieces side trees, keel pieces, side fishes, cant pieces and fillings are coaked, i.e. dovetailed and bolted on to and around the spindle, which itself is made of two pieces, coaked and bolted. The whole is bound by iron bands, and between the bands, by rope firmly woulded or turned round, and nailed tight. The art of constructing made masts, like that of building wooden ships, is in process of dying out.

In sailing men-of-war the mizen-mast often did not reach to the kelson, but was stepped on the orlop deck. Hollow metal cylinders are now used as masts. In the case of a masted screw steamer the masts abaft the engines could not be stepped on the kelson because they would interfere with the shaft of the screw. It is therefore necessary to step them on the lower deck, where they are supported by stanchions, or on a horseshoe covering the screw shaft.

The size of masts naturally varies very much. In a 110-gun ship of 2164 tons the proportions of the mainmast were: for the lower mast, length 117 ft., diameter 3 ft. 3 in.; topmast, 70 ft., and 203/4 in.; topgallant mast, 35 ft., and 113/4 in., 222 ft. in all. At the other end of the scale, a cutter of 200 tons had a lower mast of 88 ft., of 22 in. diameter, and a topgallant mast (there was no topmast between them) of 44 ft., of 93/4 in. in diameter, 132 ft. in all; topgallant mast of 44 ft., and 93/4 in. in diam eter.

Naming Masts

A jury mast is a temporary mast put up by the crew when the spars have been carried away in a storm or in action, or have been cut away to relieve pressure in a storm. The word has been supposed without any foundation to be short for injury mast; it may be a mere fanciful sailor adaptation of jury in some connection now lost. Skeat suggests that it is short for 0. Fr. ajourie, Lat. adjutare, to aid. There is no reason to connect with jour, day.

On five-masted barques and ships the masts are called:

  1. Foremast, the mast before the main mast (if any)
  2. Mainmast, the tallest
  3. Middle Mast, on ships with five masts
  4. Mizzenmast, the third tallest
  5. Jiggermast, which may not be present but will be shortest if so

In June of 1899 Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the F. Laeisz company in Hamburg and was shown its flagship four-masted barque Potosi. At the end of the tour the Kaiser asked, "When do we see a five-masted ship?". Taking up the challenge, Laeisz commissioned the Tecklenborg yard in Gestemunde, Germany to build Preussen. The ship, launched in 1902, one of the last sail powered bulk cargo ship. The Preussen was then the largest and fastest sailing vessel ever built. The Royal Clipper sail cruise ship is the first fully rigged square-rigged ship with five masts since the Preussen. At 133.8 meters length the Royal Clipper is by far the largest true sail vessel afloat anywhere today.

There is no recognised name for a fifth mast, and even the fourth is relatively rare. Ships with five and more masts are not normally fully rigged, and the masts may numbered rather than named.

  1. Foremast, the mast before the main mast (if any)
  2. Mainmast, the tallest
  3. Mizzenmast, the third tallest
  4. Jiggermast, which may not be present but will be fourth tallest if so
  5. Driver mast
  6. Pusher mast

Aboard the seven-masted schooner Thomas W. Lawson they called the seven masts fore-, main-, mizzen-, number 4, number 5, number 6, and spanker-.

Join the mailing list