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A sail-plan is a formal set of drawings, usually prepared by a marine architect. It shows the various combinations of sail proposed for a sailing ship.

The combinations shown in a sail-plan almost always include three configurations:

A light air sail plan. Over most of the Earth, most of the time, the wind force is Force 1 or less. Thus an effective sail plan should include a set of huge, lightweight sails that will keep the ship underway in light breezes.

A working sail plan. This is the set of sails that are changed rapidly in variable conditions. They are much stronger than the light air sails, but still lightweight. An economical sail in this set will include several sets of furling ties. so a sail can be flown in varying amounts of wind.

A storm sail plan. This is the set of very small, very rugged sails flown in a gale, to keep the vessel under way and in control.

In all sail plans, the architect attempts to balance the force of the sails against the drag of the underwater keel in such a way that the vessel naturally points into the wind. In this way, if control is lost, the vessel will avoid broaching (turning edge-to-the wind), and being beaten by breaking waves. Broaching always causes uncomfortable motion, and in a storm, the breaking waves can destroy a lightly-built boat.

The architect also tries to balance the wind force on each sail plan against a range of loads and ballast. The calculation assures that the sail will not knock the vessel sideways with its mast in the water, a capsize and possible sinking.

Sailing frigate and its rigging.


In English, courtesy of the British Admiralty, all sail-plans call a sail by the same name, no matter what their sail-plan. Once a sail is named, its ropes have standard names according to their use. So once a sailor learns the standard names for the sails, he knows the terms for all the parts on any sail-plan.

A sail plan is made by combining just a few basic types of sails:

  • A fore and aft sail is one that, when flat, runs fore and aft. These types of sails are the easiest to manage, because they often do not need to be relaid when the ship changes course.
  • A gaff rigged sail easier to manage than a square rigged sail but more difficult to handle than a triangular or Bermuda sail. A gall rigged sail is a fore-and-aft sail shaped like a truncated triangle whose upper edge is held up by a pole called a gaff, controlled by two ropes called vangs, (Dutch for pulls). Due to the weight of the gaff high above the deck and the extra lines required to control it the gaff rig requires more work to manage than a Bermuda rigged sail. Also the top of the gaff rigged sail tends to twist away from the wind reducing its efficiency. However, due to the extra boom on the top edge of the sail the gaff rigged sail is considered more sturdy than a triangular sail and the center of effort is typically lower, somewhat reducing the angle of heel (leaning of the boat caused by wind force on the sails) compared to a similar sized Bermuda rigged sail.
  • A square sail is a square piece of canvas. It is one of the hardest to manage, but also one of the most efficient sails. To furl and unfurl this sail, sailors would walk on "ratlines" under the yard-arm holding the top of the sail.
  • A lateen sail is a triangle with one or two sides attached to a wooden pole. This is one of the lowest drag (the sailing term is windage) sails, and it's often easy to manage.
  • A bermuda or marconi sail is a triangular sail with one point going straight up.
  • A stay-sail is a piece of cloth that has one or two sides attached to a stay, that is, one of the ropes or wires that helps hold the mast in place. A staysail was classically attached to the stay with wooden or steel hoops. Sailors would test the hoops by climbing on them.
  • A jib is a stay-sail that flies in front of the foremost vertical mast.
  • a bowsprit is a horizontal mast on the bow (front) of the boat.

Sails were classically made of hemp or cotton. They are now made from polyesters (Dacron and MylarTM), sometimes reinforced with crystalline hydrocarbons (Kevlar and SpectraTM). Some large, lightweight sails are made of polyamides (Nylon).

Ropes are almost as important:

  • standing rigging does not change position. Usually it braces the masts.
  • running rigging is used to adjust sails and anchors.
  • a line is a rope.
  • a stay is a rope that doesn't move, part of the standing rigging.
  • a vang is a rope used to pull something around.
  • a sheet[?] is a rope used to stretch a sail.
  • a block is a pulley that can be tied to the end of a rope. The sheave is the wheel. A fiddle block has two or more sheaves in one block. A snatch-block can be closed around a line, to grab the line, rather than threading the end of the line through the block.
  • A shackle is a piece of metal to attach two ropes, or a block to a rope, or a sail to a rope. Customarily, a shackle has a screw-in pin which often is so tight that a shackle-key must be used to unscrew it. A snap-shackle doesn't screw, and can be released by hand, but it's usually less strong or more expensive than a regular shackle.
  • halyards are the ropes on which one pulls to hoist something. E.g. the main-top-gallant-halyard would be the rope on which one pulls to hoist (furl) the main-top-gallant-sail.
  • running lines are made fast (unmoving) by belaying them to (wrapping them around) a binnacle.

Ropes were classically made of manila, cotton, hemp or jute. They are now made of stainless steel (301), galvanized steel, polyester (Dacron), and sometimes crystallized hydrocarbons (Kevlar and SpectraTM).

The standard terminology assumes three masts, from front to back, the fore-mast, main-mast and mizzen-mast. On ships with less than three masts, the tallest is the main-mast. Ships with more masts number them. Some barks (see below) have had as many as twelve masts.

The heights of the sails are named roughly after the bravery of the man needed to work on each, except the skysail, which existed only on American clipper ships.

From bottom to top, the sails of each mast are named by the mast and position on the mast, e.g. for the main-mast: main-sail, lower-main-top-sail, upper-main-top-sail, main-gallant, main-royal, and main-skysail. The sails for the foremast are called fore-sail, lower-fore-top-sail, etc. For the mizzenmast, mizzen-sail, etc.

In light breezes, the working square sails would be supplemented by studding sails out on the ends of the yardarms. These were called as a regular sail, with the addition of "studding." For example, the lower-main-top-studding-sail.

The staysails between the masts are named by the highest point (the danger) to which a sailor must climb to furl or unfurl the sail. The name is from the sail immediately below the highest attachment point of the stay holding up the staysail. Thus, the mizzen-top-gallant-stay-sail can be found dangling from the stay leading from above the mizzen (third) mast's top-gallant (fifth) sail to some place (usually two sails down) on the second (main) mast.

The jibs, the staysails between the first mast and the bowsprit, were named like staysails, except the middle one was called a jib, and the top one was called a flying jib.

For inscrutable reasons, the stays below a bowsprit are martingales, and those above it, bracing the bowsprit are bobstays.

In a bark or barkentine, each mast only has one gaff-sail, and this is always the lowest sail on the back of the mast. Barks are famous for being easy to sail.

Almost every type of tall ship had a gaff-sail on the mizzenmast, and called it the spanker.

A ship would fly its ensign and anchor light off a drop line from the spanker's gaff.

Some standard sail plans are:

  • sloop a single jib or staysail and a bermudan or gaff mainsail lifted by a single mast. The mainsail is managed with a spar on the underside called a "boom." One the best-performing rigs, it is the fastest for up-wind passages. It's popular with amateurs because of its simplicity and potential for high performance. On small boats, it is a very simple rig. On larger sloops, the large sails pull dangerously, and one must manage them with winches.
  • cutter, Like a sloop with two jibs in front. Better than a sloop for light winds. It's easier to manage, too. But, it has (very) slightly less up-wind ability than a sloop because it has more windage.
  • yawl, is like sloop with a mizzen that extends over the stern. The mizzen is usually small, and is often intended just to help point the boat upwind and balance it when going downwind. It is commonplace for badly-designed yawls to sail faster with the mizzen removed.
  • ketch, is like a yawl, but the mizzenmast is often much larger, and does not extend past the stern. The purpose of the mizzen is to make the sails smaller and more manageable than they would be on a sloop with the same sail area. The shorter masts also reduce the amount of ballast needed to keep the boat upright. Generally the rig is safer and less prone to broaching or capsize than a comparable sloop. The ketch is a classic small cargo boat.
  • catboat, a single gaff-rigged sail. This is the easiest sail-plan to sail, and is used on the smallest and simplest boats. The catboat is a classic fishing boat. A popular movement among home-built boats uses this simple rig to make "folk-boats." One of the advantages is that there's no boom to hit one's head or knock one into the water, as there are in the sloop-derived boats. However, the gaff is mechanically complex, and adds weight high in the rigging. The gaff's fork is held on by a rope threaded through beads called trucks. The gaff must slide down the mast, and therefore prevents any stays from bracing the mast. This usually makes the rig even heavier, requiring even more ballast.
  • baringer: A cheap, small sailing rig. When the term went out of use, no-one noticed, which implies that the type of rig remained in use under a different name. The best guess is that they were small single-masted gaff-rigs, a type that can still be purchased today.
  • gunter is a small boat with a two-part take-down mast. Usually the mast can be erected with a halyard, and when retracted lays easily in the bottom of the boat. The British Admiralty used gunters widely as utility rigs for small boats. The mast would fit in a step-hole, or tabernacle in the bow of the boat. The general type of boat would be a row boat or whale-boat. Most often the sail would be rigged on a gaff, with no boom for easy tending and safety (no boom means the boom can't hit anyone). Gunters can have any single-masted rig, including sloops and cutters.
  • schooner, a two-masted gaff-rig. It mounts jibs and staysails, and often little triangular top-sails. One of the easiest types to sail, but it goes poorly to up-wind without the topsails. The extra sails and ease of the gaff sails makes it easier to operate and faster than a sloop on all points of sail other than up-wind. A schooner is a classic yacht, fishing, small cargo and passenger boat. On all rigs, upwind passages are noisy, slow and have uncomfortable wave motion. Most sailors avoid them when they can. Therefore, many sailors prefer a schooner to a sloop: They say, why sacrifice performance on other points of sail to go upwind, if you rarely go upwind?
  • Bragana or felucca: A classic in the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean: three lateen sails in a row.
  • bark, a series of gaff-rigged sails, one per mast, with staysails between the masts. Lower-speed, but requiring fewer sailors than a brig. This is a classic slow-cargo ship. A barkentine was a poorly-handling compromise with the first of three masts square-sailed.
  • brig or (originally) ship a series of square-rigged masts, with staysails between. Brigs originally had exactly three masts. Faster, but requiring more sailors than a bark. A brigantine was a compromise, with a single gaff-rigged mast as the last of three masts. The brig was the classic sailing warship beacuse it had the highest performance.
  • xebec, a three master with square-rgged first mast, and two lateen sails following. This is a north african pirate's cheap approximation of a warship.
  • junk the standard Chinese design: Elliptical sails made flat with bamboo inserts, permitting them to sail well on any point of sail. Easy to sail, and reasonably fast.

See also

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