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Sails and the Art of the Sailmaker

By the close of the 18th century, warships were self-contained communities, capable of operating away from land for months at a time. Cook’s first voyage of exploration lasted almost three years, much of it spent in the uncharted waters of the South Pacific. In their cavernous holds, warships carried their own food, fuel, water and clothing, along with all the material and skilled craftsmen they needed to maintain and repair the fabric of their wooden world. One of those skilled craftsman was the sailmaker.

Royal Navy ships in the 18th century were not issued with a set of sails. Instead they were supplied with a sailmaker. He might work alone, if the ship was small, or he might head up a team of people. In a ship of the line, for example, he would be assisted by a sailmaker’s mate, and two sailmaker’s crew. These were busy men. A 74 gun ship needed several acres of sail to propel it through the water, divided into over thirty individual pieces of canvas. Each one had to be made by hand, to the exact dimensions of the yard and mast it was going to be attached to. Additional sets of sails were required for different weather conditions, such as small but immensely strong storm canvas, and studding sails that could be extended out on each side of the ship when the wind was light. The largest sails, the courses and topsails, could weigh over a ton – and even more when wet, which they frequently were.

To manufacture sails, the sailmaker was issued with bolts of canvas. These were long strips of material, each thirty nine yards long and about two feet wide. The material itself was graded according to its thickness and weave, number one canvas being the strongest and heaviest, and number six the lightest. The individual lengths where stitched together, edge to edge, to produce larger areas, which accounts for the slightly striped appearance of sails in contemporary paintings and prints. This method of sail making had the advantage that repairs to damaged sails was easier. If a rip was found, the damaged bolt could be cut out, and a replacement piece of canvas added.

Making sails required considerable skill. To function well, a sail needs to be both strong enough to withstand the power of the wind, but also to be light and flexible enough to be handled by sailors working aloft, often in very challenging conditions. But the stronger the type of canvas used, the heavier and more rigid the sail. The solution was to use different grades of canvas in the different parts of the sail, with lighter material in the centre, and heavier grades of canvas towards the leech (side edges), where the most strain would occur.

A square sail is a surprisingly complex thing. For a start, the sail is never really square. It generally has a head (top) with a width to match the yard it is attached to, and a wider foot (bottom) in proportion with the longer yard below. The foot itself was not straight, but curved in a gentle arc, so as to keep the canvas free of the rigging. Then the middle of the sail, called the bunt, was cut with extra material so that it would form a belly in which to catch the wind. At the edges of the sail the canvas was doubled over, to increase its strength, and then a bolt rope was stitched to the edge, to prevent it from splitting. This was always done slightly to the left of centre of the edge, so that a seaman in the dark would be able to know which way round the sail should be by touch alone. The sail then needed to have various cringles, clews and reefing points added. It has been estimated that to make a single topsail for a ship of the line would have taken over a thousand man-hours.

The sailmaker’s job was one of constant labour, working to replace sails as they wore out, were damaged, or needed to be repaired. It was also a role with considerable responsibility. A sailing warship was wholly reliant on its sails, either to escape from pursuit, or to overhaul an opponent. They need to operate effectively in extreme conditions; both in poor weather and also in battle. The huge foretopsail that the Victory used at Trafalgar is still in existence. It is at the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth, and resembles a Swiss cheese. It has over ninety substantial holes in it made by cannon fire as Nelson’s flagship approached the Franco-Spanish fleet. That this sail continued to propel its ship into battle, served it throughout that long day, and then through the storm that followed, is testament to how well the Victory’s sailmakers did their job.

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