Points of Sail


In our time it is too easy to forget how much different sea travel was during the Age of Sail. In our post on Torbay we explained how this bay served as a critical rendezvous for the Channel Fleet while blockading Brest and other French ports. The Fleet not only had to contend with a possible sortie by the French fleet but with the very real possibility that a storm could blow them up Channel and prevailing winds would allow the French out and prevent the Channel Fleet from intercepting them.

Sailing ships had what were referred to as points of sail. A ship powered by sail could sail in a lot of directions but it could not sail directly into the wind. A square-rigged ship can sail as close as approximately 35 degrees to the wind (the illustration shows such sailing characteristics) but more poorly designed and unhandy ships might only be able to lie 80 degrees to the wind.

Naturally, this doesn’t imply that everything up wind is unreachable. A ship, such as that illustrated, can move up wind by a series of tacks in the opposite direction. This is a slow process, to say the least.

With limited sea room a ship could easily become embayed and have to wait until the wind shifted before moving.

1 Comment

Filed under Age of Sail, Navigation and Seamanship

One response to “Points of Sail

  1. Kyle Watson

    Hello friend! I like your article, however there is some misleading wording. “A square-rigged ship can sail as close as approximately 35 degrees to the wind” this implies that while close-hauled the vessel would have the wind 35 degrees off the bow. This is approximately the angle that modern high-performance racing boats can sail, not square riggers. I think you may have meant that they could only sail with the wind 35 degrees forward of the beam, which would be 55 degrees off the bow. While much more acurate that is still very generous, in fact that is the angle most schooners are able to make. Due to unavoidable restrictions imposed by the rigging (that is the ability to brace the yards is restricted by the shrouds) square rigged vessels are only able to sail about 6 points to weather. 1 point being equal to 11.25 degrees means 67.5 degrees off the bow, or 22.5 degrees forward of the beam. An excellent explanation o this an be found in the book ‘Seamanship in the Age of Sail’. Of course I mean only to be helpful here, take care!

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