Posted by: Rob Viens | July 10, 2012

Mizzenmasts and Moonrakers

On July 10th Darwin was up and about, even though there was a strong wind blowing the ship about.  I am particularly fond of the way he gives life to the Beagle, making it sound as if “she” is taking care of the men on board.  There is no doubt that the ship is as much a character in this adventure as Darwin, FitzRoy and the rest of the players.

Darwin writes:

“In the afternoon the calm was broken by a stiff breeze, almost a gale: (i.e. a very heavy one in a Landsmans eyes).— We first lowered the Top-gallant yards, & then struck the masts.— This was the first time that I have been able to look about, when there has been anything of a sea up.— It was a beautiful spectacle to see how gracefully the Beagle glided over the waves, appearing as if by her own choice she avoided the heavy shocks.— As the night came on, the sky looked very dirty, & the waves with their white crests dashed angrily against the ships sides.— In the middle watch however the wind fell & was succeeded by a calm: this is always the worst part of a gale, for the ship not being steadied by the wind pressing on the sails rolls in a most uncomfortable manner between the troughs of the sea.” (July 10)

I’m not a sailor, and am pretty clueless when it comes to nautical terminology, so I thought I’d use Darwin’s reference to the “yards” and “masts” to get a little better acquainted with the anatomy of the Beagle‘s rigging. My apologies, to those of you who sail, for my oversimplifications.  Please feel free to send corrections in the comments.

First off, rigging refers to the sails, masts, yards, and ropes that make up the “engine” of a sailing ship. A little about each…

The sails are, well, the sails – large pieces of cloth (probably canvas or hemp on the Beagle) used to catch the wind and propel the ship forward.  The rigging is really all about the sails – all the other parts (masts, yards, and ropes) are all just there to hold up and manipulate the sails.

Sails come in two basic varieties – rectangular and triangular (picture a sailboat). The Beagle primarily had rectangular sails, which was pretty typical for long distant sailing ships of the time. A ship hung with rectangular sails is said to be “square-rigged”, because the sails are perpendicular to (at a right angle, i.e., square with) the centerline of the ship.

The sails are named based on their position.  From bottom to top, they include the course sail, topsail, topgallant sail, royal sail, sky sail, and (on a really tall ship) the moonraker.

The masts are the vertical “posts” that hold up the sails. On a three-masted ship, such as the Beagle, the masts would have consisted of (from front to back) the foremast, mainmast, and mizzenmast. (The names of the sails can now be further modified by the mast on which they are located. For example, the third highest sail on the foremast would be the “fore topgallant sail”, etc..)

On a square-rigged ship, the yards are the horizontal beams that the sails hang from.  They can often be rotated around the mast in order to face the sails in an optimal position for catching the wind. The masts and yards collectively referred to as the spars.

The Garthsnaid at Sea in the 1920’s – the horizontal beam with men on it is a yard (from Wikipedia Commons):

Garthsnaid at Sea

It was not uncommon on fighting ships to have an upper mast and yard that would be “taken down” as was appropriate.   I believe this is what Darwin refers to above when he says, “we first lowered the Top-gallant yards, & then struck the masts”. This would have made the ship more stable in the gale.

The ropes, or more generally the “cordage”, are used to hold the masts in place and to manipulate the sails.  The ropes (and pulley systems) that “open and close” and move the sails are officially called the “running rigging” (not to be confused with the more general term rigging”).

All that being said, the beagle had three masts (the mizzenmast was added after the ship was built (see HMS Beagle – The Right Ship for the Job).  It was square-rigged on the front two masts, with four sets of sails (course, topsail, topgallant and royal). The mizzenmast supported two triangular sails (the spanker sail and spanker topsail).  This rigging configuration made it the Beagle a “barque”. (Prior to adding the third mast, it would have been a brig). To increase surface area and capture more wind, the Beagle also had a series of “studdingsails” which could be opened to the right and left of the primary sails.

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan (ca. 1900 by Robert Taylor Pritchett) – note the different parts of the rigging:

HMS Beagle by R.T. Pritchett

If you look at the Beagle‘s crew list you will see several of the sailors listed as “maintop man” or “foretop man”.  These where terms that referred to men who worked at different levels of the rigging. I think I’ll save that for a later story. (RJV)



  1. […] The studding sails are the sails that extend out from the right and left of the Beagle‘s primary sails, as seem in the image below (HMS Beagle with porpoises (ca. 1900 by Robert Taylor Pritchett)). Studding sails effectively increase the sail surface area and, therefore, capture more wind. Typically they are used in light winds, as they would make the ship too unstable if the winds were strong. For more on the Beagle‘s sails see Mizzenmasts and Moonrakers. […]

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