Square rig

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Main-mast of a square-rigged brig, with all square sails set except the course

Square rig is a generic type of sail and rigging arrangement in which the primary driving sails are carried on horizontal spars which are perpendicular, or square, to the keel of the vessel and to the masts. These spars are called yards and their tips, outside the lifts, are called the yardarms.[1] A ship mainly rigged so is called a square-rigger.[2]

The square rig is aerodynamically the most efficient running rig (i.e., sailing downwind), and stayed popular on ocean-going sailing ships until the end of the Age of Sail. The last commercial sailing ships, windjammers, were usually square-rigged four-masted barques.


The single-masted, square-rigged Humber keel performed well to windward.[3]: 54 

The oldest archaeological evidence of use of a square-rig on a vessel is an image on a clay disk from Mesopotamia from 5000 BC.[4] Single sail square rigs were used by the ancient Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Celts. Later the Scandinavians, the Germanic peoples, and the Slavs adopted the single square-rigged sail, with it becoming one of the defining characteristics of the classic “Viking” ships.[5]

In their heyday, square-rigged vessels ranged in size from small boats to full-rigged ships. But this rig fell from favour to fore-and-aft gaff rigs and bermuda rigs after the development of steam power and new materials. Ocean-going sailing ships stayed mostly square-rigged.

The yards are mounted on the mast in such a fashion that they allow free movement by the wind

Square rigs allowed the fitting of many small sails to create a large total sail area to drive large ships. Fore-and-aft could be sailed with fewer crew and were efficient working to windward or reaching, but creating a large total sail area required large sails, which could cause the sails and cordage to break more easily under the wind. 18th-century warships would often achieve top speeds of 12–13 knots (22–24 km/h), although average speeds over long distances were as little as half that. Some clipper ships that had square rigs and for whom speed was critical could be much faster; for example Cutty Sark could make 17 knots (31 km/h). The late windjammers were as fast as the clippers, being much bigger.

Not only could a smaller sail be managed by a smaller crew but also these smaller sails constrained the impact of weapons on them. A hole from a cannonball affected only one sail's area, whilst a hole in a large sail would eventually tear the whole larger area and reduce more of the vessel's motive power.

With the development of more advanced fittings, equipment and cordage, particularly geared winches, high loads on an individual line (or rope) became less of an issue, and the focus moved to minimising the number of lines and so the size of the crew needed to handle them. This reduced running costs and also enlarged the space available in the ship for profitable cargoes.

Tending sail

New materials also changed sail designs, particularly on hybrid vessels carrying some square-rigged sails. The low aspect ratio of square-rigged sails (usually 12 to 13) produces much drag for the lift (motive power) produced, so they have poor performance to windward compared to modern yachts, and they cannot sail as close to the wind. The Bermuda rig is the (nearly) undisputed champion of windward performance in soft sails, due to its very low drag and high lift-to-drag ratio. One advantage of square rigs is that they are more efficient when running, where the high lift to drag is irrelevant and the total drag is the most important issue. Square-rigged sails are also less prone to broaching when running than Bermuda rigs. Ocean-going vessels take advantage of prevailing winds such as the trade winds and the westerlies and are thus mostly running.

On multi-sail, multi-mast vessels, a square-rigged sail is not in fact square or rectangular, but more nearly trapezoidal, being symmetrical but longer in the foot than the head. Like all sails it is three-dimensional, and its curve or belly means that its foot (lower edge) is not a straight line at all. It is fixed to a spar (the yard) along its head, and its clews (bottom corners) are controlled by sheets that are often run to blocks on the spar immediately below the sail.


The Golden Hinde, a square-rigger with several of its lines unshipped, in dry dock in London

Square-rigged masts may also have triangular staysails that are deployed fore-and-aft between masts. The term "square-rigged" can also describe individual, four-cornered sails suspended from the horizontal yards, and carried on either a square-rigged or a mainly fore-and-aft rigged vessel, such as one with a bermuda rigged or gaff rigged mainsail.

"Square-rigged" is also used for the uniform of a rating in the Royal Navy since 1857. It is slang and refers to anyone wearing the conventional blue square collar on the shoulders and bell-bottomed trousers. The name perhaps reflects the fact that it was these men who managed the square-rigged sails. The peaked cap uniform worn by Senior Ratings (Petty Officers, Chief Petty Officers and Warrant Officers) and Officers is known colloquially as 'fore-and-aft rig'.

A mast is considered square-rigged if its lowest sail or course is square-rigged, but normally if this is the case it will have a complete set of square-rigged sails. If the course is fore-and-aft, square topsails can still be carried in front of the mast.


On a square-rigged mast, the sails have names which indicated their vertical position on the mast, and the masts are built in pieces named accordingly. The lowest square sail was the course and it was slung from the yard which was affixed to the mast. The next sail up the mast was called the topsail, slung from the topsail yard which was affixed to the topmast, the next the topgallant sail on the topgallant yard and topgallant mast. Although the lower three masts and sails were generally in position to be used as needed, only the lowest masts were always rigged; the upper yards, masts, and sails could be lowered or struck down entirely (removed) to reduce the potential leverage on the ship in increasing winds.[citation needed] Many vessels could ship a fourth sail, yard, and mast, called the royal, above the other three, some even more on trades with light winds.[citation needed] Sometimes a vessel might put out studding sails which would be fixed outboard of these sails along the yards. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the topsails and topgallants were each split into upper and lower sails; this allowed smaller crews to tend the sails and provided captains with a greater set of options in choosing which sails to set.

Sails are referred to by their mast and then name, e.g., "the fore mast topgallant sail", often shortened to "fore t'gallant", or historically "fore t'gar'ns'l". Where no mast is specified, the main mast is implied.


Sail plan of a three-masted square-rigged ship with modern, split-topsails with undifferentiated staysails and undesignated mast parts[6][7]
3 mast fullyrigged.svg
B Jibboom A Bowsprit C Foremast D Mainmast E Mizzenmast
1 flying jib 3 inner jib 5 foresail 12 mainsail 20 mizzen sail
2 outer jib 4 middle jib 6 lower fore topsail 13 lower main topsail 21 lower mizzen topsail
7 upper fore topsail 14 upper main topsail 22 upper mizzen topsail
8 lower fore topgallant sail 15 lower main topgallant sail 23 lower mizzen topgallant sail
9 fore topgallant sail 16 main topgallant sail 24 mizzen topgallant sail
10 fore royal 17 main royal 25 mizzen royal
11 fore skysail 18 main skysail 26 mizzen skysail
27 staysail 19 spanker

Types of square rig ship[edit]

See also Sail plans for illustrations

Principally square-rigged types[edit]

  • A cog has one mast, usually mid-ship, and one square-rigged sail.
  • A barque has three or more masts, with the aftermost entirely fore-and-aft rigged, while the fore, main and any others are square-rigged.
  • A brig has two masts, both square-rigged. In addition to jibs and staysails (stays'ls) before the foremast and staysails between the masts, there is a gaff-rigged fore-and-aft sail, called a "spanker" or a "kicker" or sometimes a "mizzen". This sail occupies the lower 14 to 13 of the main or aftermost mast, with squares'ls above.
  • A full-rigged ship has three or more masts, including a foremast, mainmast and mizzen, and all masts are square-rigged.

All the above rigs, except the single square sail, normally carry a number of jibs and generally carry fore-and-aft staysails between the masts.

Partially square-rigged types[edit]

  • A barquentine has three or more masts, typically with only the fore square-rigged while the main, mizzen and any others are fore-and-aft rigged.
  • A brigantine has two masts: A square-rigged foremast and a fore-and-aft rigged mainmast.
  • A square-topsail ketch carries one or more square-rigged topsails (commonly two, an upper and a lower topsail) on its mainmast, in addition to its mainsail, mizzen sail and jibs.
  • A square-topsail schooner carries one or more square-rigged topsails on its foremast. This rig is often simply called a topsail schooner as topsails above the gaff-rigged sails are a standard part of the schooner rig.
  • A square-topsail cutter or sloop carries one or (less commonly) two square topsails on its only mast, in addition to its mainsail and jib or jibs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Keegan, John (1989). The Price of Admiralty. New York: Viking. p. 280. ISBN 0-670-81416-4.
  3. ^ Mannering, Julian, ed. (1997). The Chatham directory of inshore craft : traditional working vessels of the British Isles. London: Chatham Pub. ISBN 1-86176-029-9.
  4. ^ Early Boats, in Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds. University of Southampton. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/shipwrecks/5/steps/96495 Retrieved 2018-8-20
  5. ^ The Viking ship's single square-rigged sail. http://Longshipco.org/sail.html Retrieved 2018-8-20
  6. ^ Dery, Bernard. "Four-master bark - Visual Dictionary". infovisual.info. Retrieved 2017-10-09.
  7. ^ "STS Fryderyk Chopin rigging". www.fryderykchopin.pl. Retrieved 2017-10-09.

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