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more on tacking


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As time went on the ships took on a beamier, longer, lower, and overall more stable form, some of the earlier ships were actually quite fast, but I may be able to shed light on why tacking may have been thought about much more carfully in those days, and waring considered to be safer.  First, the factors you have stated are correct, overburdening of ships makes them more sluggish in turning, and in acceleration and top end speed, even in the 18th century I have read about heavily laden indiamen doing more waring than tacking, but in the later period if the ship wasn't overloaded and rotten they certainly could and would have tacked fairly often.  I have seen a video of Gotheborg tacking in lighter wind and she pulls it off just fine. 


As to the older ships, I have a very accurate and beautiful example to show to you, this is the replica of the Kalmar Nyckel, it is extremely accurate and is used for sail training, based out of delaware United States.  I would like you to take note of a couple things, first, and most important, the earlier sail plan had fewer square sails, but they were much larger, her topsails are HUGE, just look at the height of them, they are essentially topsails and topgallants built in to one giant sail, look at the height of the topmasts in the second picture with the yards lowered.  These topsails of this period had absolutely NO method of reefing.  Coupled with the fact that they are enormous and would have to be furled much earlier than a topsail like Niagara's because of strain on the topmast this does not make for a very adaptable sail for all weather conditions, it is less controllable because of it's enormous size and power.  On an 1812 warship like Niagara you can keep your topsails set but reef them, in this way you can have topsails set in up to a 40-45 knot gale, and the later topsails had 3 or 4 reef points so they could be suited to almost any weather condition.  Also instead of having enormous topsails the sail plan was split into smaller chunks, like topgallants and royals, and there is a Topgallant mast section that is smaller and lighter than the topmast.  This means that even if you mess up and set your topgallant in bad weather it will carry away the small topgallant mast but the topmast (really the most important section next to the lower) will be just fine and as the weather clears you can send up a new one.  If that huge topmast were to break on the fore or main of a ship like Kalmar Nyckel, especially in heavy weather it could be a disaster, and losing the topsails off her would be very bad as they are clearly her most powerful sails and drive her along at a great pace in lighter airs. 


So essentially the later ships split the sail plan up into small more controllable pieces with more yards and introduced topsail and course reefing so that these sails in the right condition could be carried even in heavy weather, and so that potential damage aloft would be minimized. 


All that being said Kalmar Nyckel can probably not set those topsails in more than 20-25 knots of wind, which is extremely limiting to her sailing capabilities both close hauled and off the wind.  Also those giant topsails in a rolling sea present alot of weight and force, so I'm sure it's becoming obvious to you now that tacking these older ships must have been much more precarious due to the nature of the sail plan and rig, It is much easier to haul a whole stack of yards around with individual braces that increase the purchase than to haul one enormously heavy set of braces, and the forced exerted on the topmast when that huge fore topsail would be flung aback head to weather would place enormous strain on the forestays and the mast, so because of these factors to me tacking that era of ship probably wasn't done in more than moderate weather conditions for these reasons, if she was loaded with cargo it would be much more straining because the heavy sail flung aback would be working harder to push more weight through the eye of the wind. 


Another factor is that she has no fore and aft headsails, these do add to windward performance on the more modern warships and aid in wearing and tacking. 


In heavy weather these older ships did have an old method of "reefing the courses" instead of hauling the sail up to make it small the bottom section of the courses is "laced" on to the top one with a line, in probably 27 + knots these "bonnets" as they are called could be unlaced effectively making the sails smaller.  Because of the lack of reefable topsails these older ships would often have to "lie to or heave to" much sooner than the later ships thus impeding progress and making a stormy passage extremely long and tedious.  In very heavy seas they would lower the course yards to deck and lash them down, and simply be hove to under bare poles. 


The Gotheborg is the next stage in ship development after Kalmar, she has reefable topsails, they are still very large, but they also have topgallants, but not royals yet, she also has a couple fore and aft headsails.  She is also much wider in the beam and has a lower deck profile making her much more stable in heavy seas.


Because of all these factors it makes much more sense to me to wear ship with the late 17th century ships, much less risky, and there is the potential for much more severe damage to the ship.  I'm sure she tacks fine in light wind but getting above the wind speed where the topsails could be set I would personally wear ship.


The Kalmar was used in the late 1600's to bring Swedish settlers to america, she was later bought by the swedish Navy because of her fine lines and higher speed than many of the other ships of that day, she was used in atleast one battle.


Essentially the ships got more stable, and stronger more controllable rigs, so they could sail in far worse weather conditions and maneuver much more efficiently.


In the 1740's Admiral Anson of the British Navy led an entire squadron on a round the world voyage which turned out to be disastrous for nearly all of the sailors involved.  I have the transcribed version of the log of the Centurion, Admiral Anson's flagship at the time of the voyage, I was reading the description of the Cape Horn passage last night, I read about 10 log entries, most of these had inscribed that they "tacked ship" during that day, or every couple days, there were only a few entries that described wearing ship, and they were at the height of the storms and gales, it records that even in mild gale force conditions the squadron was tacking back and forth, this was the era of Gotheborg so they would have had some of the first modern reefable topsails, and the topsails were much smaller than earlier years.


"log of the sloop Tryall in Ansons squadron off cape horn"


March 15th 1741


Cape good success 113 leagues. 


"squally weather with snow, and gloomy and some calms.  At 8pm.  The wind inclining to veer about to the southward.  The commander made signal to tack and stood away with large head sea."


March 16th 1741, Cape Good Success 118 leagues


"Squally tempestuous weather with hail.  At 1 pm tacked per signal and stood to southward."


March 19th 1741, Cape Good Success 138 leagues


"The whole partly squally with snow. AM.  Set the fore topsail at 11 tacked per signal."


It goes on and on like this, beating back and forth, being forced to heave to.  But they were tacking every day or every other day to gain weather advantage against the horn and eventually made it.




Let me know if you have any questions.



Kalmar Nyckel Side profile.




Stern Profile






Compare this late 1600's ship which was actually one of the fastest and most advanced ships of that time, to the Swedish ship Gotheborg 1740's, and then to the US Brig Niagara of 1813





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Very nice post, Ryan.


Did want to point out that the Kalmar Nyckel was used in the 2nd quarter of the 17th century (1625-1640ish), not the late 1600s. Similarly the Gotheborg isn't a "late 1600's ship," but, as you point out, based on mid-18th century practice.


I know, details, details... still an excellent rundown of the difficulties in tacking ships prior to circa 1660.

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Correct! The problem with courses when the sea becomes very large is that when running into the trough they would get becalmed, and losing speed is dangerous when running before a storm. There are black and white pictures taken of some of the 1930s cape horners with just the upper topsails sticking up above the swell, pretty crazy stuff.

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Ryan, thanks for posting the reply.

I didn't notice before but, indeed, none of the images showing ships from the VOC (Dutch East India Company) show any reef bands on the topsails.



Batavia (1628)



Batavia (1628), sail plan



De zeven provinciën (1665) (large file)



Pinas (source: Nicolaes Witsen, 1671.- Aeloude en
Hedendaegsche Scheepsbouw en Bestier).


More images as painted by Willem van de Velde (the Elder & the Younger)



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Both Willems van de Velde where absolute masters when it came to painting ships and rigging. But, they both depict scenes that are too early for Naval Action: Willem van de Velde (the Elder) lived from 1611 to 13 December 1693 and Willem van de Velde (the Younger) was baptised in 1633 and died on 6 April 1707.


I'm sure there are more great painters of ships and their rigging, we just have to find out who lived in the  +/- 1780 for Naval Action :-)



Caption: Dutch men-o'-war and other shipping in a calm, Willem van de Velde (the Younger) [full size image (14.72 MB)]


He often depicted the same (type of) ship twice so you can see the rigging from more than one perspective. I just love how every little detail is painted.



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