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Sails were the means of propulsion for ships in the era of the Canon. They were made from strips of canvas sewn into shape. The number and shape of the sails varied according to the size and design of the ship.

Typical sail plan


A ship rigged vessel had three masts, from bow to stern, the foremast, the mainmast and the mizzenmast. The fore and main masts carried a number of quadrilateral sails which were attached along their top side to a yard. From the lower part of the mast the sails were known as the course, the topsail, the topgallant sail and the royal sail. Each sail name was prefixed by the mast name to identify it, for example, the foremast carried the fore-course, the fore-topsail, the fore-topgallantsail and the fore royal sail. The mizzen mast did not have a course but a fore and aft sail called the spanker.


In addition to the square-sails rigged from the yards, a ship would fly staysails which were hanked on to the stays that supported the masts. These were usually triangular fore and aft sails but unsupported by any boom or yard. The jib sails were a series of sails attached to stays that ran from the foremast to the bowsprit. These were instrumental in assisting a ship in tacking.

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