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Masthead

An old style sailing barge floated past the window the other day, a sailing ship of the old school. It wasn't a surprise to me in the same way it might be a surprise to people that live inland. What did strike me as odd was the fact I had not seen one for so long. Used to be barely a week went by when one of them didn't sail by, Red sails dragging them though the sea.

And no, these are not the mumbling memories of an old man going on about 'in my day' I am talking about five to ten years ago.

A friend of mine would always tell me the story of how someone had fed in all the details of what these barges were set-up to do and it spat out the best possible design. Lo and behold it was the exact same design as the barge which existed. The next tale he would tell was the fact it was designed so it could be sailed by one man, one boy and the dog. Always the dog. I had not the heart to tell him I had seen the same darn program on television and left him to tell me his salty tales of the sea. Every so often I would change the tale by asking if the computer had determined the sails were best left red or not.

we are back giving the French a hard time

Now despite my years by the sea and the fact I have bobbed about on boats I am still at the 'get to the pointy end' style of seamanship. The fact I do not know my left from right means port and starboard is not even something to worry about. The days of sailing boats has that same nostalgia as the age of steam only even more romanticism seems to attach to them.

Wills, Rigs of Ships [1929] a large series of 25 cards which showcase many of these commercial sailing ships in a time when they were commercially sailing.

Now before I dive into the detail (and if ever the devil was in the detail he is at work on this set) let me say the cards are most beautifully illustrated and have been quickly included on my virtual desktop here so I do not have to keep gazing out of the window in the hope of seeing one of the things go by.

The ship that sailed by is in fact on card one of this series. The blurb on the back (seldom have I described it so eloquently) actually mentions the vessel can be sailed by one man and his dog. Don't think these are small vessels though, they are big. Now there are a lot of details on the back, firstly I call them Thames Barges, but the card tells me they are known as sailing barges, or more properly, Spiritsail Barge. It is at this point I realise I have a bit more to learn than I thought I had. The final line on the card gives me hope; when a third hand is needed on the barge they are called a 'huffler' You wait till I see my mate. 'Are yes' I'll say 'but can you see the huffler?'

Card 1: Just perfect.

Now if any of you have followed other pages on this website about Wills you know you are in for a treat of detail and information. There is no romantic thinking on these cards, its information all the way.

Although there is a general idea things were slower back then and overmanning was at the root of much of the Britains economic problems in ship-building it would not appear to be the case when sailing the things. You get the impression if the bloke could have been replaced by a dog on the boat he would be in double quick time.

Card 2, 3 & 4 are related to one another belonging as they do the the Barque family (now don't get confused at this point, I have not a clue what I am talking about, but the cards are telling me all about it.) Card 2 is a three-masted Barque which is a version of the four masted (or the four poster), card 3. In fact the three-masted version was often the result of a full rigged ship being adapted. You are going to have to wait till card 22 to know what a full-rigged ship is all about. Card 3 also tells me a Barque is a vessel of three or more masts, square rigged on all expect the aftermost which is fore and aft rigged.

Oh dear. I hope you are paying attention I will be asking questions later.

Now here is some more news, the masts have names, and you know the names, just you might not realise you do. They are, fore-, main-, mizzen-, and jigger-. Its the sort of thing which makes you kick yourself and realise why some people can pass those infernal tests you used to have at school, simply by guessing.

Not content with that on card 3 Wills also lets slip another fact which makes you look at the front of the cards once more. 'The vessel illustrated is shown under all plain sail and close hauled, that is with her yards braced up so as to sail as near as possible to the wind.' No matter how many cards I look at the level of detail given always surprises me.

Card 2 is even more fun. It is shown decalmed with her foresail and mainsail clewed up and her spanker (the fore and aft sail on the mizzen mast) furled.

That is the last time I mention this sort of mind-mending detail, if at all possible, honest.

Card 6 is a Brig and reasonably small with only 2 masts and even in the late 1920's these were a pretty rare site. Indeed the sailor that saw such a vessel was then confident of a lucky voyage. Seamen being notoriously superstitious in just about everything. Mind you a pretty old design they had been modified to slow them up, when first appearing in the early days of the 18th century some were built as the speedsters of the day. They were 'over-masted' to the extent they were known as 'Coffin Brigs'

Details from Card 22
Ship, Full-Rigged
The Full Rigged Ship is a vessel with three or more masts, which is square rigged on all of them. The masts are named fore, main and mizzen, a fourth (when fitted) being the jigger. At sea the quickest way to recognise the Full Rigged ship is by the sails, but strictly it is the masts that count; they should be in three pieces with tops; though frequently the lower and top masts are one. The ship illustrated carries double topsails. The Full Rigged ship is essentially the aristocrat of the sailing ship family and was the rig of the famous clippers and Indiamen. It was originally called into being because of the necessity of keeping squadron or convoy by backing the mizzen topsails and went out of fashion on account of the number of men required to handle the sails.

Now I am sure modern commercial vessels have some pretty exotic names but somehow it never seems to be the case. It seems the modern world has moved away from calling things by names and rather turned to the idea of serial numbers, or perhaps worse yet names which are products of marketing focus groups. I doubt anything is going to be called the Coble again in a big hurry, but it is on card 9.

Different vessels had different purposes and as such were much more prevalent in certain areas of the country. The Coble was a Yorkshire thing and found all along the NE Coast of England. One of the last of the Beach Boats and painted in the old style, brilliant colouring and red sails making them an artists favourite.

Remember this is 1929, although the age of sail is giving way, Britain has not really a commercial road-haulage network capable of shifting the sort of quantities of goods about the coast that are needed.

Now do not get the idea this set is devoted to the Rigs plying their trades up and down the shoreline of Britain, there are rigs from all over the world.

I would not want to make sweeping statements but card 11 is of the Arab Dhow and it is described as having a "raffish" piratical appearance. Card 12 is the Felucca. Essentially a Mediterranean vessel with the Venetians using it as both a cargo vessel and as a ship of war.

Am I detecting a certain air of suggested skullduggery whenever we stray from the shores of Britain where all our vessels do no more than drag lumps of coal and wood about? Perhaps I am being over-sensitive because card 13 is that most famous of vessels the Junk. A tour-de-force of technical detail here and although perhaps not enough to build the darn thing boats have been re-created on less detail. Forget the one man and boy design in Britain this thing can be sailed by a woman and a boy, even better.

By card 15 we are back giving the French a hard time, the Lugger which the card informs us are similar to the French 'Chasse-Maries' which I am sure is only an excuse for getting in the fact the French use them for smuggling amongst other things.

Now if anyone staggers up to you and sneers, 'By the way which ones Pink?' Alluding to the commercialisation of the pop-industry now you can pull card 17 out of your shirt pocket (its the satin shirt with the obligatory pin-hole burns in) and tell them. Pink is an adaptation of an ancient type specially intended for the use in fishing in the shallow waters round Scheviningen.' As they run shrieking from you, shout after them, 'I've seen their folded faces on the floor, and everyday the paperboy brings more.'

Card 21: 7 masts, thats a lot of sail.

Card 18 shows us the TopSail Schooner (no less a Schooner because it has square rigged top sails, I'll have you know). The card lets slip the future as it was in the late 1920's. This vessel was making a game fight against the steamships which were taking over the role of sail.

The next few cards deal with Schooner of various types culminating in the Six-Masted version. Apparently there was little need for anything more than the 3 masted version this side of the Atlantic the constant winds of the US meant bigger was better (wouldn't you just know that was going to be the case) . Mind you it would seem even these 6 mast monsters can be controlled by a crew of a dozen or so. They must be darn busy, the card even notes there was the odd 7 mast monsters plying their trade. The 6 mast was found around Maine for the most part.

Although that is not the end of the set, there is the Sloop and the Yawl as well as the Fully-Rigged Ship to go before the end of the set, it seems fitting to end with the 7 mast schooner.

Although I did not know much about these rig types when I started looking at this set I know a fair bit more now and might just be able to add more information to it as time goes on and next time I am in the Fo'c's'le bar of the local pub I might be able to splice my mizzen with the best of them.