Few sights are so majestic as the view of a sailing ship moving through the water on the strength of the wind. The so-called tall ships belong to another era, but they are still fascinating. With sails fully spread and lines taught, they inspired many paintings and photographs, like this one of an American clipper.
The vessels of the age of sail required constant attention by captain and crew. Sailors risked their lives daily to furl and unfurl the heavy sails hanging many metres above the heaving decks of ships. The constant action required to keep a wooden ship safe and afloat are often forgotten in our time.
I've been reading Two Years Before the Mast (1840) by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. The author left Harvard and spent two years aboard merchant ships in the Pacific and the Atlantic. On the voyage home on the Alert, he reflects on the appearance of these sailing ships, and I would like to share his description of a special moment, because I found it striking:
Notwithstanding all that has been said about the beauty of a ship under full sail, there are few who have ever seen a ship, literally, under all her sail. A ship coming in or going out of port, with her ordinary sails, and perhaps two or three studding-sails, is commonly said to be under full sail; but a ship never has all her sail upon her, except when she has a light, steady breeze, very nearly, but not quite, dead aft, and so regular that it can be trusted, and is likely to last for some time. Then, with all her sails, light and heavy, and studding-sails, on each side, alow and aloft, she is the most glorious moving object in the world. Such a sight, very few, even some who have been at sea a good deal, have ever beheld; for from the deck of your own vessel you cannot see her, as you would a separate object.When we see these ships today, they are usually moored at a dock or are turned into floating museums. I suspect that their real character, however, is only known at sea, under the canopy of sails and ropes.
One night, while we were in these tropics, I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom, upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship, as at a separate vessel; -- and, there, rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high; -- the two lower studding-sails stretching, on each side, far beyond the deck; the top-mast studding-sails, like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculpted marble, they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail -- so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in in the sight, that I forgot the presence of man who came out with me, until he said (for he, too, rough old man-of-war's-man as he was, had been gazing at the show), half to himself, still looking at the marble sails -- "How quietly they do their work!"
About studding-sails: as a reference, here's a photograph of a ship from around that time, the USS Monongahela, with studding-sails protruding over the sides of the ship.
The photos used in this post are copyright-cleared as historic records now in the public domain