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Pirates & galleons

Sailing a galleon

The boatswain instructs the crew to furl the sails.The boatswain instructs the crew to furl the sails. Both galleons and pirate ships relied solely on the power of the wind to move them forward. The sails were designed to get maximum advantage from the wind. By adjusting the position of the sails, the ship could change direction. The sails were attached to the masts by horizontal beams called yards. Ropes, called lifts, held them in place. Other ropes, known as halyards, hoisted the sails into position. The crew climbed up and down the rigging to furl or unfurl the sails, to reach the crow’s nest, or to attack invaders on the deck below.

The ship's riggingThe ship's rigging


The ship’s sails, together with the ropes used to adjust them, were called the rigging. A sail was attached to the mast on a horizontal yard, held in place by ties and lifts. It was hoisted into place by halyards. Men climbed up and down the rigging on rope ladders, called ratlines. The galleon had three masts. From the bow (front of the ship) they were the foremast, mainmast and mizzen mast. The standing rigging held the masts securely in position. They consisted of ropes called shrouds, which attached the masts to the ship’s sides, and stays, which ran between the masts.

Running rigging took its name from the blocks and pulleys through which the ropes ran. These ropes included the halyards, which hoisted the yard up the mast, sheets, which kept the sails taut, and braces, which swung the yard left or right. Clewlines bunched the sail up against the yard when it was furled.

Square sails mounted on yardarms dominated shipping in the Mediterranean Sea in ancient times. Square-rigged ships spread to Northern Europe by the Middle Ages, and were independently invented in China and the Americas before the Spanish conquest.

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