The rig-size relationship

and illustrating sailing ship rigs


(revised 1 July 2004)


The demonstrated relationship between rig and ship size* has implications for compilers of charts illustrating the various sailing ship rigs as comparative diagrams in books, stand-alone posters, internet sites etc.


There are some charts in existence (refer Appendix 1) that reflect a relationship between size and rig with illustrations according to a common scale or which at least portray big ships larger than small ships, but most I have seen do not. Illustrations abound that suggest to innocents that a sloop or cutter could be as large as a six-masted schooner or that a brigantine could be taller than a four-masted ship and thereby imply that selection of rig for a ship was a totally free choice. Even the endpapers of Deep-water Sail** by Harold A. Underhill are open to this objection, attractive works of art though they are and rigorous documenter that he was. Few people who bought Deep-water Sail when it was first published would have needed to have had the point explained but the same cannot be said today.


* refer American square-riggers (click here)

** published by Brown, Son and Ferguson, Glasgow, 1952, 1955, 1963, 1976.


It is desirable that new diagrams illustrating the variety of sailing ship rigs are informed by the type of analysis explored in my interpretation of American square-riggers and supported by analysis of Canadian ships. There is no particular difficulty in identifying representative examples and drawing them to a common scale. Failure to do so may actively mislead – frequently so, in my opinion. However, the more positive reason to work to a common scale is to take advantage of the opportunity to develop understanding of how experience, science and economics influence decisions (not merely maritime ones). One is not necessarily obliged to adhere to a strictly linear scale but I think it is safest to hold to a strictly linear scale with clearly identified adjoining “enlargements” where essential rather than compile a misleading chart. This is one case where information should outweigh artistic effect in the interests of understanding, when the purpose is educational.  Unless a chart is very obviously “Art for Art’s sake” it will be seen and used as educational, and as definitive by those without highly specialised knowledge.


If one has the artistic or drafting skill a possible solution could be to design a three-dimensional sea view with examples of ships of all rigs positioned so that perspective permits very small ships to be shown in the foreground larger than a linear scale in two dimensions would permit, while preserving the relativity between sizes. However, all but the already-informed would probably still require additional explanation and elaboration so I recommend the policy of using a strictly linear scale.


Suitable illustrations need not necessarily involve drafting. A montage of suitably scaled photographs is potentially a very real alternative and one likely to appeal in a highly “visual” age. Personally, I love the symmetry of a neat engineering plan but quick-fire “real” images may well be better suited to the brain patterns of rising generations raised on television and video games.


Where rigs are illustrated on many successive pages of a book such as Underhill’s “Rigs and Rigging” there is no need for every page to be to the same scale of course, though it is desirable for a linear scale to be shown on each and every page of any such compilation. It is highly desirable for any such book to also include a one or two-page diagram or foldout poster showing sketches of the rigs illustrated to a common scale – down to thumbnail size would suffice for the purpose.


The field is wide open for writers and institutions in forthcoming publications and displays to develop ways of reflecting the different sizes of ships for which particular rigs were used. You are certainly not limited to one set of size-rig relationships for all purposes. In fact it is highly desirable that publications and illustrations relating to a locality, region, nation or period present what is specific to that time and place, but do so within a context of other places and other times. Such “contextualisation” has the potential to achieve a deeper understanding of a locality than limitless detail specific to the locality alone. Nor is it critical to portray only carefully calculated average examples, but the examples selected should be drawn to a common scale and any examples of a rig that are extremely large or small for its region and period should be recognised and (if used at all)  identified as such. Printing the year of construction and dimensions of the examples you use is desirable. Combining the diagram/s with some discussion of size/rig relationships in an accompanying text and reference to sources of further information is highly desirable.


Sources exist permitting similar analysis (to that of American ships) of British ships in general, though involving significant effort in their present form. My own ongoing work will cover them at least to a degree and both Australia and New Zealand comprehensively. I hope to discover more sources relating to European ships. I would be pleased to correspond regarding approaches and practicalities with anyone working systematically at this topic or interested in doing so.




Appendix 1: Examples of published charts which recognise a relationship between size and rig


Greenhill, Basil, 1980, The Ship. The life and death of the Merchant Sailing Ship 1815-1965, HMSO, London. The endpapers represent sailing ship rigs to a common scale in two diagrams slightly larger than A4 pages. Unfortunately, the “gremlins have been at work” as the six-masted schooner has a hull length of only about 200 feet at the scale shown, whereas the smallest of the six-masted schooners was almost 300 feet in length.


Sagar, Eric. W. and Gerald E. Panting, 1990, Maritime Capital. The Shipping Industry in Atlantic Canada, 1820-1924, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Figure 3.1, page 57. An excellent model based on ships registered at Saint John that illustrates successfully both the relationship of masts and degree of square-rig to size and the increase in size of rigs through time on a single chart smaller than an A4 page. They even print the dimensions of the examples on the chart. A sufficient representation of four, five and six-masted rigs (which are not represented in this chart) could be drawn to the same scale and combined with it or some similarly-scaled representation of two and three-masted rigs to make a satisfactory A3-size chart. The extension of this conclusion is that A2-size would permit full comprehensiveness and the illustration of a wide range of variations. If Sagar or Panting read this would they please contact me regarding possibly placing their diagram on my site as an example.


Villiers, Alan, 1971, The War with Cape Horn, Hodder and Stoughton. The figure opposite p. 31 illustrates the main three and four-masted rigs in long distance international trade according to representative average sizes. In addition, a chart following p. 218 shows all the five-masted barks proportional to their respective sizes. A figure opposite p. 9 shows the only five-masted ship, the largest five-masted bark, the Mayflower, the Santa Maria, the Great Eastern (1858), the liner United States (1952) and Noah’s Ark, in proportion.


The Merchant Sailing Ships 1750-1920 – International Edition.  A reasonably priced wall poster that can be viewed on line at and purchased there should you wish. (Select Posters, then Transportation, then Sailboats and Yachts and/or search on item 10027794 in the Advanced Search). I have only seen this in a comparatively small size onscreen but the vessels shown appear to be to a common scale. It appears to be very useful for showing many stages in the development of the full-rigged ship and the bark whereas most charts of rigs just show one example of each rig without regard to its stages of development and the range of hull sizes and types to which a generic rig type was applied. The poster shows a good range of square-riggers and some small fore and afters but none of the larger fore and afters or even a barkentine or three-masted schooner. It may well be one of a series. If you have further information or know the provenance of the poster please let me know for addition to this site.



Additions to this list are invited in the interests of acknowledging them and promoting their use. I do not propose to add a list of examples that do not illustrate sailing ship rigs to a common scale as no constructive purpose would be served.




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