Hints on Crewing a Square Rigger

James Craig by moonlight, Eden NSW
© John Holden

I have been crewing on the Barque James Craig for a couple of years and recently (2006) I have been adding training tips to my maintenance reports.


  1. When climbing the rig, especially in the wet, grab the shrouds just above a ratline, with your thumb locked above. If it's slippery (especially if the rig has been freshly blacked down, or wet) or the ship rolls, you'll have a secure hold.

  2. When stepping off a yard foot rope, turn to face you crewmates before shouting 'STEPPING OFF. This way you can see that you have been heard. Shouting at the mast in a strong wind in not effective communication!

  3. If you are moving out on the main or fore upper topsail footropes, be careful not you inadvertently work you way onto the buntlines for the lower topsails, which cross under them. Yet another reason not to have the buntlines too tight (it makes it hard to roll a furled sail onto the top of the yard).

  4. Keep you fingers clear of pulleys and belaying pins (and other bone crushing devices).
    • When turning up lines on pins, place the palm of your hand parallel with the edge of the pinrail, thumb pointing down. This leaves your other hand free to flick the line over the pin. DO NOT GUIDE IT WITH YOUR HAND!
    • When assisting with bracing, be careful not you get too close to the blocks.
    • When turning up mooring lines on the bitts, flick the line over the bitts rather than guiding it by hand.
    • On the rare occasion that you need to easy a line under tension belayed to a spider band, be aware that there is far less friction and you will need to keep more turns on compared with using a belaying pin.

Sail Handling

  1. When you are casting off the gaskets, do not let the sail drop into its gear until they have all been released. With the weight of the sail, especially the courses, it can become very difficult to release any remaining gaskets.

  2. Do not start doing gasket hitches until the sail in in its gear, otherwise it is too easy for crew to do the hitch on the wrong side of the sail.

  3. The last person stepping off a yard should do a quick count that all the gaskets have been let go and coiled up, and that a sheet, clew or safety line hasn't been trapped underneath.

  4. It is much easier to get the clews up when furling the courses if you have both the sheets and tacks hanging loose, and the clew garnets equal without too much tension. Loop the outboard gasket through either the spectacle iron or one of the thimbles on the clew, then back over the yard to get a mechanical advantage to haul up the clew.

  5. When setting the courses, don't let the clew garnet block hang from the spectacle iron as the sister clips may part and allow the clew to slip free.

  6. When setting hoisting yards

    • Make sure that there is some slack in the sheets for the yard above.

    • When setting the t'gallants, don't throw off the clewlines, but rather ease them as the sail is sheeted to the marks, then leave them off the pins until the sail is set. There is a lot of weight in the sheets (from chain) and it can easily drop and foul the sheave in the upper topsail yard.

    • If the yard is hard to hoist or cockbilled, stop hauling and check for bunts, clews or downhauls not being released.

    • Do not haul the yard too high. Watch the tension in the windward leech and stop hauling when it is tight. In light airs, a bit less tension and more belly in the bunt is useful.

    • Don't put the buntlines back onto the belaying pins, the topmen will do it when they return to the deck.

  7. When bracing yards

    • When bracing the t'gallant yard without the sail set, don't throw off the sheets but rather put two metres or or so (fathom) of slack into them. Also remember than when the t'gallants are in their lifts, you should not brace them sharp (past the wide marks) as the yard will contact the shrouds.

    • For the royals you can throw off the braces and they will follow the t'gallants.

    • For the courses, be sure that both the tacks and sheets are free to run. You will also need some slack in the clew garnets on the windward side (whether is is set or not).

    • When bracing the main course sharp up on a starboard tack, it is very easy to get the braces caught inside the lifeboat davits. Have a crew member place themselves bewtwix the pinrail and the hand rail. From this position it is easy to see if the brace will foul the davits and if so, give a flick to the braces to clear them. This is also a good position to assist with bracing by pulling on there upper, lower or couse; whichever is getting behind.

  8. When handing in squaresails

    • For hoisting yards, the braces will need to be taken in as the yard is lowered

    • If braced sharp up, the t'gallant and upper topsail will need to be braced squarer as the yard is lowered, so as not to damage the shrouds. Bracing should start before the halyard is eased.

    • To hand in the upper topsail, it is much easier to hand in the lower first, brace the yards square, then lower the upper.

    • Only when the sail is in it's lifts, ease sheets and clew up

    • Bunt up last, and then leave a bit of slack.

    (Hint: The outer bunts will have will have more line to haul down as they go through a lizard at the foot of the sail, then back up to the leech.)

  9. When handing in jibs, keep the sheets fast when initially easing the halyard. The sail will run down of its own accord; then ease the sheet after the sail is about half way down. When it comes time to put the gaskets on, there is no need to thread it though the head (the downhaul will hold the head is place). This will leave enough gasket to do a swedish furl.

  10. When furling the t'gallants, flake the leach betwix the outer bunt and the earring to get a neat furl (and avoid the 'python who swallowed a wombat' look)

  11. When you are hauling on the bunts to hand in sail, ease them by six or so inches (15cm in the new measure) after they are hard on. This will make it easier for the crew furling sail and prevent the inevitable shout from aloft 'ON DECK, EASY the #?+? BUNTLINE'.

  12. To get a neatly furled staysail, grab the middle of the leech and bring it up as high as possible towards the tack, then form two 'skins' with remaining sail, wrapping one inside the other. The overlap should form a seam towards the mast.

  13. The gaff topsail has to be lowered and furled on the starboard side of the gaff and span, otherwise the spanker head outhaul will rub a hole into the sail.

    (Hint: when a staysail has been 'handed in', the head and clew are together, with the luff bunched tightly on the stay betwix the head and tack. The lowest part hanging down should be the middle of the leech).


When overhauling bunts:-

  1. You should always be prepared with 'rotten cotton', nothing synthetic.

  2. Try to be at or above the yard being hoisted and keep an eye out for bunts no let go, or braces not being eased etc, and call down to your Watchleader. Any undue noise should also be reported.

  3. Only pass two turns around the buntline to that it's not too hard to break.

  4. When overhauling, flick the buntline vertically so that it can slide through the lizards on the jackstay. Be careful not to get it hooked around gaskets!

  5. A bit of a loop below the foot of the sail is fine but, especially on the upper topsail, not too much!

  6. It is always better to tie buntlines together near the blocks, rather than to the shrouds. A hard tug from the deck, will force them apart as they try to enter the blocks and they will be easier to break.

  7. On the foremast, except for the outer t'gallant and royal buntlines, you can tie the inner and outer bunts together just before the blocks (double blocks on the upper topsail and inner t'gallant). Tie the royal and t'gallant outer buntline to the shrouds, but just above a ratline to stop it sliding.

  8. On the mainmast, the t'gallant buntlines have separate blocks, so tie the line on both sides of the block together.

Launching the Seaboat

When launching the seaboat, the person on the painter pennant has two critical jobs:-

  1. When initially turning out the seaboat, they need to give a hard pull on the pennant. At this stage, the foredavit guy doesn't have any mechanical advantage, so only the person pulling on the pennant and the aft bowsing line can turn out the boat.

  2. As the seaboat is lowered, especially if the ship still has way on, the painter pennant must be used to ensure that the boat is trimmed with the bow slightly up. It is also critical that the painter is on the short mark. If either is mishandled, there is a chance of capsizing the seaboat.
If you are the seaboat coxswain or crewman, make sure that your inflatable life jacket fits properly at the start of your watch. If you are the crew, tie the radio to your life vest so that it is not left behind when you board the boat.

MOB watch

  1. If you are MOB lookout, you should be looking over the stern MOST of the time, otherwise you will miss someone who fell off the the opposite side. Remember that at 6 knots, the ship will cover two and a half boat lengths every minute.

  2. If you're deck crew and see someone fall, you call "MAN OVERBOARD on PORTor STARBOARD", throw over something that floats, and point to the person until relieved. If it is the practice dummy, make sure to shout "FOR EXERCISE, FOR EXERCISE; MAN OVERBOARD ..."

  3. MOB lookout throws over the life ring, dan buoy and, if not an exercise, the smoke/light marker; then points to the victim. When relived, they should climb half way up the mizzen shrouds and point to the person in the water. They must stay there until the boat returns along side, and report any problems observed.

  4. If you have seaboat duties, go straight to your station. Only if it is apparent that nobody is at a particular station should a crewperson step in. (It only takes two people to lift and lower the seaboat over the side. Do not jump onto the falls until the boat needs to be retrieved)

  5. The 'officer of the watch' may call for the main yards to be boxed, so be prepared.

Please address comments to John Holden at:- johnh@psych.usyd.edu.au

Last Modified 4th January 2011.

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