Principal Parts and Sails of 19th-Century Sailing Ships
This module describes the principal parts of a sailing ship in the British or American fleets of the 19th century, as well as the locations and naming protocol of masts, yards, gaffs, stays and booms and the sails they spread.

Principal Parts and Sails of 19th-Century Sailing Ships

This module describes the principal parts of a sailing ship in the British or American fleets of the 19th century, as well as the locations and naming protocol of masts, yards, gaffs, stays and booms and the sails they spread. A ship illustration is included, labeled with the names of sails typically used for propulsion. Most information was obtained from the book Seamanship: Including Names of Principal Parts of a Ship; Masts, Sails, Yards, &c. by Captain Sir G. S. Nares.

USS Young America (1853)
The names and locations of sails on the USS Young America.

Principal Parts of a 19 th Century Ship of the British or American Fleets

A ship is divided crossways, into the

The bow is the front or foremost end of the ship.

The midship is the middle part of the ship.

The stern is the aftermost end of the ship.

The starboard side is the right-hand looking towards the bow.

The port side is the left-hand side, looking towards the bow.

Keel The principal piece of metal or timber at the lowest part of the ship, running fore and after; it is the foundation from which all the other parts rise to form the ends and sides of the ship
Stem Rises from the fore part of the keel to form the bow
Stern post Rises from the after part of the keel to form the stern
Body post Rises from the keel before the stern post. The space between it and the stern post is called the screw-aperture
Ribs A figurative expression for the framework which, resting on the keel, forms the sides of a ship
Keelson An internal keel, lying fore and after above the main keel and lower pieces of the ribs confining the floors in their places
Knight heads Two strong uprights, one on each side of the upper part of the stem, to strengthen the bow and support the bowsprit
False keel An additional keel below the main keel. By offering greater resistance, it prevents the ship being driven so much sideways through the water away from the wind. It also protects the main keel, should the ship take the ground
Gripe A projection forward at the lowest part of the stem; by exposing a larger surface it prevents the foremost part of the ship, when sailing with the wind on one side, from being driven sideways away from the wind, and therefore effects the turning power of the ship
Bilge pieces Long pieces of wood or iron affixed to the outside of the ship’s bottom, in a position to offer resistance to the water as the vessel rolls, and thereby lessen the motion
Garboard strakes The lowest planking outside, nearest to the keel, running fore and aft
Bends The thickest outside planking, extending from a little below the water
Counter The afterpart of the bends, the round of the stern
Run The narrowing of the afterpart of the body of the ship below the water
Limbers Gutters formed on each side of the keelson to allow the water to pass to the pump-well
Limber boards Form a covering over the limbers
Double-bottom In some iron ships the frames and girders are covered in with iron plates, forming literally an inner ship, the space between the inner and outer ships being termed the double bottom; this method of construction gives great strength, and safety in the event of damage occurring to the outside skin
Water-tight bulkheads The name applied to the sides of the numerous compartments into which it is customary to divide iron vessels
Wings In addition to the safety afforded by the “double bottom” and “Water-tight compartments,” a perpendicular bulkhead is run fore and aft the center portion of the vessel, some few feet from the skin
Pump-well An enclosure round the mainmast and pumps
Beams Horizontal timbers lying across the ship, to support the decks and connect the two sides
Shelf piece Extends all round the ship inside for the beams to rest upon
Waterway Thick planking extending all round the inside of the ship immediately above the beams
Partners Frames of timber fitted into the decks to strengthen them, immediately round the masts, capstans, bitts, etc.
Carlings Short pieces of timber, running fore and aft, connecting one beam to another, to distribute the strain of the masts, capstan, and bitts, among the several beams so connected
Knees Pieces of iron uniting the beams to the shelf-piece and the ship’s side
Stanchions Pillars of metal or wood supporting a beam amidships
Treenails Wooden bolts used in fastening the planks to the timbers and beams
Caulking Driving oakum between the plans, it is then payed (filled in) with pitch or marine blue
The rudder Hangs upon the stern post by pintles and braces, for steering or directing the course of the ship
Tiller A piece of timber or metal fitted fore and aft into the head of the rudder, by which to turn it in steering
Yoke A cross-piece of timber or metal fitted on the rudder head when a tiller cannot be used
Wheel A wheel, to the axle of which the tiller or wheel ropes are connected, by which to move the rudder
Helm The rudder, tiller, and wheel, or all the steering arrangements of a ship
USS Monongahela (1862)
A portrait of the USS Monongahela under full sail.

Names of Masts, Yards, and Sails on a 19 th Century Ship

Mast, a bowsprit, and booms Placed to spread the sails upon

In a vessel with three Masts, they are named the fore, the main, and the mizzen masts.

The mainmast The middle and largest mast of the three
The foremast The furthest forward, and the next in side to the mainmast
The mizzenmast The aftermost and smallest mast of the three

Each mast, taken as a whole, is composed of four pieces, one above the other, each of which has its distinguishing name.

The lower masts The lowest pieces of each mast, or those attached to the ship; they rest or step on the keelson at the bottom of the ship (In a screw steamer, the screw shaft prevents any mast abaft the engines being stepped on the keelson. It is then stepped on the lower deck, which is well supported with extra stanchions)
The topmasts The next pieces above the lower masts, and are supported by the lower trestletrees
The top-gallant masts The next pieces above the topmasts, and are supported by the topmast trestletrees
The royal masts The upper pieces, and are a continuation upwards of the top-gallant masts

Thus, there are three principal masts, each of which is composed of four masts.

To distinguish any particular mast, one of the principals’ names, fore, main, or mizzen is prefixed to its other name; thus, the masts associated with the foremast are:

Trysail masts Small masts placed immediately abaft the lower masts; to which they are connected.
The bowsprit Projects out from the bows
The jib-boom Boom outside of, and supported by the bowsprit, by means of the heel and crupper chains
The flying jib-boom Boom outside of, and secured to the jib-boom, the heel steps against the bowsprit cap

The masts, yards, gaffs, stays, and booms are named the same as the sails which they spread; thus:

The jib sail Set upon the jib-boom and a stay leading from the fore topmast head to the jib-boom end, which is called the jib-stay
The flying jib sail Set upon the flying jib-boom, and a stay leading from the fore top-gallant mast head to the flying jib-boom end, which is called the flying jib stay
A staysail (stays’l) A three-cornered sail set upon a stay, and named after it; thus, the fore-topmast staysail is set upon the fore-topmost stay
A trysail (trys’l) Set upon a gaff and trysail mast abaft each lower mast, but it has no boom
The spanker Set upon a gaff, the mizzen trysail mast, and boom, abaft the mizzen mast
A fore-and-aft sail Any sail not set upon a yard; that is, one set upon either a stay or gaff – such as the jibs, staysails, trysails, gaff foresail, mainsail, and the spanker
Studding-sails (stuns’ls) Sails set outside the square sails on each side of the ship, and spread at the top upon yards, and at the bottom by booms; they are set upon each side of the foresail, fore-topsail, fore-top-gallant sail, main-topsail, and main-top-gallant sail. They are named by their respective masts; as the main-topmast studding-sail, fore-top-gallant studding-sail, etc.

There are no studding-sails on the mizzenmast, or on either side of the main-sail.

The lower yard on the mizzenmast has no sail set below it, and is named the cross-jack yard.

To give more support to the jib and flying jib-booms, gaffs are placed on the bowsprit to spread the rigging out in each direction and give it a larger angle.

A dolphin striker Used in connection with the martin-gale
Spritsail, gaffs, or whiskers In connection with the jib guys (The name spritsail is derived from an obsolete sail, which was in old times set on a yard below the bowsprit.)


Bennett, Jenny. Sailing Rigs: An Illustrated Guide. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005.

Nares, Sir George S. Seamanship: Including Names of Principal Parts of a Ship; Masts, Sails, Yards, &c. Portsmouth, England: Griffin & Co., 1877.

Villiers, Captain Alan. Men, Ships, and the Sea. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1973.

Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center

The Macquarie University Library, Melbourne, Australia. Journeys in Time: 18th and Early 19th Century Sailing Vessels