While the marine industry has long-since moved on from the days of wooden hulls and cloth sails, it’s always worthwhile to go back and revisit history every now and then. For this blog post we’ll look back and review the structure of an average sailing ship of the 1700’s—the kind that pirates would sail while charting a course across the Caribbean.
All ships begin with their hull, the frame and body of the sailing vessel. The front of the ship is referred to as the bow, while the rear is called the aft. The stern is the foremost part of the ship, while the aftermost part of the ship is the stern, which typically was used as a captain’s office and officers’ quarters. The interior of the hull is divided by decks, horizontal platforms that cover the hull from one side of the ship to the other. In marine deck machinery, the top deck is also referred to as the main deck, while the lowest deck is the orlop, used to cover storage. Beneath the orlop is the bilge, where the bottom of the ship’s hull curves to meet along the keel. The keel stretches from bow to stern and could be compared to the spine in a human being, in that everything else is built off of it. Between decks, bulkheads add to the structural strength of the ship, as well as help prevent flooding from one compartment to another. Under the main decks are the berths, the living and sleeping quarters of the crew.
Above the main deck is the complicated system of rigging, which uses a network of ropes, wires, and chains to support and operate the masts, sails, booms, and yards of the ship. The masts are the tall vertical poles that stand vertically on the top deck of the ship and support the rigging. On a typical large sailing ship, there are three masts: foremast, mainmast, and mizzenmast, in order of bow to stern. Sails, the large pieces of cloth that hang from the masts and catch the wind to provide ship propulsion to the vessel, come in numerous shapes and sizes, each with a different purpose on the vessel. Square sails are best at capturing the wind but are also the most vulnerable to tearing in periods of high wind-speed. Therefore, in violent weather, they are replaced with trysails, which are smaller and triangular. Other triangular sails include the jib and lateen, which serve as the main sails in smaller vessels, and supplementary in larger ones. Sails hang from or are extended by a variety of poles called spars, such the yardarm, which hang horizontally from the masts.
The last major component of a ship is the rudder. Consisting of a large, flat wooden or metal control surface that hangs from the back of the ship and in the water, the rudder redirects waterflow as it passes the vessel, allowing it to turn left or right.
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