Decoding Historic Sailing Vessels

The Hulls and Rigs

by Tom Seymour

Harold Burnham hauling in Chrissy, Gloucester 2008. Built by Wilbur Morse at Friendship, Maine in 1912. Burnham,who builds wooden schooners and historic vessels at his yard in Essex, MA, said, Chrissy’s bottom planks were still good when he bought the boat several years earlier. The boom and mainsail, upper left, and one of two jib sails lowered on bowsprit. The three lines from the stern to the end of the sail boom and the rudder are the principal start, steer and stop controls. Harold Burnham photo

Reading historical novels, Maine author Kenneth Roberts’ works, for example, readers often become bogged down over nautical terms for sailing vessels. Excepting for maritime historians or those directly involved with sailing vessels, few average Americans can discern the difference between a lugger and a brigantine or a sloop from a scow.

In earlier times, most coastal residents could instantly name the type of sailing vessel upon seeing it. That ability and the once common presence of these vessels has long since faded into obscurity.

This article aims to change that. Here, we’ll list physical differences between various types of vessels. Essentially, vessels differ from one another according to hull design and numbers and types of sails (rigging). Thus, when encountering the type of vessel in a book or report, readers will have the ability to visualize the vessel. (See glossary at end of story.)

The term “rig” itself generally applies to the number and type of masts and style of sails. The term has sometimes been used indiscriminately to designate the type of hull and even the complete vessel in her entirety. So following this line of thinking a vessel could have a ship’s hull with the rig of a brig. In other words, the hull may not correspond to the type of rig. In these cases, the rig takes precedent over the hull in determining a ship’s species, or type.

Mast, yards & sails on a square rigged ship.

For the more important vessels, at least for their historical importance to Maine, a reading of the text plus a look at the line drawings will make everything come together.

Let’s begin by considering the generic term, “ship.” This can apply to all types of vessels, at least in a very general manner. But specifically, ships were three-masted vessels, fore to aft being the foremast, mainmast and mizzenmast, All having lower masts, topmasts and topgallant masts with yards (square-rigged) on each mast. Yards are beams or spars attached perpendicularly to the mast on which their centers pivot. The top and bottom of square sails are attached to these yards. These ships all had bowsprits.

Next, nearing the beginning of the end of the age of sail, four-masted ships, larger than the earlier three-masted versions, became common.

Maine Fishing Vessels

Both schooners and sloops were part-and-parcel of the Maine fishing industry in the days before diesel and gasoline-powered vessels. Maritime stories, poems and songs all center on these two types of working vessels.

What makes a schooner a schooner? The name “schooner” rightly applies to vessels of fore-and-aft rigging of various sizes. Early schooners had two or more long, lower masts without tops and were occasionally fitted with light, square topsails, particularly at the fore.

Later schooners, as in the late 19th century, had fore-and-aft gaff topsails, which were of much benefit in navigating Maine and New England’s tricky, coastal waters. Schooner rigs once applied to mostly small vessels, but in the late 19th century, “modern” schooners measuring 800 to 1,000 tons and carrying three, four and even seven masts came into use.

Schooner E. Starr Jones. Triangular top sails could be used on each mast.

The first five-masted schooner built on the east coast was the Governor Ames, built at Waldoboro, Maine. The Governor Ames was launched on December 1, 1888 on the Medomak River.

But no matter length, burden, or number of masts, in order to be a schooner a vessel had to have fore-and-aft rigs. Schooners were a mainstay of the New England groundfishing industry and spent much of their time in offshore waters with the dory trawl fleet.

Sloops, on the other hand, were used in near-shore fishing for lobster and other species. Of all the sailing vessels, sloops are among the easiest to recognize because sloops have only one mast and a mainsail. Some were rigged with a topmast to carry a triangular topsail or fishermen’s sail. In addition, sloops have a bowsprit that carries a fore-and-aft jib sail.

Sloops rank as one of the oldest types of vessels known to the fishing industry in America. When considering sloops, the term “Friendship sloop” comes immediately to mind. These came upon the scene in Friendship, Maine, some time around 1880.

Being single-masted, a person alone could both handle the rig and haul lobster traps. The Friendship sloop was rather unique in that it owed its origin to a general consensus among fishermen from Friendship and Bremen, Maine, as to what would constitute the perfect lobster-fishing boat.

Lobster sloops in York Harbor in the days before the internal combustion engine.

Sloops were the premiere Maine vessel used in the inshore fishing industry, particularly the lobster industry. With the introduction of the gasoline-powered engine, sloops gave way to gas-powered vehicles. But even so, sloops continued in their workhorse capacity well into the early 20th century.

Early sloops were fairly small, 16-20 feet, later expanding to vessels of 21-50 foot lengths. The longer vessels, of course, were capable of handling rough seas and could venture further from shore than the smaller, early varieties. And even when power vessels became the dominate vessels for fishing along the Maine coast, lovers of this design did not allow the rig to fall into obscurity. Even today, recreational boaters invest in modern-made sloops of both wood and fiberglass.


The bark, or barque, is rigged the same as a ship, except that a bark has fore-and-aft sails only on the mizzen mast. Barks generally ran smaller than ships, but some larger vessels were rigged as per a bark as a money-saving measure.


The word brig, meaning “passage over the water” has its origins in the Celtic language of Scotland and Ireland and was first used to describe ferry boats. A brig was a two-mast, square-rigged vessel.

There were two types of brigs used during the age of sail. First, the full-rigged brig carried fore and main lower masts, topmasts, topgallant masts and yards on each and also carried a trysail.

Probably more common, at least in literature, a “hermaphrodite, or half-brig” had a brig’s foremast and a schooner’s mainmast, was square-rigged forward and fore-and-aft rigged aft.


Luggers also figure prominently in historical literature. A lugger usually had one mast (although some had two or three) with quadrilateral, or four-cornered sails bent to a hoisting yard. The French employed luggers in fishing and coasting. In America, a lugger was generally a small vessel used on rivers. Luggers figured prominently in the oyster markets on the Mississippi River.


A lateen rig closely resembles a lugger, except that a lateen rig uses a triangular sail and a long yard that hoists obliquely to a stout mast forming the luff.

During the age of sail, a small, shallow, flat-bottomed lateen-rigged vessel decked the entire length, with a cuddy, or small cabin, was popular in New Hampshire and Southern Maine waters.


Most people today use the term “scow” loosely in describing a slow, low freeboard, pondering vessel. Scows, however, were a distinct type of craft and were used to advantage in shoal waters. Scows had flat bottoms with square bilges. A few had a regular schooner bow. Scows were fitted with up to three masts


In southern New England, oystermen employed sharp, flat-bottomed vessels that carried a centerboard. The rig resembles that of a cat, or “catamaran,” with one sail, a huge, fore-and-aft mainsail spread by a boom and gaff and hoisted to the one mast stepped near the stem.

Sharpies ran from 20-40 feet in length.


A yawl was a ship’s boat, usually propelled by oars but the British applied a rig called a “yawl rig.” A yawl rig has a jigger mast at the stern, which carries a small lug sail, the main boom traversing just clear of it. Some Maine lobster boats still carry a yawl rig.


Hopefully, the information contained in this article will make it just a bit easier for non-sailors to distinguish between one type of old-time sailing vessel and another. Determining vessel types, or “species,” as is often said, is a rewarding and enjoyable pastime.

Glossary of Terms

Yard: A long spar tapered toward the ends to support and spread the head of a square sail, lateen, or lugsail.

Bow: Forward part of a ship.

Topsail: The sail next above the lowermost sail on a mast in a square-rigged ship. Also, the sail set above and sometimes on the gaff in a fore-and-aft-rigged ship.

Gafftopsail: A triangular topsail with its foot extended upon the gaff and its luff upon the topmast.

Luff: The forward edge of a fore-and-aft sail.

Jib: A triangular sail set on a stay extending from the head of the foremast to the bowsprit or the jibboom.

Bowsprit: A large spar projecting forward from the stem of a ship.

Mizzenmast: The mast aft or next aft of the mainmast in a ship.

Topgallant: The topmost point, or pinnacle.

Boom: A long spar used to extend the foot of a sail.

Bilge: The lowest point of a ship’s inner hull.

Centerboard: A retractable keel used in sailing vessels.

Jiggermast: A small mast stepped in the stern; the aftermost mast of a 4-masted ship.