Sail Plan
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Basic Information

The term sail plan denotes the arrangement of sails on a sailing vessel (typically, but not exclusively, a watercraft) - the full range of plans available is vast and contains many fine distinctions all but invisible except to the accomplished mariner, but this page will attempt to present a rough guide.

To begin with there are two broad categories of sails: square sails (typically rectangular) which depend from a horizontal yard and rest at right angles to the ship's keel and fore-and-aft sails which are generally triangular or trapezoidal, attach in all kinds of ways and rest in line with the ship's keel. A ship will generally be described as "square rigged" or "fore and aft rigged" depending on which sort of sails it uses most of, but many sail plans mix the two kinds promiscuously.

To complicate things further, "fore and aft" sails are further subdivided as follows:

  • Bermuda Sail: A triangular sail, of the type most people think of when envisioning a "fore and aft rig".
  • Stay sail: Similar to a Bermuda sail, but may be trapezoidal, rigged onto the cables that provide fore-and-aft support for a ship's mast (the stays).
  • Lanteen Sail: A triangular sail, depending from a slanted yard, very popular in the Mediterranean.
  • Gaff sail: Generally trapezoidal and stretched between two yards.

There are also the Proa, Chinese and Sunfish types of sail - respectively "crab claw" shaped between two ribs, vaguely mitreshaped between two yards with bamboo stiffening and midway between a Proa sail and a lanteen.

Any given sail will also be named for its position in the rigging … but that can get extremely complicated and is best left to those with a specific interest.

With that in mind, some popular sail plans were as follows:

Ship Rigged: Three (or more) square rigged masts and a bowsprit, often with staysails between them and a gaff-rigged sail known as a "spanker" on the rear (mizzen) mast.
Barque Rigged: As for a ship rig, but with the mizzen mast fully gaff-rigged (or otherwise fore-and aft), bowsprit optional.
Barquentine: Three or more masts, square rigged on the fore with the remainder fore and aft. Bowsprit, again, optional.
Xebec: Similar to a barque rig, but with a lanteen mizzenmast.
Polacre: Three or more masts, square at the fore, with lanteens on the remaining masts.
Felucca: Three or more lanteen masts.
Brig: Two square rigged masts, often with staysails and typically with a spanker.
Brigantine: Two masts, square at the fore and with a mix of square topsails and a gaff-rigged mainsail on the rear mast.
Hermaphrodite brig: Two masts, square at the fore and fore-and-aft at the rear.
Schooner: Two or more fore-and-aft rigged masts - traditionally gaff-sailed, but not always.
Topsail schooner: A schooner with square-rigged sails at the top of the forward mast.
Ketch: A fore and aft rig with a large mainmast and a smaller mizzen, usually gaff rigged.
Yawl: Similar to a ketch, but with a much smaller mizzen mast intended more for steering than propulsion.
Sloop: (More specifically a Bermuda Sloop) - one fore and aft mast, either gaff or bermuda rigged with a single bermuda style sail foreward of the mast.
Cutter: Similar to a sloop but with more than one sail forward of the mast.
Gunter: One, small mast with a single bermuda sail forward and a modified gaff mainsail on which the top spar is almost vertical and provides upward extension to the mast.
Catboat: Rigged with a single, gaff type sail.


The other wiki on sail plans.

1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Very useful to know when operating in the age of sail - or understanding what the hell the author of a piece of work set in the age of sail is going on about.
  • On the other hand, don't go too deeply into it unless your table can be bothered with the detail - unless you want to work up an Aubrey/Maturin vibe amongst your players (and hope its the ones playing the naval officers that have got a grip of sail layouts, because things will degenerate into farce the other way about).
  • PCs skills may be dependant on a specific sail plan (or at least take a hefty penalty when used on an unfamiliar one) - someone used to sailing a fore and aft sporting dingy might have considerable difficulty transporting their skills to a masted schooner, let alone a full rigged ship with squaresails (not to mention need a lot of help for the latter). More exotic rigs like moving from a European catboat to a proa or sunfish might leave them completely stumped.
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