Lately I have been reading several books about sea travel in the 1600-1800's, one about the whaling community in Nantucket, one about the Dutch early traders and one concerning the Mayflower voyage. An interesting aspect of sea travel at the time was the use of leverage in the context of sail and mast relative to the boat hull size. The trade off was simple, a large mast with much sail was faster, however during storms the large sails could cause a "knockdown". This occurred when strong winds pushed the ship over horizontal to the sea. The wind and sail acted as a lever and lifted the much heavier hull of the boat. It was a trade-off the captains had too make, deciding on a balance between the amount of sail to raise and the chance of a storm. It would often take hours to adjust the square rigged sails, so when a squall came it was already to late. But managing this type of leverage was part of being a ship captain.

Jeff Rollert adds:

When one looks at boats of that time, they had high bows and sterns, but lower mid sections. This was fine unless water/waves came in to the middle area, where they could quickly find a way thru doors/hatches into the boat.

Square rigged boats can't turn into the wind/waves quickly, as the sails were mostly centered on the boat. If you saw a huge wave coming, you had to take it at a relatively broad angle, otherwise you would loose steerage and go backwards/broach. The sails had to be removed as quickly as possible as soon as the wind picked up - hence the old sailors lines "You reef before you need to / If you think you may need to reef, do it immediately."

Lastly, for those who have not gone up a mast, it can get scary quickly. On the boat I race, a one inch change in the deck is a movement at the top of five feet…in wind those old whalers/freighters could have guys in the rigging when their location was moving forty feet, side to side, while they bundled sails up and tied them down.

Also, they were ballast boats, which meant they had stones (literally) in the bottom to offset the weight and leverage of the mast. The bottoms were flat/ to slightly rounded, so in big waves a 90 degree movement from side to side was common. At 120 degrees, the boats rolled over and sank quickly. This is a reason few sailors then learned to swim. It was moot, the boats sank so quickly.

As a sailor complement, those guys had balls, but with a 60% fatality rate.


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