How to Work Sails and Running Rigging


The safety and efficiency of any vessel depends on the close teamwork of every crew member. Nowhere is this more the case than on a square-rigger. The failure of a single cadet to ease a line at the proper time can easily prevent the ship from tacking. Throwing off another line at the wrong time can just as easily injure or kill a shipmate. Perhaps in no other setting is the need for – and importance of – a well ordered chain of command so apparent. Indeed, one of the most important reasons for training aboard a sailing ship is the opportunity given the cadets to organize personnel into a close-knit team responsive to the orders of the commanding officer. The consequences of the failure to organize properly and the great importance of every cadet in the chain of command are reinforced by the extra time and effort needed when an evolution fails. For example, if the ship misses stays (fails to tack), yards have to be rebraced, sails reset and sheeted home, and gear laid out anew. A ten-minute operation can easily grow into an hour’s hard labor.


Although almost all of the 230-odd pieces of running rigging are used when setting and dousing sail on the Мир, the process is actually quite simple. Once the sails are their gear, a good crew can set all sail in less than five minutes and douse all sail in less than three.

The traditional order of setting square sails is from the bottom up, although the courses normally are set after the upper topsails; thus, lower topsail, upper topsail, course, topgallant, and royal. Headsails and staysails are similarly set from the lowest to the highest. Sails are doused in reverse order. This order of setting and dousing reflects the natural order of taking in sails as winds increase. Normally, royals, topgallants, and upper staysails are taken in first since they heel the ship excessively in high winds without adding significantly to speed. Courses are doused before topsails due to their large size and the relative difficulty in handling them. In light winds, all staysails or headsails may be set or doused at once. With a trained crew it is even possible to set two square sails at once.

It makes little difference whether square sails or fore-and-aft sails are set first. The officer of the deck, however, should make sure that sails are balanced among the three masts so that excessive helm will not be needed to hold course.


Before sails can be set, they must be unfurled. When furled, sails are held in place by gaskets. When all gaskets are loosed, the sail is pushed forward and off the yard and is then in its gear. It is particularly important that all gaskets be clear before putting the sail in its gear. If a gasket is missed, the weight of the sail will make it difficult to loose the gasket and may necessitate cutting it.


The first step in setting all square sails is sheeting home, or hauling the sail down to the next yard, like a window shade, by hauling on the sheets and easing the clewline.

Since the sheets are opposed by the clewlines and the bunt of the sail is held up by the buntlines and leechlines or bunt leechlines, these lines must be thrown off. On the courses, tacks and sheets are hauled, as appropriate, to position the sail immediately below the yard. Three cadets are usually sufficient to man each sheet, for the lower topsail is small and easily handled. In strong winds it will probably be necessary to marry the sheets before belaying them to ensure that the leech of the sail remains taut.

The courses are a different matter, since they are the largest sails set. In light winds, three or four cadets will be sufficient to man the tacks and sheets, which take a strain. In strong winds, ten or more cadets may be needed to do the same job and a stopper will have to be passed so that the line may be safely belayed. Common sense is called for in manning course tacks and sheets. When braced up hard, all the strain will be on the weather tack and lee sheet; individual cadets can handle the remaining tack and sheet. When braced square, both sheets will have to be manned equally, with a single cadet tending each tack.


Staysails and headsails are easier to set than the square sails. Due to the danger of whipping blocks, however, they are potentially much more dangerous.

For setting, the downhauls are faked out for running and the halyard hauled until the luff of the sail is taut and no scallops are seen. Normally, at least four or five cadets are needed on a halyard although in high winds twice that number will be needed. As the sail is hauled up, the sheet should be tended and then sheeted home. If the sheet is hauled too tight, it will bind the hanks against the stay and make it difficult to set the sail; if the sheet is slacked the sail will slat around and may tear. Thus, careful attention is needed during the entire process. In light winds one or two cadets are needed on a sheet. In high winds three or four will be needed to tend the sheet and several more to sheet it home when the sail is all the way up the stay. Since headsails and staysails are particularly hard to handle in gusts, insufficient manning may easily result in bad rope burns. The sails must be trimmed in enough so that the sheet of an upper sail does not chafe against a lower sail since such chafing will quickly wear through the sail. Staysail sheets tend to gyrate if not carefully controlled when the sail is set or doused. As a result, all hands should stand well clear of the staysail (and headsail) blocks which are aptly called "widow makers”.


Setting the spanker is quite easy. The boom must first be topped about a foot and a half so that the sail can be set without damaging its leech and the preventer rigged on the lee side (the side opposite the wind). The boom is then positioned for setting by hauling on the preventer while easing the sheet, weather vang, and weather flag halyard. Normally, unless the ship is rolling heavily, three or four cadets will suffice for the preventer and one each for the remaining lines. Once the boom is out, the sail is set by hauling on the outhauls while easing the inhauls and brails. Since the spanker is one of the largest sails aboard the “Мир”, quite a few cadets are needed to set it. A single cadet can handle all of the brails on each side; similarly, one cadet is sufficient for each inhaul. At least three cadets will be needed on the peak outhaul and five cadets on the foot outhaul, although more are preferable.


The procedure for dousing a square sail is the reciprocal of that for setting it: those lines which were eased in setting are hauled upon, those lines that were hauled are now eased. 

On the command "Clew down" the halyard is eased and clewlines hauled upon. The sheets for the sail above are thrown off to prevent any possible binding.

When the sail is firmly in its lift, it is necessary to complete dousing by hauling the sail up to the yard. On the command "Clew up," sheets are eased and clewlines, buntlines, and bunt-leechlines are hauled until the sail is up. On the courses the process is the same except that tacks also must be eased and the command usually used is "Rise tacks and sheets." Obviously, the lower topsail, which is on a fixed yard, is merely clewed up for dousing.

The mast captain must carefully monitor the dousing of the sail and order "Avast" on each line as the sail is brought up to the yard. The lines usually come up at different rates and hauling on a line when the sail is already up may tear out the bull's eyes in the buntlines and bunt-leechlines or jam the clew block in the clewlines.



The headsails and staysails are doused easily by easing the halyard, tending the sheet, and walking away with the down-haul. The sheet must be handled carefully. If slacked, the sail will slat about and perhaps rip, and the sheet blocks will whip around dangerously. On the other hand, if the sheets are kept too tight, it will be difficult to haul the sail down. Moreover, the downhaul runs to the head of the sail, and then to the clew. In dousing, therefore, the halyard should be eased rather than slacked so that the downhaul will pull the clew up to the head of the sail and spill its wind. Obviously, careful control is needed throughout the operation.

A single cadet is needed for the halyards and sheets. As few as two or three cadets can handle the downhauls, although more are preferable to get the sail down quickly. If sufficient personnel are available, all staysails on a mast may be doused at once.

Dousing the spanker is much like chewing up on a topsail: outhauls are eased, in-hauls and brails hauled. After the sail is in, the boom is cradled and the preventer struck.

At least three cadets will be needed on the peak inhaul, five on the foot inhaul. and one for each brail. Due to the great size of the spanker, more cadets are preferred.


In light airs it is permissible to leave the sails in their gear without furling. In stronger winds, the sails would slat around and quickly chafe; thus they must be furled.

Furling is an art more easily learned from practice than described in a text. In heavy winds, the weather side of the sail must be smothered first so that gusts cannot catch the weather leech and cause the sail to bloom out of the hands of the cadets who are trying to furl it.

To achieve a tight furl, the sail must be completely clewed up to the yard. Care must be taken not to jam the clew in the clew block nor to pull the lizards for the buntlines and bunt-leechlines above the yard, where they will impede furling. The leech of the sail should be brought up parallel to the yard and held there until the last bight is dropped (as shown in figure) in case an awkward tangle of sail, which is impossible to furl, is created at the leeches.

In furling, an arm's-length bight of sail is taken simultaneously by all cadets on the yard, is pulled up, and is held against the yard. As subsequent bights are taken, the earlier ones are dropped into it, until the entire sail has been taken up and the last few feet of the sail (at the head) form a tight skin. The entire sail is then rolled up on the yard and set between the jackstay and the safety stay. Gaskets should then be passed over the sail and secured to the safety stay. It is important that cadets not use any hitches that will jam in securing the gaskets, for it will be impossible to loose the gaskets without cutting. Preferably, a slippery clove hitch is used. Care must be taken that there are no deadmen and that gaskets are snug in case the sail works loose and blooms.



All fore and aft sails are furled in basically the same way. Cadets should lay out on the crane lines on either side of the sail and furl the sail into itself until it is tight enough for gaskets to pass and until the remaining sail material can form a protective skin around the rest of the sail. Gaskets are then passed around the sail and secured to the jackstays.

Although two cadets can furl a fore and aft sail, the process is much easier if a cadet is stationed on each crane-line so that the whole sail can be furled simultaneously.

The spanker is furled exactly like a staysail except that there is no miter seam.

after the handbook of the EAGLE,
 converted for the MIR in Summer 2000 by Nicole Graf and Leonid Il'yinsky (MIR's sail master)