For sailingvessels sails are the primary means for propulsion, although most modern sailingships are equipped with an auxiliary engine. This description is limited to sails used on sailingships with three or more masts. Four types of sail are used on these vessels i.e. square sail; gaff sail; triangular sail and studding sail.

The earliest use of sail was with one square sail mounted on a yard horizontal on a mast (Greek galley; Viking ship). This type of sail is very good for downwind sailing, but has no windward capabilities. These early ships were therefor equipped with rows of oars to enable windward propulsion.
Triangular sails were in-depended invented in China, Middle-America and in the Mediterranean. Contrary to the square sail, this type of sail enables close-hauled sailing.

Depending on their use large modern sailingships have a mixture of these two sailtypes. Ocean-sailing windjammers (barques and full rigged ships) able to sail very long tracks in one direction downwind, making use of prevailing winds, are equipped with mainly squaresails. Coastal ships or ships used in the Mediterranean or Caribbean Sea on the other hand need short distance cruise capabilities and are therefor equipped with gaffsails (schooners and barquentines).


This type of sail, which is in fact trapezoidal, is hoisted from a yard set perpendicular to the ship centerline. Large sailingvessels have a number of square sails per mast resulting in a very large sails-area (the Japanese Kaiwo Maru has 1.791 m2 or 19.278 ft2 of square sails).

These sails are named after the mast(section) they are hoisted on. The lowest sail is called course (thus: forecourse; maincourse; mizzencourse and jiggercourse) The second lowest sail is called topsail with the same naming per mast as the course (i.e. foretopsail; maintopsail; mizzentopsail and jiggertopsail). The same naming convention applies to all other sails, the third sail: topgallantsail and the forth: royalsail. On the main- and in case of a four-mastedship the mizzenmast a skysail and above this a moonraker or moonsail may be applied.
When large sailingvessels as windjammers were introduced the topsail and topgallantsail became too large for proper handling. On most ships nowadays these sails are split in a lower and upper sail. This results in rather long naming per sail for instance: mainlowertopgallantsail and mainuppertopgallantsail.

The squaresail parts are named as follows: the upperside is called the head, while the lower side is called foot. The edges on each side (left and right) are called leech. The lowercorners are called clew and the uppercorners earring.


Sailing ships:

Gaffsail naming

All sailingvessels have at least one gaff sail: the spanker. The spanker is hoisted on the aft-most mast. Its main function, besides adding to the propulsion, is assisting with tacking or gybing the ship. While tacking, the ship is steered into the wind and turns with the bow through the wind till the wind comes from the other side of the ship. With gybing the ship falls off and moves with the stern through the wind. In both situations, when either the bow or the stern is pointed to the eye of the wind, the spanker is set to the other side of the ship (hauled to weather) and forces the stern to the new windward side.

Gaff sails as well as the spanker can be reefed i.e. reducing the sail area by lowering the gaff. The excess sail is tied to the boom with knittles. The German spanker is an exception, this type of spanker is splitted in an upper- and lowerspanker. The sail area is reduced by removing the upperspanker.

Schooners and barquentines are ships with gaff sails on all masts (schooner) or all masts but the foremast (barquentine). The naming of these sails: foresail (only with schooners, barquentines have a square forecourse) at the foremast, mainsail at the mainmast and spanker at the mizzenmast. In case of a four masted ship, the spanker is hoisted on the jiggermast and the mizzenmast carries a mizzensail.

The gaff sails parts are named as follows: the upperside is called head, the lowerside foot. The vertical side along the mast: luff and the aft vertical edge leech. The upper forward corner is called throat, the upper aft corner: peak, the lower forward corner: tack and the lower aft corner: clew.


Sailing ships:

Triangular sail

Triangular sails are used for quite a number of purposes. On full rigged ships and barques this type of sail is used as staysail and jibs. Jibs are set on the stay between foremast and bowsprit Typically a square-rigged ship has four jibs but also five jibs are frequently used. They are named from fore to aft: flying jib; outer jib; middle jib; inner jib; fore topmast staysail and fore staysail. Possible combinations are:

  1. flying jib; outer jib; inner jib and fore staysail, or
  2. flying jib; outer jib; inner jib and fore topmast staysail, or
  3. outer jib; inner jib; fore topmast staysail and fore staysail, or
  4. flying jib; outer jib; inner jib; fore topmast staysail and fore staysail, or
  5. outer jib; middle jib; inner jib; fore topmast staysail and fore staysail, or
  6. flying jib; outer jib; middle jib; inner jib and fore topmast staysail, or
  7. flying jib; outer jib; middle jib; inner jib and fore staysail, or
  8. flying jib; outer jib; middle jib; inner jib; fore topmast staysail and fore staysail

Staysails are set from the mainmast to the foremast; from the mizzenmast to the mainmast and in case of a four-masted ship from the jiggermast to the mizzenmast. Staysails are named after the stay they are hoisted on. Since stays are named after the mast-section they support, this leads from deck to top to the following naming in case of the mainmast: main staysail; main topmast staysail; main topgallantmast staysail; main royal staysail. When more stays with staysails support one mastsection lower and upper will be added. The same naming convention applies to the other masts.

Jibs and staysails improve the windward capability of square-rigged ships. Besides this they are used to balance the course of the ship. Square rigged ships tend to gripe, which means that the ship has a tendency to move windward, due to the windforce on the aft masts forcing the stern leeward. With adding jibs at the bow of the ship this tendency can be neutralized.

One special triangular sail is the gaff topsail (where the name of the square topsail is related to the mastsection, the name of this sail is based on its position). This is applied with a so called German spanker, which is mainly found on German built ships.
Such a topsail is also applied with schooners and barquentines. Like the gaff topsail it is set above all the gaff sails. These vessels are therefor named topsail schooner or topsail barquentine.

The triangular sails parts are named as follows: the uppercorner is called head, the lowercorner tack. The vertical side along the mast or stay: luff. The third corner (opposite the stay or mast): clew.



Studding sail

A special kind of sail is the studding sail. On clippers (not with windjammers) some yards can be extended with an outrigger. This is a moveable extension of the yard. Both on starboard as well as on port extra sails can be hoisted. These sails are named after the adjacent sail: course studding sail; top studding sail and topgallant studding sail. Depending on the mast this might be preceded by fore or main and starboard or port as a side indication.