The SS Great Britain’s ability to successfully harness both sail and steam power simultaneously was an important technological innovation.
The original rigging and sails on the Great Britain were specially designed to work efficiently with her 1000-horse power engine, and to supplement the engine’s power.
This saved on the cost of fuel and allowed the Great Britain to cross the Atlantic in half the time of contemporary ships.
Brunel, Thomas Guppy and Captain Claxton, who worked with Brunel to design the ship’s original 1843 rig and sail plan, came up with a modification of what is known as the ‘schooner’ rig.
They used light-weight fore-and aft sails on five out of six masts. Only the main mast carried square-sails.
Unlike square-sails, fore and aft sails allow a ship to be sailed closer towards the wind direction.
As the ship is also pushed along faster by the action of the engine too then the apparent direction of the wind naturally always moves to blow into your face.
A square sail rig could not cope well with the wind direction appearing to be coming from the bows, so the slimline schooner rig was the best option most capable of working in tandem with the engine at speed. The combination of steam power and an efficient rig and sail design allowed the SS Great Britain to consume less fuel while still sailing quickly and effectively.
The square sails on the main mast worked effectively mostly when the wind was coming from behind the ship.
The SS Great Britain was the world’s first six-masted schooner. Having more masts increased the overall sail area, but allowed the use of smaller sails on each mast, making the sails easier for the ship’s crew to operate.
Much of the ship’s rigging could be operated from the deck, meaning that the SS Great Britain needed a smaller crew than sailing ships of her size.