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The Ship's Rigging and Sails

The Ship's Rigging and Sails

The ss Great Britain’s rigging and sails, 1845. Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the ss Great Britain’s rigging and sails to work with the engine whenever wind was favourable. This ability to successfully combine sail and steam power was a technological innovation and meant the ss Great Britain could cross the Atlantic in half the time of contemporary ships. Click on parts of the ship below to find out more.


  • The stay sails were the fore-and aft sails at the bow (front of the ship). They are similar to the fore sails on a modern yacht.

  • These sails were not attached to the mast, but were set from the wire stay, part of the standing (fixed) rigging, which supports the mast. Like the other fore-and aft sails, sailors could operate these sails from the deck.



  • In order to operate the large square-sails on the ship’s mainmast, sailors had to work aloft in all weathers, often for hours at a time.

  • Operating and maintaining the rigging and sails, was the sailors main job. Image: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

  • Working aloft was dangerous work. Victorian sailors had no safety equipment, and had to climb up the ‘ratlines’ (the ladders on either side of the mainmast) and out along the yards (horizontal beams that spanned from each side of the main mast) without a safety harness when hauling in or setting the sails. Imagine doing this work at sea, in a gale or storm with the ship rolling, pitching and bucking in the waves, and the cold wind trying to pluck you from your high perch!

  • Passenger diaries and the ship’s log record accidents that happened to sailors working aloft. In 1853, when John (later the Captain) Gray was First Mate, his cousin Ramsay fell off one of the yards and into the sea.

  • Captain Matthews decided that the ship was moving too fast, and that sea conditions were too dangerous to risk other sailors lives in trying to rescue Ramsay, so sadly decided not to send out a boat to save him.



  • The ss Great Britain carried two large square-sails on the main mast, the mainsail and the topsail. These were set from the yards (horizontal beams that spanned from each side of the main mast).

  • Square sails work best when the wind is coming from behind the ship. Their large surface area catches the wind and drives the ship forward. They do not work well when the wind is coming from in front of the ship.

    On more windy days teams of crew members climbed up the main mast to ‘reef’, or shorten the square sails. This made the sail area smaller, and reduced the risk of the mast snapping.



  • The ship’s mainmast carried the two largest sails, the topsail and the mainsail.

  • The sails were attached to the mainyard and topsail yard, two horizontal beams attached to the mast. Sailors had to traverse along these yards, without safety harnesses, over 20 metres above the open sea, in order to set or take in in the sails.

  • The mast is in two parts. The topmast was fixed to the top of the mainmast. Combined, these sections rise 158 feet (48 metres) above the keel (the ship’s backbone). The mainmast was the only mast to be stepped through the decks to sit on the keel in the bottom of the ship. The others were all hinged on deck to save space below.



  • The ‘ratlines’ (pronounced ratlins) are the rope ladders running up the sides of the main mast.

  • Sailors climbed these to reach the yards (horizontal beams attached to the mast) in order to operate and maintain the sails when working aloft. Sailors would climb the ratlines in bare feet in all weathers, without a safety harness.

    The ratlines are fixed onto the wire shrouds, part of the standing (fixed) rigging which supported the mast.



  • The ss Great Britain carried ‘fore-and aft’ sails on five out of its six masts. These sails were similar to those you would see on a modern yacht.

  • Fore and aft sails allow a ship to be sailed closer towards the wind direction. They are set behind the mast, rather than at a right-angle to it.

  • As the ship is pushed along faster by the pushing action of the propeller, then the apparent direction of the wind naturally moves to blow more into your face. Square sails traditionally used on sailing ships could not cope well with wind predominately coming from ahead. Brunel realised that a rig made up with fore and aft sails (known as a ‘schooner rig’) was the option most capable of working in tandem with the engine at speed.

  • The ss Great Britain was the world's first six masted schooner.