I have wondered if the apparently complex arrangement of the sails of early 19th century vessels was reflective of a lack of understanding of the optimal arrangement of such sails (since modern sailing yachts lack so many sails) or if indeed for tight and fast maneuvering, this arrangement, perhaps improved today using modern engineering and computers, was needed.

And was it the captain who was the expert at coordinating the actions of a bunch of sailors who specialized in their own sails? Or was the best "sailor" someone else? Could it be argued that maneuvering a sailing vessel in battle is a lost art?

  • $\begingroup$ It is not clear how this question relates to the history of science and mathematics, rather than general history. Please clarify the question in this regard. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Hard to know. The question is about a complex technology and so belongs not in history but something like history of engineering or history of technology. HSM seems to be the closest thing. The main idea is whether the arrangement was necessarily complex and just how sailors learned to work such a complex system -- again, maybe no modern group of humans would have a chance of maneuvering such a ship in a battle against an 18th crew -- a lost art. $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 1:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ One factor that is significant in an age of sail warship is the effectiveness of a fore-and-aft rig vs a square rig as a gun platform. A square rig does not tend to heel, only rolling around the upright position. A fore-and-aft rig will hold a heel, and that then makes the guns on the leeward side potentially unfirable due to depression, whilst the windward side my become unaimable due to elevation. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ Which leads to another significant factor: The Freeboard. The Freeboard of an age of sail warship only goes up to the bottom row of gunports. This means they can't afford to use a fore-and-aft rig which sacrifices some of freeboard to heel without being unable to handle rough seas. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 3:26

3 Answers 3


Gerald Edgar's answer is wrong since the question asks about sailing warships in the age of sail and specifically the early 19th century.

Rowing galleys were still used occassionally in the early 19th century in a few places in the Mediterranean and the Baltic I think. One of the few examples of a ship with oars as well as sails being sent on a long voyage in the ocean was the Adventure Galley of Captain Kidd's pirate hunting expedition in 1695-1698, basically a sailing ship with oars.


War galleys would have very simple sail arrangements.

The question asks about very complex sail arrangements and so is talking about the sails of full rigged sailing warships.

And I am not an expert on sails. But anyone who has seen pictures of full rigged ships has seen how complicated the rigging was and understands it would take a considerable time for experienced sailors to "show the ropes" to new sailors, let alone for the new sailors to understand the uses of the different ropes.

On a sailing warship most of the crew would be manning the guns in battle, but a considerable proportion of the crew would be required to control the rigging and sails for the ship to maneuver. Sometimes the ship could maneuver by simply having one, two or more men turn the steering wheel, but often maneuvering required adjusting the sails in various ways.

I was once reading about the various ways to adjust the sails to maneuver a full rigged ship, which could be surprisingly precise. It was claimed that the sails on one mast could be adjusted to drive the ship forward while the sails on another mast could adjusted to drive the ship backwards, resulting in the ship staying in one place.

I just looked it up and that is called "heaving to".


I note that sailing warshps had a position called "master" or "sailing master".

The master, or sailing master, is a historical rank for a naval officer trained in and responsible for the navigation of a sailing vessel. The rank can be equated to a professional seaman and specialist in navigation, rather than as a military commander.

In the Royal Navy, the master was originally a warrant officer who ranked with, but after, the lieutenants. The rank became a commissioned officer rank and was renamed navigating lieutenant in 1867; the rank gradually fell out of use from around 1890 since all lieutenants were required to pass the same examinations.

When the United States Navy was formed in 1794, master was listed as one of the warrant officer ranks and ranked between midshipmen and lieutenants. The rank was also a commissioned officer rank from 1837 until it was replaced with the current rank of lieutenant, junior grade in 1883.

The duties of a master in the royal navy:

The master's main duty was navigation, taking the ship's position at least daily and setting the sails as appropriate for the required course and conditions. During combat, he was stationed on the quarterdeck, next to the captain. The master was responsible for fitting out the ship, and making sure they had all the sailing supplies necessary for the voyage. The master also was in charge of stowing the hold and ensuring the ship was not too weighted down to sail effectively. The master, through his subordinates, hoisted and lowered the anchor, docked and undocked the ship, and inspected the ship daily for problems with the anchors, sails, masts, ropes, or pulleys. Issues were brought to the attention of the master, who would notify the captain. The master was in charge of the entry of parts of the official log such as weather, position, and expenditures.[8][9]


By the time an officer rose to command of a ship he would learn a lot about how to maneuver a sailing so, so between them the commander and the sailing master would have the knowledge to manueuver the ship as desired in battle.

And I hope this will do until someone more knowledgeable can answer.

  • $\begingroup$ seems to me that if a sailor was an expert at maneuvering during battle his abilities would often decide who won. i would have guessed the navigator and the person considered with lifting the anchor would be separate positions. but the history of science shows us that modern specialization did not exist. the difference between chemist and physicist was not so clear let alone specializing in a branch of math. by the early 20th century specialization occurred. so let it be with sailors... $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 2:19
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @releseabe There was significant specialisation on an age of sail warship, but there was also significant crosstraining. For example, in addition to the master, the officer of the watch would be expected to be supervising the navigation. Which meant all officers had to be trained in the basics of navigation. Then there were positions like the bosun, who would be responsible for all of the ships equipment, including all the ropes and equipment. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 3:09
  • $\begingroup$ Navigation and handling the anchor can easily be entrusted to the same person, since when you are weighing anchor, it will take a while until you start navigating, and vice versa. That said, there was indeed a lot of specialization on age of sail ships: the gunner was responsible for guns, powder and shot, the bosun was responsible for the rigging and equipment (miles and miles of cordage), the marines were responsible for order on board and musketry and damage control in battle, and so forth. I very much recommend the Aubrey & Maturin series by O'Brien for a taste. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ Also, to your comment above: when the Royal Navy blockaded the French fleet in their harbor for years on end around 1800, this differential in experience came directly into play: the English were at sea in Atlantic weather for months and years, gaining invaluable experience at shiphandling, while the French were bottled up in the harbor. This fed directly into morale on both sides. (Conversely, the English ships suffered from the weather, barnacles etc., while the French were typically freshly careened.) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 15:30

Control of a warship is no different than control of any similar sized sailing ships such as trading galleys or racing yachts. The main difference is racing yacht crews are trained and have lots of practice to respond to orders quickly and similarly warship crews are trained to respond quickly to orders and perform and anticipate very quick maneuvers all while under fire.

In terms of actually controlling the boat, the crew have a hierarchy of command. This hierarchy is similar for commercial civilian ships and military warships:

  1. Captain - The head of this command and the person who ultimately makes all the decisions of what maneuver to make at what time is of course the captain. The skill of the captain (seamanship) and his familiarity with the ship and the crew is critical in deciding what the ship should do at what time. When the captain decides something must be done he will give orders to his officers who in turn will ensure that the orders will be carried out so that the ship will maneuver the way the captain wants. Orders at this level are fairly high level such as "full sail" or "tack starboard" or "bring guns to bear".

  2. Commissioned Officers - In office-speak these are the C-level executives (eg. CTO, CFO etc.) or upper management. They are not themselves responsible for managing the ship's crews but instead they manage the middle managers. These people often hold the rank of Lieutenant in the military. Commands at this level are often a bit more detailed such as "steer to bearing 120 on my mark" or "unfurl the mizzen sail".

  3. Petty Officers - In office speak these are the middle managers or senior executives. They directly manage crew under them in order to perform tasks so that the captain's orders can be fulfilled. In terms of maneuvering there are two types of petty officers that are of interest: the coxwain who is responsible for the steering the ship with the rudder and the boatswain (also sometimes called "bosun" which is just "boatswain" in a heavy dialect) who is responsible for managing the sails and rigging. (note that the coxwain is also responsible for a type of rigging: the ropes that transfer the control of the steering wheel to the rudder - he is responsible for managing the crew that maintain this system because he is responsible for steering). The boatswain and coxwain are generally the highest ranking petty officers on the boat but on bigger boats there can also be other petty officers working under or with the boatswain to manage the crew. These people give direct orders to the crew to get things done.

  4. Able-bodied Seamen - These are your experienced sailors and are sometimes experts in a specific job on deck such as knowing how to roll and unfurl a specific sail quickly or have a lot of experience climbing a mast etc. While the petty officers generally directly manage all crew under them these experts often also take a leadership role as tutors and team leaders making sure less experienced sailors know what to do.

  5. Ordinary Seamen - These are your regular sailors who actually do the job of pulling ropes and releasing ropes and handle the sail cloth etc.

Through the chain of command above the captain is able to fight a battle with his ship. For example, if the captain decides that the ship needs to turn starboard quickly, bring the guns to bear on the enemy and fire a volley he will relay his plan to the bridge crew. There would then be a flurry of activity to get the ship into the configuration the captain has ordered: the lieutenants will shout their commands to their petty officers. The petty officers will figure out the best way of doing what the lieutenants have requested and give commands to the teams under them. Then each team will do what they have been told.

With practice a warship can be made to respond very quickly to the captain's orders.

  • $\begingroup$ @user1937198 Yeah. The specifics differ over time and various traditions. It's hard to generalize. Originally midshipmen were the most experienced sailors who were not commissioned officers but since the role was also used to train officers, over time more and more younger sailors from good families got the role. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 12:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user1937198 I changed the term to "petty officers" which would hopefully be more neutral. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, petty officers seems more appropriate since it covers a variety of roles like the mates as well. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ The British lost the Battle of Lake Eerie because the captain of one of their ships was incapacitated, and control was assumed by a merchant captain who had never commanded naval ships in combat, and ended up crashing his ship in a manner that effectively immobilized the British fleet. The transcripts of the British courts martial have been published in book form and, when I looked through them, it seemed the courts martial were remarkably forgiving of someone whose actions allowed the USA such a decisive victory, but they recognized that the Navy captain had been injured and... $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ ...was in no shape to do anything, and the merchant captain couldn't be blamed for not being able to deal with the complexities of maneuvering while being shot at. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 23:25

For battle you need oars, not sails.

Greek trireme

This replica Greek trireme has three decks of oarsmen.

  • $\begingroup$ In movies like master and commander, I do not believe there were oars -- were oars ever used when ships also had guns? I do see oars as enabling tight and precise turns which reminds of why, at least in warships, the oarsmen where not enslaved because an enthusiastic and skilled crew was needed to win battles. On the other hand, for just propulsion, I think slaves were used. $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Relsabe Free rowers were usually used in antiquity and hte middle ages. Galley slaves and convicts began to be used as rowers in the late miidle ages and Renaissance. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ The question explicitly asks about the early 19th century. At this time, large oared vessels were used only for very specialized uses, typically very close inshore where the wind was unreliable (e.g., Spanish penal galleys operating near the coast). The last major engagement where oared vessels played a large role was Lepanto in 1571. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @StephanKolassa this is good information. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 15:28

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