The Sails of Tall Ships Portland

USCG Eagle

USCG Eagle

 In July, nine tall ships will visit Portland Harbor. Some of the vessels will sail into Portland harbor from spots on the East Coast, and others will have made multi-week journeys to get to Portland. Ever wondered about the sails that power these magnificent vessels? How do they work, and what makes the sails on a schooner like Bowdoin different from those on a ship like El Galeón


Two Types of Sails 

There are two major types of sails on the ships that will make an appearance at Tall Ships Portland. The first is probably what springs to mind when you think of a tall ship: the oblong square sails that give tall ships their name. These sails are the oldest kind of sails, dating back to vessels once sailed by ancient Egyptians on the Nile River. The sails work best when the ship has the wind at its back, or is sailing “downwind.” The sail’s huge surface area allows for all the wind it catches to be converted to energy, moving the ship along. The efficiency of this type of sail is why square sails are common on the bigger ships featured in our festival. The downside of the square sail is its poor performance when it doesn’t have the wind at its back, requiring the wind to form at least a 90-degree angle to the sail to work at all. This problem is why most tall ships carry the second type of sail, the fore and aft sail. The latter sails, which resemble triangles and trapezoids, are built to deal with less-than-ideal wind angles. Whereas the square sail can only sail 90 degrees to the wind, the fore and aft sail excels at traveling upwind and can travel 45 degrees to the wind. This ability allows ships to travel even when they don’t have the wind at their back, which can make a big difference on long voyages. 


The Ships In The Event 

  1. Bowdoin: This ship is a two-masted gaff-rigged schooner with fore and aft sails. Schooners always feature multiple fore and aft sails and usually don’t have any square sails — although some do, see Lynx below.
  2. USCG Eagle: This ship is a three-masted barque and features two square-rigged masts and one fore and aft rigged mast. Barques commonly feature one fore and aft mast and anywhere from three to four square-rigged masts.
  3. El Galeón Andalucia: El Galeón is a galleon-class ship, and the only one still sailing today. It features two square-rigged masts and one fore and aft rigged mast. 
  4. Lynx: Designed to emulate schooners from The War of 1812, Lynx is a two-masted topsail schooner. These ships feature two fore and aft masts and one or more square sails.
  5. SSV Oliver Hazard Perry: This vessel is a full-rigged ship, the first one to be built in a century. Full-rigged ships feature three enormous square-rigged masts.
  6. Picton Castle: Like the USCG Eagle, Picton Castle is a barque, featuring two square-rigged masts and one fore and aft rigged mast.
  7. Fritha: Fritha is like the Lynx in that it is a two-masted topsail schooner.
  8. Alert: This vessel is a gaff-rigged schooner.
  9. Tree of Life: Like Alert, this ship is a gaff-riffed schooner with two fore and aft rigged masts.