Cunningham's Patent Self-Reefing Topsails, for Reefing from the Deck without sending Men Aloft.

Every one, who is at all familiar maritime matters, will be aware of the great danger attending the operation of reefing topsails in heavy weather by the usual mode of men laying-out on the yards, and gathering up and confining the sail thereto by reef-points and earings, and that fearful accidents are of frequent occurrence on such occasions.

Mr. Cunningham's plan of reefing from the deck purpose to mitigate these dangers; and, from the very favourable reports of a large number of intelligent captains, who have tested the system and experienced great benefits from it, there is every reason to believe that Mr. Cunningham has been successful in the accomplishment of the object which he had in view, by his laudable and ingenious invention becoming generally adopted, particularly among the merchant marine.[1] The sail can be close-reefed in heavy weather by one man and a boy, in two seconds and a half — an operation which, under the old system, would occupy at least half an hour, and require many men.

A contrivance of such great practical utility deserves and requires a detailed description, which, by the kindness of Mr. Cunningham, the author is enabled to give:—

Description, &c.

The succeeding Figure, No. 2, represents a yard, suspended in the bight of the chain-topsail-tie, which chain is received and works in and over a whelped grooved boss, firmly fixed on the yard. This boss is embraced on each side by the sling-hoops, within which it works freely. The sling-hoops are connected together by cross-ties, and are geared to the parrall in the manner which will be no doubt understood by the diagram. A is the hoisting part of the tie, which leads through the sheave-hole at the mast-head in the ordinary manner. B, the fore part of the tie, which is secured to the mast-head by an arrangement of tackles, and which allow of its being released from its security aloft, if required.

The lead of the topsail, ties, &c., are represented as letters. AA and BB are the two parts of the tie, in the bight of which, it will be seen, the topsail-yard hangs. In this drawing, there is a second sheave-hole at the mast-head through which the fore part of the tie is led, a score being cut in the heel of the topgallant mast to allow it to come up clear,[2] and this plan is the one particularly recommended by the Patentee; but other arrangements may be made for the lead of the tie; for instance, two sheave-holes may be put under the cross-trees, a hanging iron-block may alsa be placed well forward under the heel of the topgallant mast, &c. The end of the tie B is fitted with a runner, the standing part of which is in the top, thus forming double topsail haulyards. The hoisting part A may be fitted with a common purchase on the end, except in large ships, when any arrangement necessary may be made.

In fitting masts on this plan, it is necessary to have a roller put into the score in the heel of the topgallant mast for the chain to work over, which should have an iron band to take pin of roller, and form dogs at foot of score. See Figure 4.

To hoist the whole topsail, both haulyards are hauled on, and when the sail is close up, the part B is belayed; the sail is then ready for reefing. By lowering on the part A, it will be seen that the yard necessarily turns round as it descends the topmast, and the sail is rolled up accordingly. By hoisting on the part A, the yard is par-buckled up, and the sail unrolled.

When reefing, the sail in lowering slacks a little; this is taken up by hauling on the part B, so as to keep the topsail tight set. By lowering on both haulyards, the whole topsail comes down without rolling up.

It is recommended to fit the clue-lines to the lower-mast cap; C shows the clue-line block; and a down-haul tackle, D, is fitted to assist the yard down in case of necessity.

Figure 1, shows a plan of patent topsail-yard fitted complete. The topgallant sheets lead through the iron blocks a,a, and down on deck through the quarter-blocks b,b. The foot ropes, it will be seen, are attached to the yard-arm irons and chafing spar. The topgallant studdingsail boom irons are carried on the chafing spar at CC, thus allowing the topsail to be reefed without rigging in the booms should the topgallant studdingsails be set and the ship taken in a squall, which is an important feature.

The annexed diagram represents one of the yard-arm hoops within which the yard works, proper rubbing collars being attached to it. A is a roller shackle to which the topsail-lifts hook, and through which the topgallant sheets are led, and which are continued through a leading block on the tie; B is a spur to which the end of the chafing spar is attached, which is shown on Fig. 1. The shackles appearing at each end of the hoop are for the braces.

N.B. -- The roller shackle, A, is now fixed to the yard-arm ironwork.

Bonnet, &c.

It was necessary to make provision to allow the sail to clear the tie, sling, hoops, &c., and also to prevent the sail from chafing against the lee-rigging when rolled up, and the yard braces forward. The first of them is accomplished by dividing the sail down the centre to some feet below the line of the close reef, the space being sufficiently wide as to allow the sail to roll up on each side of the fittings on the centre of the yard. The sides of this division are roped in a peculiar way, and travellers of such formation as to embrace the rope, yet allow the sail cloth to pass freely through, work up and down this roping; these travellers are disposed at intervals of about one foot; and are connected together across the division. A cloth of canvas is laid on each side and secured to the travellers, and the whole form what is termed the Bonnet. The upper part of the bonnet is attached to a swinging T bolt on the sling-hoop (see D, page 167,) this allows the bonnet, which forms the centre cloth of the sail, to work in harmony, or in other words to blow out freely with the whole sail. As the yard ascends or descends the bonnet is drawn up or shoved down the division of the sail which is thus kept closed up. The foregoing sketch shows a topsail fitted with bonnet complete, and bent to the yard.

The sketch given below exhibits a topsail close reefed.

The following are more detailed instructions concerning fitting Topsail-yards and Sails with "Cunningham's Patent."

Sailmakers' Department

A certain new portion of middle cloth, with the Patent Bonnet fitted complete to it, is supplied with the Patent Gear, and the duty required of the Sailmaker is simply to take out so much of the old middle-cloth and put in the new. In new sails so much of the middle cloth will be left out and the patent one put in. Stray ends of the roping on the new middle cloth are left to splice into the head rope. In an old sail, the points and cringles must of course be taken out. It is recommended to have a close-reef band and cringles, for the purpose of shifting and bending a close-reefed topsail, in the event of its splitting in a gale of wind.

Mast Makers' Department

There are no cleats required to be worked in the yardarms of Cunningham's Patent Yards. The arms are carried out full and round to the lifts; about one foot of the yard, at the slings, is worked eight square; and care must be taken to get the squares as true as possible. The Jackstays are made of wood in the ordinary manner, only they must be under deeper towards the yardarms;[3] the intention of this is to make up for the taper of the yard, so as to keep the sail set tight and fair. A batten of the same proportions as the jackstays, but one foot shorter, is also put on the underneath after-part of the yard, to assist in taking up the slack sail.[4]

Figure 3, Page 167, shows the lines of a patent topsail yard. The hole B is for the earing to pass through, and must be grooved and smoothed out in the direction of it. Before the jackstays and battens are fixed, of course the ironwork must be put on; the centre boss must be driven on with care, but as tight as possible; and when brought truly in the centre of the yard, must be secured by two short bolts on each side of it. Besides the yard a spar is required, called the "Chafing Spar." — (See Figure I, Page 167.) The intention of this is to keep the rolled-up sail off the lee-rigging, &c., and to carry the topgallant studdingsail booms. [5] This spar is recommended to be entire from lift to lift, and slightly tapering, say 1¼ inch; the ends must be hooped to receive the starts, which are driven into them, and which connect the chafing-spar to the yardarm hoops. Great care must be taken in driving these starts in, not to drive them too far, so as to compress the yard armhoops, and thus prevent the free working of the yard in them.

The following is a scale of the sizes of Chafing-Spars:—

Size of the yard                        Size of Chafing-
   at slings.                            Spar at slings.
     7 inches . . . . . . . . . . . .  2 1/2       inches.
     8    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  2 3/4          "
     9    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  3              "
    10    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  3 1/2 to 3 3/4 "
    11    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  4 1/4 to 4 1/2 "
    12    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  4 3/4 to 5     "
    13    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  5     to 5 1/2 "
    14    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  5 3/4 to 6 1/4 "
    16    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  6 1/2 to 7     "
    18    "   . . . . . . . . . . . .  7     to 7 1/2 "

The inner head-earings in the centre of the topsail is confined to the yard by screw stud-bolts. These bolts are placed on the yard at the following distances from the centre of the yard:—

   All yards up to 9 1/2 inches . . . . . . . . . . . 4 1/2 inches.
   Ditto, above 9 1/2 inches  . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 3/4    "

The bolts are so placed as to allow the head-rope of the sail to be clear of the jackstay, say 1½ inches before ditto, and the distance they stand off from the yard must be enough for a piece of two-inch rope to hook over them. The inner end of the jackstays must be placed say two inches outside of the earing bolts.

Figure 2, Page 167, shows the arrangement for the lead of the foremost part of the topsail-tie. This drawing shows a second sheave-hole at the mast-head, though which the tie is led, a score being cut in the heel of the topgallant mast to allow it to come clear. [6] starts with heads are driven into the ends of the yard for the topmast studdingsail haulyard block to hook to, which are to be fitted with clip-hooks, or eight eye-rings.

Riggers' Department.

Figure 1, Page 167, shows the plan of rigging the topsail-yards. The foot-ropes go abaft the topmast, and the inner ends seize on to the chafing-spar on opposite side of mast. The two quarter blocks bb are for the inner lead of the topgallant sheets, which have been previously led down through the iron blocks aa. The chafing-spar is lashed at each quarter to eye-bolts on parrall. The mode of connecting yard to parrall is by means of the drop-bolts; a turn of the quarter lashing of chafing-spar must be taken through these bolts to keep them down and from coming out.

Figure 2, Page 167, shows the lead of the topsail ties, and also the length of them. The clew-lines are brought to the cap at the block C, and downhaul tackle is fitted to assist the yard down at D. This downhaul must never be omitted.

Instruction for Working Cunninghams's Patent Self-Reefing Topsail.

To Bend the Sail. — Put the eyelet-holes in middle of over the iron bolts or studs on each quarter of the yard; secure the upper part of bonnet to the swinging iron; then haul out head earings, and bend the sail in the usual manner.

To Hoist the whole Topsail. — Hoist on both haulyards.

N.B. — If the after-haulyards are hauled upon more than the foremost ones, the head of the yard will cant over and bring the jackstay under it; a little care should therefore be taken to hoist on both haulyards alike. If the jackstay should be brought under the yard, hoist on the foremost haulyards alone, slacking a little on after-haulyards. It is a good plan to get a turn in the yard before hoisting on both haulyards.

To Reef the Topsail. — Lower away on after-haulyards, and pull on foremost or reefing ones, until the sail is set taut.

N.B. — The downhaul is provided to assist the yard down should it require it.

To Shake out Reefs. — Hoist on after-haulyards, slack a little on foremost or reefing ones.

N.B. — If the foremost or reefing haulyards are merely steadied in the hand during hoisting, they will slack themselves as much as is needed.

To Reef the Sail with the Yard on the Lifts. — Let go the after haulyards, and haul away on the foremost or reefing ones.

To Shift a Split Close Reefed Topsail, and Bend and Set another one Close-Reefed. -- Pass earings through close-reef cringle, round the spur of the yardarm iron, or where the topgallant sheet blocks are, taking care that they (the earings) are quite clear of the yard. Take, say a dozen lengths of rope that will reeve through the eyelet-holes in the close-reef band, knot the ends, and reeve them through so many eyelet-holes from forward to aft, so that they shall come through abaft the sail; let two or three of them be rove through the first two or three eyelet-holes from the bunt of the sail, so as to support the sail well amidships. Then clew up the sail, haul up the bunt-lines, and hitch the aforesaid points round the chafing-spar. The two nearest the bunt of the sail may be made fast to the eye-bolts on parrall. Disconnect the upper part of bonnet from swinging-iron. Take a turn with downhaul, unbend sheets, keeping bunt-line fast. Overhaul the foremost haulyards, and haul on after-haulyards, so as to unroll the sail to head. Unbend the sail, and ease in close-reef earing, and secure all for sending down sail. Make the bending sail up so as to leave upper and lower part separately clear, which can be done by passing strong stops through eyelet-holes of close-reef, previously having shoved bonnet close down to close-reef. Send sail up; haul out close-reef earings, and pass earings as before described. support sail amidships, bend the sail, cast off stops of upper part of sail, overhaul after-haulyards, haul on foremost ones, so as to roll up sail to close-reef — a Hand, if necessary, laying the leeches clear on yard. Connect upper part of bonnet with swinging-iron. Bend topsail sheets, and cast off stops of lower part of sail. Sheet home the topsail. Cast off close-reef earings, &c. Mend the reef, if necessary, by hoisting the topsail a few feet, and reefing again.

The foremost, or reefing, haulyards, are those which come up before the yard. — The after haulyards are those which come up abaft the yard.

In making a Cunningham's Topsail, it is requisite to have an odd number of squares in the foot; and in cutting-out, so much of the middle-cloth will be left out as will take in the whole length of patent cloth supplied. It is found that rather a square-headed topsail, with hollow leeches, stands best, and the leech-ropes are not apt to ride over the yard.


  1. Cunningham's patent is now all the wear. Captains are seeing the utility of it at all times, and merchants are finding the advantage of it, by sending less hands to sea. Although some of our vessels have chafed and worn out a "bonnet" in one voyage of fourteen or fifteen months, yet by a little pains of making a last in the sides of the Patent Middle cloth, when part of the sides get chafed out (for there is plenty of soap used about them), you cut a 12-inches gore in the half breadth, or a right-angle triangle, and back-stitch all that part of the tabling which covers the rope, so that the travellers work up and down easily; the back-stitching must done well and neatly, and the last being made with a gore, does not lay over on its own part; for if the last is made straight, it will be too thick for the travellers to work over. When the bonnet only is chafed or worn out, shift a new one in its place, and there will be a saving of the cost of bonnet complete, and the labour of sewing the middle cloth into the sail again. Back
  2. A roller is also let into the topgallant mast for the chain to lie upon. Back
  3. The difference of 1¾ inches increased depth at the outer end is generally found to be sufficient. Back
  4. It is sometimes found necessary to apply another batten if the sail has much belly, by reason of its being roped tight. Back
  5. Quarter-irons, or saddles, are sometimes applied to the chafing-spar, to carry the heels of the studdingsail booms. Back
  6. A roller is also let into the heel of the topgallant mast. Back

From Robert Kipping: Elementary Treatise on Sails and Sailmaking with Draughting, and the Centre of Effort of the Sail . . . Together with an Appendix, Comprising the Inventions of Self-Reefing Topsails of Captain Cunningham &etc. and Captain Howe; and Also a Cutting Board or Table, by Mr. Pittard. 5th ed., enl. and greatly improved.
C. Wilson, London, 1860-61 (5th). pp 168-169 [?].
Weale's Rudimentary Series, No. 149. First published in 1847.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius.

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