Important Communication to the Navy Board.

By Captain Malcolm Cowan, R.N.

On his Majesty's Service.

To the Honourable the Principal Officers and Commissioner of his Majesty's Navy.

Honourable Gentlemen,

As it appears that proposals for the advantage of his Majesty's naval service, or for the saving of the public money in the naval department, have hitherto been chiefly referred to you Honourable Board, I beg leave to lay before you the enclosed observations on the dangers to which his Majesty's ships and vessels are unnecessarily exposed, from the present mode of making sails in his Majesty's navy; and in consequence the very great and unnecessary expense attending them, which I request you will be pleased to take into your serious consideration, with the reports from experienced officers on the new sails that I have had the honour of laying before your Honourable Board, from time to time, for these four years past.

In the latter you will find proofs that all our ships with the old sails, are in particular situations, exposed to unavoidable destruction.

I have the honour to be, &c.
Malcolm Cowan.
Commander R.N.
London, August 24, 1809.

Observations on the Dangers to which his Majesty's Ships and Vessels are unnecessarily exposed, from the present mode of making Sails in his Majesty's Navy; and on the unnecessary Expense attending them. By Captain Malcolm Cowan, R.N.

"Art is so far from being exhausted on this subject, that it is no exaggeration to say, that it is yet completely within its limits to diminish the dangers of the Sea to Navigators, fully one half of what they are at present." — Athenæum, Feb. 1809.
The sails of ships and vessels, from being made with the cloths and seams in a vertical instead of an horizontal direction, are more liable to split up and down, and to be blown to pieces, either when carrying a press of sail in a gale of wind on a lee shore, or from the shaking of the sails; and a ship and crew might be lost from a few inches of a vertical sea, giving way, when there might not be time to take the sail in to repair it.

From the experiment that has been made in the royal navy, the difference in duration of the sails made with horizontal cloths, and those of the old make, has been proved to be as eighteen months to eleven,1 making a difference of seven months wear in favour of those with the horizontal cloths; and they are every way stronger, more effective, and stand nearer to the wind.

By the old method of reefing the courses on the yard, the loss of a ship and crew in a gale of wind on a lee shore, may originate from either of the following apparently trifling accidents, which the old sails are liable to, and which could not happen to the new sails2 that reef at the foot; namely.

No. of Accidents.
Courses that are half worn may require reefing to preserve them from splitting, when there may not be sea-room to perform the operation, and either of them may split. 2
From the splitting of the courses in hauling them up to reef on the yard, or afterwards in setting them. 4
From carrying away either of the two clew garnets to each course in hauling them up to the reef, which might split the sail by shaking it. 4
From carrying away either of the four buntline legs, or of the courses to reef, which might split the sail by shaking. 12
From carrying away either the tack or sheet of each course in setting the sails after reefing them. 4
Number of accidents the courses of the old make are liable to 26

It is to be observed of these twenty-six accidents that the old courses are liable to, and any one of which unnecessarily exposes a ship to great danger, and in some situations to certain destruction, there is not one of them wherein the resources of seamanship might not prove unavailing to remedy the accident in time to save a ship, when she is in that horrible situation, that the loss of a sail would cause her to drive on shore3 It is well known to intelligent seamen, that the difficulty of performing and operation necessary to the preservation of a ship, increases with the danger; and that the loss, or want of one of the dependent sails for a few minutes only might prove the loss of the ship.

The want of a chasing reef at the foot of the top-sails and top-gallant-sails may be sensibly felt, when it may be necessary to carry a press of sail in squally weather to avoid a lee shore;4 or or in chase; or when obliged to haul suddenly to the wind from sailing large. Men of war in chase cannot always risque carrying sail through a squall,5 and by lowering these sails down to reef at the head, they loose time; and the sails are partly aback whilst they are reefing.

By diminishing the dangers of the seas (many of which might be easily averted) the attractions to a sea life are increased, and the sum of human misery reduced; for every individual in the country is at this present period deeply interested in the preservation of the valuable lives of British Seamen.

Malcolm Cowan,
Commander, R.N.
London, August 24, 1809.

For a particular account of this improvement on ship's sails, vide the Naval Chronicle for April 1806, November 1807, and November 1808.

1) The common made sail lasted eleven months, the sail with horizontal cloths and seams eighteen. A top-sail for a 64 gun-ship costs 80l. [Back]

2) A line-of-battle ship can reef one of the new courses in two minutes, without hauling it up, or starting tack or sheet. This fact is will known among the officers of the navy. — Vide the Naval Chronical for November 1807 and November 1808. [Back]

3) In the winter gales 1807, upwards of 100 sail of vessels, and many lives were lost off the coast of Whitby, Yorkshire. [Back]

4) The horror attending a situation of distress on a lee shore is inconceivable to all but those who have experienced. [Back]

5) In the situation of the Apollo's convoy, part of which were lost on the coast of Portugal a few years since. It is for the advantage of the enemy to run the risque, to escape from a superior force. [Back]

Naval Chronicle Vol. 22 (1809), pp 300-302.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius

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