Naval Literature.

An Essay on the Construction of the Sails of Ships and Vessels, with Plans and Descriptions of the Patent Sails, showing the many Dangers that may be avoided, and the Advantages derived from adopting the improved Sails, &c. By Captain Malcolm Cowan, of the Royal Navy. 4to, pp. 12, with a Plate.

This little pamphlet contains a few short remarks on the defects of sails, as hitherto constructed; and adds thereto a very plain and concise description of the new invention, and of the various advantages that may be expected to result from the use and adoption of it. No person acquainted with the nature of maritime pursuits will hesitate for a moment in perfectly acquiescing with the opinion of the author, as to the magnitude and the importance of the subject. The constant and melancholy experience of years, and of ages, has incontrovertibly established the fact; and interest, as well as humanity, most imperiously demand that all possible attention, and candid investigation, in respect to the merits of the ingenious contriver, should be paid to him. The lives, as well as the property of thousands, would be rendered, by the success of his project, infinitely less subject to danger and destruction, than the imperfect art of navigating vessels in formers years has proved them to be; and Captain Cowan, as well as Mr. Greathead, will have the satisfaction of passing through life with that most grateful of all consolations, the reflections, "that he who preserves the existence of a single Roman citizen, deserves better from his country, than he who has contributed to the destruction of an hundred of its enemies."

We lament the want of sufficient room, to give a more extensive extract from this interesting little memoir. The following, however, will be found to convey no very imperfect idea of the arguments in favour of the invention, or, at least, of the necessity of some material alteration in the mode of sail-making, as hitherto practised.

Ships are driven on shore every winter by hundreds, that might, with proper sails, have escaped all danger. The loss of one sail, in many situations, is followed by the inevitable loss of the ship and crew. Sails are often slit in hauling up to reef, and it may be necessary to reef a sail that is worn, to preserve it from spitting; hence the necessity of their being constructed to reef without starting tack or sheet.

Many ships have been lost by not having time, or drift, to haul their courses up, to reef them on the yard, by which they risk their splitting; a circumstance which alone must convince the seaman of the utility of having sails that can be reefed without taking their effect off the ship.

Many dangers may be avoided, by carrying sail with safety to the masts and yards. A ship can carry top-gallant-sails that reef at the foot, with safety, when other ships must furl theirs; an evident advantage in many situations.

The top-sails of ships, with one or two reefs at the foot, can be reefed in a minute by one seaman, at each lower yard-arm, while they remain set with the top-gallant-sails over them, by only settling the hallyards; by which a ship in squally weather, on many occasions, would have a great advantage, particularly in chase, &c., and when caught by a sudden shift of wind on a lee shore, or obliged to haul suddenly to the wind from sailing large.

The facility with which sails that reef at the foot can at all times be managed, would enable ships to make a quicker voyages; and prevent them often, when weakly manned, from detaining fleets; by the difficulty and danger of carrying sail being entirely removed; and enable merchant ships to be navigated with fewer hands, which would be a considerable saving of expense, and a great advantage in time of war in particular, when men are so scarce.

If the sails were made with horizontal cloths and seams, the sails would stand better, particularly in a gale of wind; as the strongest direction of the cloth and seams would be opposed to the greatest force of the wind, which acts horizontally; and should the sail split in that direction, it would still remain full, and be less liable to blow away altogether, which is generally the case when a sail splits in a vertical direction. Storm stay-sails set purposely with the cloths horizontal, have proved this beyond a doubt.

Many seamen are lost every winter, by falling overboard from the yards while reefing the sails; as it is more dangerous, and requires longer time to perform in a gale of wind, than furling the sails, which is not so often necessary as reefing.

Ships may sometimes avoid a lee-shore, by carrying a timely press of sail; and when in that perilous situation, in a gale of wind, the safety of the ship may solely depend on the sails being kept set; though it may be necessary to reduce them, either to save them, or ease the ship. The common sails require to be hauled up, to be reefed, at the risk of slitting them, at a time, perhaps, when the ship is in imminent danger, from the want of sea room; and the best seamen of the crew must be sent on the yards, when they possibly may be much wanted on deck.

Whole fleets are often caught by a sudden shift of wind, on a lee-shore, thrown into confusion, and obliged immediately to reef their sails, at the same time the ships may require the whole of their crews on deck, to attend the working of the ship, to keep clear of each other; particularly when it happens in the night tie, with the wind squally and variable.

When ships from foreign voyages enter the English or Irish channels in the winter time, when the days are short and the nights long, with weak or disabled crews, or men not accustomed to cold or frost, such as Lascars, negroes, &c.; it is with the greatest difficulty they can be prevailed on to go aloft; but should they get on a lee-shore, which all ships are liable to, and with an helpless crew, nothing can exceed the horror of their situation, should they not be able to proportion their sail to the wind in time to save the ship."

On the origin of the invention, the author thus briefly expresses himself:--

The origin of the invention of the patent sails was in a gale of wind, on a lee-shore, in which a line of battle ship was exposed for many hours to the danger of being totally lost, with all her crew, by the splitting of her sails, and the utter impossibility of reefing them. No human means then known, were left untried to save the ship; and when to all appearance every hope had vanished, and silent horror and resignation prevailed throughout, the obvious defects, and the erroneous construction of the sails for centuries past, became apparent. Fortunately for the world, Providence interposed, and, by a shift of wind, saved the ship and the invention from being buried n eternal oblivion, for the preservation of thousands, in ages to come.

We shall conclude with the following extracts, from authentic documents in the possession of the patentee, which may serve to convince those who have hesitated to adopt the patent sails, as to their utility, on the opinion of some of the most skillful and experienced officers of His Majesty's Navy.

On the 12th of March, in a very strong gale of wind from E.N.E., I had occasion to reef the courses: they were reefed in two minutes, with very few seamen, and without the least fret or chafing. They have many advantages over the old construction, particularly on a lee-shore, when weakly manned, as they can be reefed without starting tack or sheet, or a single man going aloft.

And I find the sail to haul up by far more snug, than the old way; and in my opinion I cannot perceive any objection against it.

My officers and men, from seeing them reefed in the gale, are quite delighted with them, now they perceive their utility.

Depend upon it, no seaman can start an objection, when they have seen them reefed in a gale of wind. It blew excessively hard, and we shipped several very heavy seas.

I think them particularly calculated for narrow-seas and lee-shores.

The day after we sailed for Plymouth, we bent our courses; and during our cruise we had frequent opportunities of trying your reef. The officers could not too much admire such an excellent invention, which, ere long, I have no doubt, will be generally adopted. To the merchant service it is of the greatest consequence; for it is so plain a thing, that the utility of it must strike any person that has ever been at sea.

I have shown my plan to the most distinguished officers, they highly approve of it; in fact, every person who has seen it is of the same opinion, and do not find one objection against it.

It is a plan I should adopt were I afloat again, and had the means of obtaining the sails.

I can reef the sails in two minutes; and it is much approved of by all my officers.

To the mode of reefing the courses by the foot, I am happy to give you my decided approbation; as you are enabled to reef a course without losing the effect of the sail, requires but a few men to take in the reef, and it is done in a shorter time than could possibly be expected; and I hope it may be adopted generally throughout the service.

On the foregoing subject there can be but one opinion; nor can that opinion be otherwise than favourable both to the invention and the inventor. We shall dismiss it for the present, owing, as we have already premised, to out want of sufficient room to amplify as we could wish. Considering it, however, as a desideratum of the highest importance, we shall at our first leisure return again to the charge, and state the numerous advantages expected, as the result of the invention; and add thereto such comments as may most forcibly strike us.

Naval Chronical, Vol. 15 (1806), pp 331-335.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius

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Copyright © 1996 Lars Bruzelius.