Captain Malcolm Cowan, R.N.

In our fifteenth volume [page 331] we made a few extracts from a pamphlet published by Captain Cowan, respecting a very ingenious invention by that officer for the construction of sails of ships and vessels, since which period, we have been given to understand, they are adopted in the navy, and partially so in the merchant service.

We have been favoured with the perusal of many testimonials in favour of this patent invention, and with much pleasure lay before our readers the following authentic documents relating to Captain Malcolm Cowan's improvement on the sails of ships and vessels.

Extract of a Letter from Captain Yeo, when first Lieutenant of his Majesty's ship la Loire.

His Majesty's ship la Loire, Plymouth, June 18, 1805.

The day after we sailed we bent your new main-sail, and during our cruise we had frequent opportunities of trying the reef, which the officers and myself could not too much admire. Such an excellent invention, 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 every person who has ever been at sea.

To Captain M. Cowan.

James Lucas Yeo.

Extract of a Letter from Captain Fellowes, of his Majesty's ship Apollo.

His Majesty's ship Apollo, Spithead, Oct. 30, 1805.

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, it requires but a very few men to take in the reef, it is done in a shorter time than could possibly be expected, and I hope it may be adopted generally throughout the service.

To Captain M. Cowan.

E. Fellowes.

Extract of a Letter from Captain Ponler, of the Queen West Indiaman, to the Owner.

Barbadoes, March 29, 1806.

With respect to my patent fore-sail, I had it bent during the bad weather at our first sailing, and it certainly answers every purpose that the patentee intended it; for at different times during the bad weather, I sent the watch forward to reef the fore-sail, which could be done in three or four minutes, without starting tack or sheet.

To Lawrence Bruce, Esq. Jamaica Coffee-House, London.

John Ponler.

Extract from a Letter from Captain A. Shippard.

London, May 28, 1806.


Having tried your course in his Majesty's sloop Surinam under my command during the winter, when we had almost incessant gales of wind, and in the Bay of Biscay, when it became necessary to reef without otherwise shortening sail, I beg to assure you that we found it answers every end you propose, and I have no doubt, when better known, it will be generally adopted.

To Captain M. Cowan.

Alex. Shippard.

Copy of a Certificate.

London, May 29, 1806.

I hereby certify that his Majesty's sloop Nautilus, late under my command, was supplied with a set of the courses on the plan of Captain Malcolm Cowan, and that having tried them in bad weather, I much approve of them for many superior advantages over the old sails, and consider it an invention of extraordinary benefit to the sea service in general, particularly to merchant vessels, as tending immediately to their preservation on a lee shore.

They can be reefed while set on the ship, without lessening any other part of the effect of the sails, and in a simple manner by few hands, and the reef let out again with great expedition in the worst weather.

They are also less liable to split in taking in or setting.

John Sykes.

N.B. These sails met general approbation on board the Nautilus.

Extract of a Letter from Captain J. Stuart, R.N.

London, July 10, 1806.

Being first lieutenant of his Majesty's ship Minotaur, I had frequent opportunities of trying your new main-sail, that reefs at the foot, which answers beyond expectation, having repeatedly taken in the reef, and let it out, three or four times a day, which was done in a few minutes, without taking the sail off the ship. But it was particularly of service to us, after the action off Trafalgar, while carrying sail off the lee shore, and here we found the greatest benefit, in being able to take the reef in during the heavy squalls, and let it out again so expeditiously when it moderated.

To Captain M. Cowan.

J. Stuart.

Extract of a Letter from Mr. E. Harper, Ship Owner.

Batson's Coffee-House, October 20, 1806.

It gives me great satisfaction to inform you, that I have received a very favourable account of the great advantages of your valuable sails from the master of the ship Cognac packet, belonging to Hull, who has had one of them in constant wear for these twelve months. It is my intention to adopt them in every ship I may be concerence [?] in.

I have heard that Captain Hornby, of the Birna, of Grimsby, tried your sails in a voyage to Greenland, and speaks very highly of them, and recommends them strongly.

To Captain M. Cowan, R.N.

E. Harper.

Extract of a Letter from Captain Hornby, of the Birna, of Grimsby, to Mr. W. Gibson, sail-maker, of Hull.

December 1, 1806.

I approve of Captain Cowan's sails very much: the experience I had of them during our voyage to Davis's Straits, convinced me that they answered every purpose set forth in the directions, and as long as I am enabled, I shall not go to sea without them.

I am well aware there are men in most professions wedded to old customs and opinions, and vain would it be to attempt to point out to them their utility; but to me the satisfaction I experienced in reefing courses without starting tack or sheet, or shaking the sail, will never be effaced from my memory: and let those seamen who were never on a lee shore, or in a narrow passage, in a ship badly managed, in a gale of wind, reflect that they are still liable to such cases, and then disapprove of it if they can.

These sails do not shake in hauling up to reef, therefore must last longer.

Francis Hornby.

Copy of a Certificate.

Liverpool, December 27, 1806.

This is to certify, that the Lark, Dublin packet, of Liverpool, has had the patent fore-sail, and main-stay-sail, made with the cloths and seams horizontal, which, after trying in very hard gales of wind, I found to answer as follows.

The sails are stronger, stand nearer the wind, and can be reefed with great ease and expedition, without starting tack or sheet.

Hugh Williams,

Master of the Lark Packet.

N.B. Sails made with the cloths horizontal, will be stronger across, in which direction they bear the greatest strain. For example, when a ship is carrying sail in a gale of wind, close hauled, it is evident that the sail bears a greater strain across, than it does up and down.

The common sails are made with the greatest strength where it is least wanted.

Naval Chronicle, Vol. 18 (1807), pp 389-392.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius

Sjöhistoriska Samfundet | The Maritime History Virtual Archives.

Copyright © 1996 Lars Bruzelius.