Square Sails and Dipping Lugs – TTG

I ran across an interesting video a few days ago entitled “Square Sail Tacking.” It showed the intricate actions involved in tacking a traditional Shetland Island fishing boat called a sixareen. The name refers to the six oarsman who power the boat when not under sail. This particular boat, the “Vaila Mae”, is billed as having a traditional square sail rig. I consider it a dipping lug sail, although I’m not about to correct these Shetland Island old salts. They built the boat. They sail the boat. They can call her sail whatever they damned well want to call it. Here’s a longer video of the “Vaila Mae” with some truly appropriate music. Just look at the joy on the tillerman’s face.

The Viking heritage in this boat is obvious from her general layout to her construction and to her sail plan. I was struck by one detail – the foremost diagonal frame. It’s the same on Viking vessels of over a thousand years ago. The other frames are fitted after the lapstrake planking is completed. If it works well, there’s no sense in screwing with it.

Draken Harald Hårfagre tacking – viewed from the bow looking aft

I’m still not sure why this is a square sail rather than a dipping lug. Luggers are very common in this region. The dipping lug surely evolved from the square sail of the Viking craft, but it works differently. Note on the “Vaila Mae” that the luff and leach of the sail remain the luff and leach on both tacks. The peak and throat of the yard remain the peak and throat even though the yard and sail are moved to the opposite side of the mast. That’s a dipping lug. Now the “Draken Harald Hårfagre”, a traditionally built and rigged Viking long ship has a square sail. In the above video of the “Draken Harald Hårfagre” tacking, you can see the sail and yard rotating around the mast. The luff becomes the leach and the peak becomes the throat. It’s the same on other square riggers like the magnificent clipper ships. 

Once the sails are set, both the “Draken Harald Hårfagre” and the “Vaila Mae” sail in the same manner. This is a very powerful sail plan capable of sailing quite close to the wind and doing it well on both tacks. Other lug rigs have a good tack and a bad tack. The only drawback of the dipping lug is the difficulty of tacking. Imagine the toll it would take on the crew of the “Vaila Mae” or the “Draken Harald Hårfagre” if they had to make a series of short tacks through a channel.

Tacking dipping lugsail, Beer lugger-style. Clew is hauled round luff by long sheet, led forward around sail & back to cleat, flipping yard across to lee side in process

I did find one example of a dipping lug suitable for small boats and singlehanded sailing. I like this one. It’s purported to be the same method used on another traditional English fishing vessel, the Beer Lugger. And no boom to crack your noggin. What’s not to like.


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14 Responses to Square Sails and Dipping Lugs – TTG

  1. Leith says:

    Looks complicated but then the biggest thing I ever sailed was a Hobie Cat.

    Beer luggers? I’m picturing college frat boys lugging casks of brewski to an end of semester keg party.

    • TTG says:

      It is complicated and somewhat strenuous, but not as strenuous as tacking that Viking long ship. Some of those guys looked drained after that tack.

      Beer luggers. That’s exactly what I thought that guy in the last video was referring to, as if his method of tacking could be done while nursing a keg. Then I saw they were a real thing from the town of Beer. Lot of odd named towns there. I always got a kick out of Little Snoring.

      Here’s a shot of an actual Beer lugger with a good sized sail tacking. Looks pretty simple.


  2. Deap says:

    Reminds me a bit of the James Caird – Shackleton’s escape rig to South Georgia Island – also a square sail. Can’t get enough of that story.

    • TTG says:

      Yes, the James Caird did have lug sails, standing lug sails along with a jib sail. I share your enthusiasm for Shackleton’s journey. I’m now curious to know if Shackleton rigged his sails to take advantage of being on a good tack with the prevailing winds.

  3. Barbara Ann says:

    Nice post TTG. Been out early this morning myself racing a gaff-rigged clipper & still in the mood. I’ve forwarded your post to my skipper as he’s real interested in classic boats and their rigs.

    Tacking the dipping lugsail, as the last video shows, looks easiest – just like gybing our asymmetric spinnaker. The process for the Shetland boat looks like a major operation, don’t envy them that. The sail isn’t square (symmetrical) on Vaila Mae, hence the need to keep the luff & leech the same through tacks, I expect.

    The second video is awesome. That’s some decent weather they are out in and a pretty wet ride, they are evidently made of tough stuff in Shetland. Viking heritage I guess. By the look of the reefing lines (3 sets above the one they have in) she’s designed to be out in a lot worse. Hats off to the men whose put to sea fishing in these boats. That low gunwale would make me nervous.

    One odd thing to see on the first 2 boats is the tack is secured to the windward rail (actually the long pole resting on it on the Draken Harald Hårfagre). This makes me wonder how close they can actually point. Couldn’t find any info on that.

    • TTG says:

      Barbara Ann,
      I noticed that tack secured to the windward rail on both boats, too. I don’t know the why of it, but I’m impressed by the continuity of the practice. It must serve a purpose. Perhaps it keeps the rig’s center of gravity closer to the centerlines of the boats. Neither of them have deep, heavy keels and I don’t think they are heavily ballasted. Hope your skipper enjoys this, especially that second video. It is awesome.

  4. Mark Logan says:

    I believe they used the same sail in the first and second videos. The first was full-hoist square, the second they rolled up the tack of the square sail about 3 feet, and tacked it to one of the hanks sewn into the edge of the sail to make a dipping lug out of it, appropriate for the heavier wind-going to weather mode. In the second, about 45 seconds in, a yet higher hank is visible, they could go for an even deeper “reef” if they wanted to.

    Roger Morris, the captain of the Bounty replica, undertook a study of the ships and rigs of the Era of Exploration and found that far more challenging than he had expected it to be. It was clear many ships were rigged lanteen or square, and would change rigs to suit expected situation and conditions. The tough part for Morris was hardly anybody bothered to mention it in the accounts. Sort of like how tourists will hardly ever mention the details of the type of vehicle they were driving. Occasionally some mention in log could lend a hint, even prove a ship and been re-rigged at some point but that had been unmentioned, considerable proof they thought little of switching rigs. Artists renditions should only be taken for what the artist saw or thought when he drew it, nothing more.

    He was pretty sure Columbus left Portugal with lanteen rigged boats but converted all of them to square rig in the Canaries. And also pretty sure the Vikings converted their longships to lanteen for inshore work, but found nothing in the historical writings which would confirm it.

    • TTG says:

      It’s definitely the same sail in both video. In the first video, the winds are light and the sail is fully unreefed. In that video you can see four sets of reef points, three sets down low and one near the top of the sail.

      What we know of the Viking ships is from burial ships. Most were woven wool and square. Some were linen (flax). I haven’t seen anything about Viking lateen sails, either. Perhaps they reefed their sails in some way that resembled lateen sails. Reefing does seem a more efficient way to operate than carrying different sails for different conditions, although both methods are still used today.

      • Mark Logan says:

        Morris’s opinion is based on a few sketchy accounts from the Med. Seems the Norskis sailed all the way into there too, but mostly in their knarrs. Unfortunately nobody wanted to be buried with a freighter so we don’t know as much about them. Depicted as square rigged in art, but the few described by Italian mariners as having “Egyptian” rigs. The knarrs only carried a few oars and small crews than the warships so it would be a sensible rig to go with for inshore work.

        I can’t understand why the guys in the vids, at least with the full square set, weren’t wearing ship instead of tacking.

        • TTG says:

          Vikings in the Mediterranean could very well have replaced their worn out sails with local lateen sails. I’m sure those wool or linen square sails would have worn out after all that heavy use. It’s probably easier to replace the sail rig with something local than to weave new square sails.

          Those knarrs were the backbone of Viking open ocean exploration and trading. They had much more freeboard and carrying capacity than their longships. Knarrs carried supplies and livestock to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. Only two have been found. The Skuldelev 1 was 16 meters long, 5 meters wide and could carry up to 24 tons. The latest Knarr, found in 1980, is the Hedeby 3. She’s 22 meters long and could carry around 60 tons. Gunnar Marel Eggertsson is going to build a replica of the Hedeby 3. He already built and sailed a longship. Hope she eventually sails to Alexandria or DC like the “Draken Harald Hårfagre” did a few years ago. That was cool.


          • Mark Logan says:

            The longships were so very much sexier than knarrs were, it’s probably for the best history depicts those all but exclusively. Who would give enough of a damn about a Harald Harfagre knarr to build one?

            It’s been mentioned there may have been much greater incursion into North America than we generally think. The seaworthy knarr, and knowledge that somewhere to the west and south there was lumber (which was what Eric The Red was reputedly about to go for when he was tossed by his horse and sent his son instead) probably spurred many trips. The Greenland colonies spanned nearly 400 years, numbered as much as a couple thousand people. It wasn’t all that far away.

  5. English Outsider says:

    TTG – one always wonders how they built those complex structures. The saw is said not to have come into use until fairly late in the period and riven strakes, in any case better suited, were apparently the norm. Add in all the other wooden members and that must be years of man work before ever they rigged and launched it.

    And first they had to make the tools. And before that get the metal to make them. I don’t know if this video is of any interest in that respect. If it is, it shows people going through as much of the process as they can in an historical re-enactment – historical down to the clothes they wear – of building what is in fact a less complicated structure, and less dependent on getting everything strong enough but not too heavy or too bulky.


    They loooked a cheerful bunch, that mixture of researchers finding out how things used to be done and and craftsmen able to do them. Wouldn’t have minded joining them in their remote French forest, if they could have found a place for me in their final feast.

    As for the low gunwales Barbara Ann mentions, they did look perilously low. If they’d got that near the water in normal weather in the old cutter I used to sail, it wouldn’t have mattered since I’d long since have capsized.

    • TTG says:

      Thanks for that video. Very enjoyable. I wouldn’t mind joining them as well. We took several grammar school class trips to Old Sturbridge Village to learn about New England life in the 1830s. I loved the blacksmith shop. Many of these old tools and technologies were present on a neighboring farm when I was young. I learned to use many of them including using wooden wedges to split wood, an adze to shape lumber and the fine art of pitching hay. My great grandmother made working models of tools from her Lithuanian childhood like a hand gristmill and a linen loom. She showed me how to process flax into linen. These things won prizes at the Danbury Fair and are now in a Lithuanian museum in Connecticut. She gave me a pet parakeet, but only after I built a suitable cage from sticks I harvested myself.

      The low gunwales didn’t bother me that much. I’ve often buried the gunwales in the waves while sailing hard, although it’s a little tough in an open boat. Just have to willing to endure a wet ass and a lot of bailing.

  6. akaPatience says:

    TTG, thank you for this very pleasant and interesting diversion. The Shetlands have always intrigued me — SO far north, and seemingly as much Scandinavian as Scottish.

    Same here Leith – a Hobie Cat and a Sunfish are the limits of my sailing experiences.

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