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.
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.
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.