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In some of the Horatio Hornblower novels, when they want to get the last bit of speed out of a sailing ship, the crew will wet the sails down in order to go faster.

For a real example consider,

The men were constantly employed in wetting the sails and as the wind filled them and the speed of the ship increased, the stratagem had the desired effect. The schooner hove to at about 2 P. M. and surrendered. She proved to be the Confederate schooner Henry Travers of New Orleans sailing under British register.

Source

What was the reason for doing this?

  • 2
    +1 For reminding me of the Hornblower novels. I read all of them as a kid. <3 – fgysin reinstate Monica Feb 12 '18 at 8:07
  • @fgysin - there was a UK TV series that you'll find on YouTube. Extremely well done - pretty much feature-film quality. Worth digging out if you are interested in the period - they took a lot of care with the historical accuracy. – Tullochgorum Apr 28 '18 at 12:44
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Wetting the sails down helps hold more wind by closing the gaps and making the sails stand flatter.

Now the sails had to be kept wet, for a wet sail holds more of the wind than a dry one. Water had to be hoisted up from the sea to the towering height of Constitution's yards and spilled down the sails. Even in the humidity that prevailed — the humidity that made the labor so exhausting — the rate of evaporation from that area of canvas made it necessary that the work should be hard and continuous.

Age of Fighting Sale, C.S. Forester (Author of the Horatio Hornblower novels)

Some one suggests "wetting the sails." On this point I would say a few words to you. No doubt wetting swells the threads of the canvas, which then offer a closer surface to the action of the wind ; but if the sails are new they do not so much require it, and the jumping about of the men will do more harm than good. Another disadvantage may arise from their not being wetted evenly, which, in the hurry and excitement of the moment, the chances are they will not be ;

The Yacht Sailor. A Treatise on Practical Yachtsmanship, Cruising and Racing

The general practice among English yachtsmen when the America arrived there in 1851, was to cut and sew the sails so they would form themselves into a bag to hold the wind, although the advantage of flatness of surface for plying to windward was well understood, and the practice of wetting, or as they termed it, “skeeting” the canvas, was well understood and often employed on board racing boats and ships to flatten their canvas.

How Sails are Made and Handled: With a Chapter on Racing Kinks

It appears from theory that the wetting the sails of a ship should increase the advantageous action of the wind upon them, not only by closing up the interstices between the threads of which they are com posed, but likewise making the sails stand flatter. The custom of wetting the sails on board small vessels, the only ones where the expedient is at present practicable, seems to confirm the idea of its supposed utility.

The Mechanics' Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette, Volume 56

Flax fibres swell in thickness with moisture and wetting sails is one way of decreasing porosity and hence increasing effective driving force (Gordon, 1977: 143)

Ancient Boats in North-West Europe: The Archaeology of Water Transport to AD

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