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For writing a story, I'm trying to figure out if 2 people could crew an age-of-sail (15th/16th-19th century) sloop and sail it effectively. Various sources give various crew numbers for various types of vessels and estimating where the ship in question falls into these measurements appears to be beyond my skills, especially as most sloop information appears to concern modern sloops.

The ship

I am aware that specifics of the ship matter, so I will attempt to describe the vessel in as much detail as I can and hopefully it will be enough.

I imagine the sloop in question to be about 18m in length, with a single mast (which i believe should be obvious). Sailplan would be: one jib, one square mainsail, one square topsail, one gaff sail.

The waters

I'm not sure if the answer would depend on waters the sloop would be operated in, but in case it does - it would be for moving between islands in an archipelago, like Carribean or Melanesia. Land will not always be in sight.

With all that laid out - Is it possible for a crew of 2 strong adult men to operate (sail) the sloop?

If there's any more information necessary, let me know and I'll do my best to fill in the gaps.

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    Welcome to the site. This is definitely on topic here without the "purposes of writing" bit, but I don't see that that detracts from the question.
    – bob1
    Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 22:16
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    I reckon if so they'd have to be very confident in consistent conditions to use all the sails. Limping along with the one or two easiest to handle could make sense, e.g. in an emergency. Is that an option in your case?
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 7:10
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    I'm confused by your sail plan. A Gaff Sail is a main sail for a bermuda-rigged sloop. This can't be used together with a square main sail. And since particularly for shorter trips between islands, where maneuverability is essential, a fore-and-aft rigged sail plan is much more efficient than square sails, you wouldn't need the later.
    – PMF
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 8:52
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    Yes, a square-rigged mainsail and a gaff mainsail are exclusive to each other. You could have them on different masts or on top of each other, though: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/… But for your case - sailing shorter distances between islands - a fore-and-aft rigged sail (the type used on modern sailboats) is to be preferred. For running, one uses Spinakers these days, but I don't know when these were invented.
    – PMF
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 11:08
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    It was my belief that mid 19th century would be the end of age of sail, but i can add more specific info to the question.
    – JANXOL
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 13:14

8 Answers 8

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Sailing any square-rigged vessel beyond a dinghy with just two crew would require some combination of specialist rigging, excellent ability to predict or know the weather, and extraordinary luck.

The key factor is that two stow or reef a modern triangular sail (or gaff), you have gravity on your side. If the wind gets too strong, a single crewman can let the halyard loose and haul the sail down without too much difficulty, allowing the second man to retain control of the helm.

With a square sail, you need to haul the sail up onto the yard to stow or reef it, working against both the weight of the sail, and any pressure from the wind. Reefing sails was hard work even with a full crew spaced every few feet on the yard, but with just one hand for the entire sail, who would therefore have to haul it up one section at a time, it would essentially be impossible. Having the helmsman join his companion on the yard might make it technically possible, but the helm would have to be lashed in a fixed position, and you'd still have each member of the crew having to haul a whole half of the sail, so would not be plausible except for the shortest yards.

This may be solvable if the reefing lines of the square sails are able to be rigged through pulleys to a single location, so that the spare hand is able to haul the sail up evenly across its entire breadth. This would require a lot of extra rigging though, and would still require a huge amount of effort.

I do not believe it to be remotely plausible to sail a 60' square-sailed ship with just two hands using standard period rigging and technology. If you make the ship purely gaff-rigged this becomes much more plausible.

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    Is there a technical reason why square sails stow at the top and triangular sails stow at the bottom, or is it just how things were done at the time? Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 17:27
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    @user3067860 A square sail hangs from a yard, so the reason is basically "Gravity". Now Viking ships with a single square sail would usually drop the yard, and work on the sail (stow, or reef it) at deck level, but later ships with multiple sails and yards on the same mast (and much heavier yards) made that impractical. Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 20:40
  • If the square mainsail would be removed (so one less sail on the ship), would you say the topsail could be operated 2-man without specialist rigging or does that not change anything?
    – JANXOL
    Commented Apr 30, 2022 at 11:54
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    a topsail might be manageable depending on the exact size, but at that point you'd probably be better off using a triangular gaff-topsail instead
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 30, 2022 at 13:40
  • In Dead Calm, Nicole sails the yacht by herself. Sam doesn't even attempt to sail the 'black schooner', not because of the damage, but because one man can't?
    – Mazura
    Commented May 1, 2022 at 4:36
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Joshua Slocum completed the first single-handed circumnavigation in his sloop the Spray in 1895-98. This is somewhat late for the 'age of sail', but I don't believe he used any technology that wasn't available in the early nineteenth century.

Wikipedia describes the Spray as being around 11 meters long, so smaller than your proposed craft, but then again yours has a crew of two.

My (inexpert) opinion would be that a two-man sloop of this size would be plausible with 19th century technology. I think it would be somewhat less plausible in the 15th-16th century (I don't believe the sloop rig had been developed this early, at least in Europe), but not impossible.

In the interests of full disclosure, both Slocum and the Spray were lost at sea on a later voyage, possibly indicating that sailing a ship of this size with a small crew isn't the greatest idea - but I guess that will only make your story more exciting!

Slocum's book, Sailing Alone Around the World is available on Project Gutenberg and apparently includes a detailed description of the Spray in an appendix.

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  • There might be a hundred other reasons why he disappeared, though. If his ship was caught in a storm or got holed, even a large crew would not have helped.
    – PMF
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 19:10
  • Yeah I have to admit that was a bit of a tounge-in-cheek comment. Still, solo yachting is too scary for me, even in the age of personal locator beacons!
    – JayFor
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 19:23
  • It's all about risk management. Modern equipment like PLBs and PFDs do give some confidence, but they're no guarantee for being rescued either.
    – PMF
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 19:33
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    Slocum's vessel "Spray", as seen here was a single mast gaff-rigged sloop, in the modern sense of the word. Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 21:06
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(Note: The question was later edited to specify an earlier date, this answer applies to the late 19th and early 20th century)

Since undoubtedly, modern sail boats of that size can be sailed with only two crew or even single-handed (e.g. the Open 60 Vendée Globe race boats), the question comes down to asking why shouldn't that have worked a hundred years ago?

The largest invention, when it comes to handling large ships and large sails, was the introduction of winches for sail handling. The english wikipedia article on winches says that the first boat that was equipped with modern winches was the Reliance, which won the America's Cup in 1903. So I would say a boat that had such winches (and therefore was built after that) could be sailed by two, while a boat without them (or at least maybe something similar) would require more man-power to hoist and handle sails.

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Not a direct answer to your question, but hopefully helpful: Here's a seaworthy vessel with a proven record for being handled in rough water with a small crew: Bristol Channel pilot cutter

The resulting boats were known for their ability to sail in the most extreme weather, for speed and sea-kindliness. They were designed for short handed sailing, often manned only by a man and an apprentice, with one or sometimes two pilots on board.

Pilot cutters are not square rigged, as you want, but fore-and-aft rigged. I believe a gaff sail is common on a pilot cutter, so you would have that.

Pilot cutters have been sailed on very long voyages, so they are up to the task if your story can accept the change in vessel and sail plan.

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Going for the Worldbuilding grade answer:

As others have mentioned, square rigs are hard to operate with a small crew, spritsails, gaffs and ketches are much easier.

What you may be looking for is an equivalent to the Thames Sailing Barge. They're designed for shallow sheltered waters and a two man crew. The design could be altered to allow for sheltered island hopping without requiring more crew, though would probably be entirely adequate as is as they were used for trade to Ireland and cross Channel. They're specifically designed to be beached, which helps with your island hopping requirement.

I used to sail regularly on a 90ft (27m) such vessel so your size is easily within normal range and historically also fits your date requirements for standard rigs.

Possibly your searches are getting stuck on the word "sloop" which is a specific rig rather than a size of craft and wouldn't now carry square sails.

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  • I am aware that sloop is a rig type. I originally chose it for story reasons as it was a type of ship that would be commonly used by pirates and my original choice was between sloop and cutter and sloop seemed easier to manage to smaller crew. Of course none of that is set in stone as I'm still at an early stage of planning (and therefore asking questions like this one).
    – JANXOL
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 11:35
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    @JANXOL in that case I can give you the sailient points for small crew on the barge. No square sails, they take a lot of manpower. The main sails it has are sheeted to horses that means you don't have to do the extra work on tacking that most rigs carry, so a smaller crew. More small sails are easier to handle than fewer large ones, for a short hop you'd put up enough sails for navigation, and only fly all the canvas for long distance or with more crew.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 12:54
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    For a pirate ship it would be interesting, they're quite low in the water so could only carry deck guns, but they can sail in under a meter of water unladen, there's not much that could follow.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 12:55
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Definitely short-handed, but do-able in an emergency.

You haven't said whether this is an exceptional situation' or they are naturally short-handed.

But IMO it's likely that your heroes will restrict themselves to the fore-and-aft sails, namely jib and gaff mainsail (spanker)

With these alone, the rig can be pretty well balanced and manageable, and fully crewed ships would often drop to this rig in any kind of weather, or when close hauled (sailing into wind) anyway; square sails are less efficient to windward.

You have the option of reefing the gaff main, and swapping in a small storm jib when the wind stiffens : use it and reef early.

This loses a couple of knots on the beam or downwind, but it'll get your heroes home without troubling themselves about going aloft.

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  • The situation is a non-emergency. Basically I'm asking whether the two of them can manage to use the ship for their transportation or if its too large for them.
    – JANXOL
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 17:06
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One ship you can look at is Surcouf's "Le Renard".

The ship was a 19m cutter, with a sail plan close to what you describe, mostly just more jibs. Launched in 1812, armed with 14 guns and carrying up to 30 crew members.

I couldn't find an authoritative answer on the smallest crew size capable of sailing her at the time, but a modern replica (built in 1991) is currently being sailed by a skipper and a seaman, plus tourists.

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  • Most sailing replicas I know (I couldn't find this one to make sure) use a motor for primary propulsion. The sails are too small and for show. That makes the crew of two work. Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 5:36
  • the sails on this one are used for sure, although they are indeed smaller than the original, which was meant to be sailed by a larger crew for sure. The motor is, as far as I could find, 230 hp, although I have seen the ship navigate under sails. I'll have to check more closely next time I'm around
    – njzk2
    Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 20:48
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Thames sailing barges (Wikipedia) were routinely sailed with just two crew, often one being a young boy. Although they mostly moved goods around the British coast and rivers, they were sea worthy and did sail across to continental Europe. Technically they are not a sloop as they have a second mizzen mast.

Their history goes back to the 1600's although I do not know at what point the 2-man crew became common.

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