Sunday, January 13, 2013

Concerning the Topsail

As I continue my research into the ships of Juan Ponce de Leon, questions are beginning to arise about the vessel that served as his "capitana", his flagship. This caravel, the Santiago, undoubtedly carried the square rig that had become common on the larger of this class, and quite likely carried four masts as well. The question becomes one of total number of sails, and did it possibly carry a topsail.
Currently, there are a number of replicas of vessels from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. One of the newer ones is a replica of the Pinta, built in Brazil for the Columbus Foundation. Like their Niña, or Santa Clara, it was given four masts and standard square rig; fore and main masts square, mizzen and bonaventure masts carrying lateen. Not long after being launched, the larger Pinta was given a topsail, somewhat trapezoidal in form. The reason given had to do with handling and performance.
This is not the first time a "Pinta" was given a topsail; both Monleon (who believed that the Pinta was more of a nao than a caravel) and de Albertis gave their interpretations topsails at various times. Considering just how close the Pinta was to the size of the Santa Maria, this seems logical. She was in all likelihood a newer vessel, and had been rigged square even later. While many have illustrated the Pinta with a simple square rig (three masts, two carrying single square sails while the mizzen was lateen rigged), in truth there is not enough information to verify just what sort of rig the Pinta carried. In light of the discovery that the Niña carried four masts after conversion to a square rig, it is possible that the Columbus Foundation's replica is somewhat closer to the truth; if the smaller Niña needed four masts, the larger Pinta certainly would have needed to have carried more canvas. The Pinta had been mentioned as being a fairly fast caravel, and this replica is perhaps the closest approximation to Ponce de Leon's flagship.
But could it have carried a topsail, especially a trapezoidal one?
Some time in the mid fifteenth century, the steadily evolving square rigged ship developed a new type of sail. This was an interesting time in the development of the ship. In the span of a century, southern and northern European styles began to merge, and from this synthesis a truly seaworthy vessel began to emerge. By 1460, a variety of rig could be found; single, double and triple masted vessels were common, with the latter rapidly replacing the older, simpler rigs. A big change occurred sometime around mid century.
The large main mast had carried only one sail, and larger vessels frequently carried a flagstaff from the very top. Much like the way the fore mast evolved from a flagstaff, it was a logical step to try mounting a sail from the flag staff. 
These initial sails were quite small and quite simple in rig. The shape in some of the first illustrations can only be guessed at, as the sails are furled up to the new top sail yard.
One of the first illustrations from the 15th century that shows us not only the rig of a three masted vessel but the an unfurled topsail is an Italian engraving from circa 1475. The unusual thing here is the shape of the topsail; it is an inverted triangle, bent to a yard that lacks topping lifts.

As we move further into the fifteenth century, the sail evolves into one that is more rectangular, almost square. 

Many maritime historians believe that the main topsail would remain rectangular, or approximately thus, until at least the early sixteenth century. However, some sources point towards a change around the end of the fifteenth century. 
At that time, the topsail grew from rectangular to trapezoidal. This resulted in an increase in sail area that facilitated better rigging of the yard. These first changes were in the form of single line topping lifts. With the heavier trapezoidal sail, these lifts grew as well, with blocks appearing at the end of the topsail yards.
Many smaller vessels, or vessels that carried smaller topsails, show no topsail topping lifts at all, and in fact probably didn't need them. These smaller rectangular topsails were more than likely meant to be flown in very light weather and were possibly handled by a person in the top.
By at least 1482, though, this was changing. Two sources show us how the topmast was evolving. The first is a map by the cartographer Grazioso Benincasa from 1482. On this map is a small carrack or nao carrying a topsail whose shape is difficult to determine, but is hanging from a topmast that shows shrouds, standing rigging for steadying the mast.

The next source is a painting by Vittore Carpaccio from 1490. 

In the "Arrival of the Pilgrims in Cologne", we have several large Italian carracks, in remarkable detail. One shows a top mast with standing rigging again, but now with simple topping lifts. 

No sail is bent on this yard, but far in the background we see other carracks carrying rectangular topsails.

With the improvements in the topmast, it was inevitable that increasing the size of the topsail would be the next logical step.
From many of the illustrations of this period we find that the topsail normally had its sheet lines leading directly to the top. This again leads us to speculate that the smaller topsails were handled from the top. A modest increase in the size of the topsail put the lower corners, and therefore the sheets, further out from the top. Leading these lines back to the top would be illogical, so they were likely lead down to the mainsail yard. This step inevitably would allow the topsail to grow in size, with an increase in rigging that would now have to be handled from the deck below instead of the top. The outcome would be trapezoidal topsails.

If we assume that the Pinta had started life as a three masted caravela latina and then was converted into a four masted caravela redonda some time before 1490, it would be logical to assume that she would be rigged with the most modern rig possible.
But what of the Santa Maria?
If the Santa Maria had been built around 1460, then yes, the topsail would have started out small and rectangular, typical for the period. As to whether or not it remained thus is open to speculation, though we do have a drawing of three ships on a map of the island of Hispaniola from the very early 16th century, attributed to Ferdinand Columbus, that shows two square rigged vessels and a one lateen rigged. Both of the square rigged vessel carry topsails, with the larger one being very much a "nao" in appearance. This is the similar to the rigs the vessels carried when they left on the first voyage. 
These topsails are trapezoidal. 

It could be possible that, much like the Pinta, if the Santa Maria had been modernized prior to the voyage, a newer trapezoidal sail may have been fitted.
This is all clearly speculation, of course. 
By the time of Juan Ponce de Leon's voyage in 1513, the topsail was firmly established on all larger vessels, and by the 17th century, the topsail would grow to being of equal importance to the main.

"Portuguese Carracks of a Rocky Coast" , circa 1520. This painting shows a large carrack, possibly the Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai. Note the proportions to which the main topsail has grown in just a few decades.

The full rigged ship had truly arrived.

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