Both the fore and main topsails are pretty much identical in the way that they are rigged, so similar that we can discuss them both together. First off, since I delved into a description of how sails are bent (attached to their yards) in my previous blog entry about the spritsail, I will forego repeating much of that process in this and subsequent postings. And, further, bear in mind that a lot of the lines used to handle the sails are the same – so you will be seeing terms like “clewlines,” “buntlines” and “sheets” again and again as we go forth.
The lines of rigging such as these are appropriately prefaced by whichever sail is being discussed or handled, e.g. “spritsail clewlines” as opposed to “fore-topsail clewlines” or “main-topsail clewlines.” Clewlines all serve the same purpose regardless of which sail they are attached to; only the nomenclature changes. As with the spritsail, there are two basic functions of the topsails’ gear – lines used to douse the sail, spilling the wind so that it can be drawn back up to its yard for furling and lines that are used to set the sail so that it can catch the wind. Each of the two topsails has clewlines to draw the corners up to the yard and each one has two buntlines and two leechlines which draw up the bottom and sides, respectively.
In order to set the sail, the restraining clews, bunts and leeches are slackened and the sheets are lines attached to the clews and these pull the corners of the topsails out to large leadblocks at the ends of the next lower yards – in Mayflower’s case the fore and main yards. Once the sail is loose and the clews have been “sheeted-home” out to the ends of the lower yards, now is the time that the topsail yard must be hoisted aloft up the topmast.
The hoisting of these yards is done by crewmembers on deck, and it’s usually necessary for only one person to remain aloft in the working top while the topsail yard is going up; his or her duties would include making sure that nothing goes afoul as the yard goes up and to overhaul the buntlines, leechlines and the topsail yard lifts once the yard is raised up in place.
And speaking of the yard being hoisted, one interesting story goes back to the day in May, 1990 when we set the ship’s two new topsails for the first time. We fully expected to be able to raise the topsail yards up almost all the way to the topmast cross-trees. No such luck. Imagine our chagrin when the yards only went a little more than half-way the topmasts and then would go no further. What was the problem? It was a mystery to us so we decided to mull over the situation during coffee break across the street at Pebbles. As we sat there swilling java (and while Paul DiSalvatore enjoyed his customary ice cream cone for breakfast!) we reasoned out what was wrong.
There are two issues which affect the height to which the topsail yards can be raised and, luckily, both were things which could be fixed. First, the lower yards were not as high as they should’ve been and needed to be raised several feet each. Second, the tyes and runners (parts of the topsail yard halyards) were too long and needed to be shortened and adjusted. The ship’s natural hempen cordage does expand, contract and stretch and such was the case with these items of gear. It’s only conjecture but over several years the lines had stretched and when time came to replace them the new pieces of rigging were made the same length as the stretched-out old pieces, rather than being cut back to their proper length as specified in the rigging plans.
So the next day we went to work raising the fore and main yards up to their correct positions right at the point where the futtock shrouds are seized onto the lower shrouds. We didn’t bother using the truck to raise them; we used the capstan – the old-fashioned seagoing way – and it worked out quite well. After the lower yards were raised up we shortened up and adjusted the topsail yard tyes and runners.
All in all, this work took about a half a day. The next time we set the topsails, we were able to easily raise the yards almost all the way up the topmast cross-trees right where they were supposed to be – and right where they were shown on both the rigging plan and on the 1/2-inch to the foot scale model of Mayflower II which was built in the mid-1970’s by Erik A. R. Ronnberg, Jr. and which is on display in the Plantation Visitor’s Center.