The fore-and-aft rig dates back in Europe to the early 15th century, being introduced largely by the Dutch in or about 1420, though the Arabian lateen rig, a hermaphroditic development of a simple square sail, dates back to at least the 1st century ad. It is probable that, so far as Europe is concerned, the earliest form of fore-and-aft rig was a four-sided mainsail set on a sprit, and that the staysail was introduced to provide a better sailing balance and prevent excessive weather helm. In the Far East the fore-and-aft rig developed in the 3rd century. It probably came about when the Chinese developed the canted square sail used in Indonesia into the fore-and-aft lugsail rig, this sail itself coming indirectly from the simple square sail of the ancient Egyptians. The earliest known illustration of the lugsail in the West was drawn by a Dutch artist, in 1584.
The invention of the gaff and boom came about a century later, the first known example being found in a marine painting of Dutch ships dated 1525. Probably it developed naturally as vessels grew in size, for the larger the ship, the longer and heavier the sprit. A massive sprit would be well worth replacing on weight grounds alone by two smaller and handier spars. This applied in even larger measure when experience showed that such substitution increased the overall efficiency of the rig, particularly when working to windward. Indeed, for a great many years the gaff was known as a half-sprit.
Local development over the next two or three centuries produced a variety of fore-and-aft types of sailing vessel, the shoal waters of Holland and eastern England lending themselves particularly to types of barge rig, such as the boeiers and botters of Holland and the wherries and Thames barges of eastern England, where leeboards are used in place of a fixed keel to avoid the danger of grounding when crossing sandbanks etc. In the Mediterranean, where deep water and steady winds are the governing factors, variations on the lateen rig provided the main types, while in American waters the schooner, carrying more sail on the foremast than on the main, was widely used as a main type. In very general terms, the overall pattern of fore-and-aft rig, certainly in European waters, was a four-sided mainsail set on a gaff and boom, a triangular staysail, and a jib set on a bowsprit, and possibly a small four-sided sail set on a mizzen-mast, as in ketches and yawls.
The next major development of the fore-and-aft rig came with the gradual abandonment of commercial sailing ships and the growth of yachting as a sport. This period extended from about 1850 until the end of the century, by which time the fore-and-aft-rigged commercial sailing ship (with the exception of sailing barges) had been almost completely replaced by powered vessels, and yacht racing was growing fast in popularity. In the search for extra speed, the gaff mainsail was extended upwards by jib-headed or jackyard topsails, the bowsprit was lengthened to enable additional jibs to be set, and the boom extended beyond the counter so that a larger mainsail could be spread.
Subjects: Maritime History.