Square-sails have been used on sailing vessels for centuries and there is little argument between “square riggers;” that when the wind is dead astern, or a few points either side, an athwartship squares’l is still a very efficient way to propel a boat of any size, even today.

 Anyone with triangular Bermudan sails knows how tricky it can be to keep them filling and hold a steady course when running before the wind, especially when a big sea is rolling up astern. It is often necessary to set preventer poles and an assortment of lines to hold the sails out, and certainly for a spinnaker. Even with these, the helmsman will still need to keep a keen eye on the wind and the course, to prevent the sails collapsing then re-filling with a ‘crack’, imposing great strain on the sail and rigging. Another concern with most of these head-sail configurations, especially twin head-sails, is that they cannot easily be reefed, and as the wind picks up hands have to go forward to deal with the situation, which is usually the time when you don't want to go forward.

With a squares’l correctly braced there is absolutely none of this, and a boat becomes very stable. Yet the course can vary widely, by as much as 30 to 40 degrees either side. There is no concern about gybing or broaching, and the helmsman or autopilot will have little difficulty in keeping a steady downwind run. The boat will also roll less with a squares’l and the motion is more like a catamaran than a monohull.

However, there is a significant, almost insurmountable drawback to having a great flat sheet of canvas hanked on a yard high up a mast. That is, furling and unfurling—not to mention reefing—the darn thing! This single issue precludes the use of square-sails on all but vessels with large crews, like sail training ships, with lots of young people able to scale the ratlines and edge out along a flimsy foot-rope to secure or release the canvas from the yard. Even if they are harnessed to the yard it is still a very very dangerous operation. But what if you could easily furl, unfurl and shorten a squares’l from the safety of the deck, or even the cockpit, without a single person having to go aloft? Now that would bring a completely different perspective to their use on a short handed sailboat!

I had pondered this problem ever since sailing on Sir Winston Churchill, the British Sail Training Associations square-rigged schooner, and a few other square riggers. I wanted a system which could be operated from the cockpit of Britannia. Incidentally, a boat doesn't have to be a schooner to carry a square-sail. One could be installed on any rig, including a sloop or ketch. But how best to do it?.

I have been on boats with different arrangements of square-sails. One hauled the sail outwards from the mast, along the yard on a track like curtain drapes. The other simply hoisted the sail at the outermost ends and in the middle of the yard. Both had serious drawbacks in that they could not be reefed. They were either up or down, and lowering or brailing them to the mast was an “on deck” operation, not unlike dropping a large Genoa on a run.

I also considered another method; using a regular head-sail roller furling system mounted horizontally in front of a yard. This does allow progressive reefing, but the point-loads imposed on the ends of the yard necessitates a heavier spar. The roller furling foil also bends outward at the head and there is increased windage aloft. The sail also remains exposed at all times when rolled up

The squaresail alone pushed Britannia at a good rate of knots in a stiff breeze.Inspiration finally dawned when I considered the concept of in-boom roller furling. That got me thinking; why not use the same principal, to roll a square-sail up and down like a blind? Nobody sells such a thing of course, so I set my mind to designing and making one, which might be called, “The Hughes in-yard square-sail furling system.”

I contacted a number of marine architects and sail-makers, but none were able to tell me how long the yard should be for my boat, nor the stresses on the yard, the sail or indeed the mast. I finished up at the Old Naval Dockyard, Chatham, England, where I found a formula for yards and sails for a British Frigate. I don't have a crew of 300 or any cannon, but the formula was all I found to work with.

It took nearly two years and a lot of engineering and experimentation, but now Britannia has a beautiful square-sail on her foremast.. It is called The fore-course, being the lowest athwart sail on a ships mast, in my case the foremast. It has proved to be absolutely fabulous for sailing down wind, and all furling and unfurling is done from the safety of the cockpit. The sail can be rolled up or down, or reefed part way according to the wind strength. When completely furled the yard presents little windage and the sail is protected from the elements inside the tubular yard and never gets wet, even in the heaviest deluge.


In squares’l terminology the complete horizontal spar is the yard; the section outboard of the lifts is the yard arm; and the end of the yard arm is called the Flemish Horse, and if you have ever been out there, even in a calm sea, you know why. In heavy weather it is more like riding a wild stallion. However, nobody rides the Flemish Horse on Britannia, and nor do I have leechlines, buntlines, bowlines, clew garnets or tack lines, that all needed to handle a regular square-sail. I just have a continuous line marked ‘sail up’ and ‘sail down.’

This is the in-mast extrusion on a normal mast.Tube1Before I could begin to build my design the first question was; where to find a strong twenty two foot long aluminum tube with a slot all the way along, to form the yard? I did all sorts of searching on the web, but the answer came one day as I pondered a boats in-mast furling system: Why not just remove the front section of a roller furling mast extrusion, leaving only the sail stowage tube with its ready made slot?

Many mast extrusion sizes are available, so first it was necessary to find out what diameter tube was needed to accommodate the sail when rolled up inside. This was achieved by simply winding a 19’ foot strip of sail cloth round a wooden pole to simulate the internal mandrel which winds the sail in and out. This resulted in twenty turns of canvas, with a total diameter of 5” inches.

Mast suppliers sounded surprised, if not a little nervous, when I asked “How much for a twenty-two foot length of mast?” These hefty extrusions are normally supplied as masts three and four times that length. Nevertheless, Charleston Spa, in Charlotte, North Carolina, had the right section at the right price, This suited me in another way;  I planned to fabricate the yard at my daughter's printing works in Hickory, NC, only fifty miles from Charlotte.The front section was cut off, to leave a tube for the yard.

I had plenty of room to maneuver the spar in the factory warehouse, where I first sawed the complete front off, using a circular saw with a 60 tooth carbide tipped blade. This caused some strange looks from the employees, which was answered by the foreman saying, “it’s only Samantha's dad. He's building a boat.” Then I found a local welder to come and attach lugs to carry lifts, hoist, braces and fairleads. I also shaped a couple of yard ends out of cedar blocks, which are removable to give access to the mechanisms each end.

I bought a Facnor rope winch driver, which is normally used on vertical in-mast systems, and after some grinding I managed to slide the driver snuggly inside the end of my tube, so only the furling line sheaves are exposed. The other end of the mandrel was secured with a large thrust bearing and nut which can be tensioned to reduce sag in the mandrel.

Then suddenly, I had my yard. One yard end shaped and attached.

The next essential item in this experiment was a sail, but I didn't want to buy an expensive Dacron sail without first knowing if the system worked. So I fashioned one myself from cheap plastic sheet and just glued the edges. This actually produced a pretty effective test sail when I finally tried in on Britannia, except one side was green and the other brown, making the boat look more like the Kon-Tiki raft than a modern sailboat.

A trial sail with a cheap "tarp".To prevent bunching at each end as it rolled up inside the yard, the sail was not in fact cut square. My sail is a trapezium, 20’ feet wide at the top (head) but only 14’ wide at the bottom (foot), with a 19’ foot drop. When the sail rolls up inside the yard, the sides, (leeches), where the sail is thickest due to the edge stitching just “barber-pole” and don't overlap, so there is no bunching.

With my home-made sail rolled round the mandrel and stowed inside the yard I was itching to test it in some wind. I had my eye on a large wooden telegraph pole outside the factory, but my daughter quickly put a damper on that. “you mustn't do that Dad, you'll get me locked up!” I saw her point, but I still say there isn’t actually any Hickory City ordinance forbidding anyone hoisting a square-sail up a telegraph pole. I settled for hoisting it on pulleys to the roof beams in the factory, and used their large electric fans to provide some wind. This worked tolerably well, and I was able to wind the sail up and down quite easily.

The gooseneck was fabricated out of the spinnaker pole end.So far, so good.

I now needed a goose-neck to attach the yard to the mast. It had to be a very strong and secure connection from the center of the yard. Yet it also had to be detachable, in case the traveler jammed or other emergency. It had to pivot from side to side, to brace the yard left or right according to the wind. It had to rotate, to permit the yard to cant (tilt), when docking in confined marinas. It certainly would be asking for trouble to try to squeeze a boat into a normal slip with a twenty-five foot pole sticking out the sides. All this was achieved by modifying a spinnaker pole end, bolted to a traveler sliding on a track all the way up the front of the mast.

Transporting the yard from North Carolina to Florida.I finally transported the yard 650 miles to Britannia in Florida, strapped securely, (I hoped), to the roof of my mini van on a wooden framework,  I was very relieved to finally get it up the mast.

After a lot of trial and errors with my makeshift sail we got Britannia sailing at 4.0 knots with only a light ten knot following wind, and my 11 year old grandson steering, and frequently over-steering as landlubbers often do. This would be quite unacceptable with normal fore and aft sails, where it requires skill to keep them filling and to avoid gybing the main or mizzen. In downwind conditions it is often necessary to pole-out the jib and fit preventers on booms. Not the sort of thing you entrust to a young lad who never steered a sailboat before.

Transporting the yard from North Carolina to Florida.By this time I was in quite deep financially, but if I was going to continue I was now faced with buying the most expensive item, a proper Dacron sail. This turned out to be not that easy either, because I couldn't find any sail-makers who had actually ever made a square-sail, never mind one which would roll up inside a 5” inch diameter tube. Scott Lomas, with Doyle Sails in Stewart, Florida, showed the most interest, and when the new sail arrived the last stage of the grand experiment could now be undertaken.

Things I learned through practical tests were; the foot of the sail needed to be straight, not concave like a normal square sail. It  also worked better with a batten all along inside the foot, preventing it billowing forward too much and helped to keep it straight when furling. The sail was also made without any built-in curvature, (bunt), so it would roll better inside the yard.

The real thing arrives at last.I was always a little concerned about overall topside weight, along with the inertia effect such a protrusion might have 27’ feet up a swaying mast. I had calculated the theoretical overall weight and was pleased to find, with the actual sail now inside the yard, it was within 5 Lbs of my calculations at 135 Lbs. This is less than an average man climbing the mast, but the moment of inertia would be greater, since the yard protruded well outside the boats roll center. Just to be on the safe side I increased all the foremast rigging sizes, including the two fore-stays and triatic stay, and beefed it up further with two running back-stays for good measure.


The wind was ideal, ten to fifteen knots, straight down the intracoastal waterway. We steamed up-wind for a while, then turned round and cut the engine, to face the true moment of reckoning, at long last.

As helpers tendered each sheet, I hauled the “down” line and the sail began to unwind from inside the yard. As the wind caught the canvas it actually began to unfurl itself, but I controlled that by slipping the “up” rope round a cleat. I cautiously eased out more and more sail, and soon the whole 340 square-feet billowed majestically before us. The sheets were winched in as I felt the boat gather speed. and within minutes there was a small wave under the bow as we coasted downwind at 5 knots. It was a great sight to see the beautiful white sail filling so well.

The boat did not heel or roll, like it would have done under Bermudian sails. The motion was more like a catamaran than a monohull, and was so steady I felt no trepidation in steering straight through the narrow gap under the Titusville bridge. At least it seemed pretty narrow when your 14’ foot boat is suddenly 25’ feet wide. A speedboat overtook us with people yelling “fabulous,” “great show,” which was very gratifying.

Unfurling the sail was easy enough, but now came the second, and really the more important test: Would it roll smoothly back into the yard? We had experienced problems winding the plastic sheet both in and out, which sometimes overlapped itself and occasionally jammed completely to the point we had to lower the yard. I was fairly sure this was due to the flimsiness of the material and reasoned that 8.5oz Dacron should be much more stable. At this precise moment I earnestly hoped so, otherwise we might have finished up in Miami, since you can’t just turn a square-sail into the wind and stop. There was only one way to find out?

As my crew eased the sheets and spilled some wind I hauled the “up” rope. It was certainly harder than unfurling, but once I got it round a winch it was easy enough and became lighter as the sail reduced, and finally disappeared into the yard, “as clean as a whistle!” Wow! Another milestone passed, what a relief!

Knowing the sail can be progressively reefed will be a great reassurance as the wind pipes up, even to the point of a few feet of canvas. I now wanted to see how many degrees we could sail off the wind, with the yard fully braced.

The squaresail makes Britannia very visible.After motoring back to our start point I steered a zigzag course downwind, bracing the yard first to port then to starboard. Amazingly, the sail never lost wind, even when three points, that is 34 degrees, either side of the stern. This will allow a great degree of latitude when sailing down-wind with a big following sea, which tends to slew a Bermudan rigged boat sideways, (broaching), and can be very dangerous. It will also be less power consuming on the autopilot, which won't have to constantly correct this tendency. 

Canting the yard to fit into a marina berth.All in all, the days trial was a successful conclusion to a lot of hard work and expense, celebrated with a bottle of bubbly as we steamed back to the marina. And no, I did not forget to cant the yard before entering our slip.

After I’ve thoroughly tested the system in all seagoing conditions, and I'm happy with the structural and operational components, it is my intention to build a second yard, to be hoisted above the fore course and carrying a sail about half the size. This will be the Fore Topsail, (tops’l). Britannia will then field over 500 sq ft of athwartship canvas, which will greatly add to the downwind performance. Also, having a combination of two square-sails allows more flexibility, just as a combination of sails on a ketch or schooner permits different sails to be set according to conditions.

By the way, the red cross on the white ground is the English flag, which forms part of the Union Jack. It is also the Templar’s Cross, and the emblem of the Red Cross Association. But that will just add to the mystery as my “little” tall ship is spotted on the horizon.
                                                                  THE COST:

I had a stiff whiskey on hand as I added up all the equipment and parts costs, including sub-contractors fees for special jobs. Overall it came to $3,736.00, not counting my work. Four pieces of equipment alone represented about three quarters of this. The mandrel driver was $600.00, the yard and mandrel $400.00, the gooseneck and traveler $380.00 and the sail $1,550.00. Re-rigging with heavier stainless wire was included in the cost of converting the boat from a ketch to a schooner is another story altogether.

I didn't know what to compare to this unusual project to appraise whether it was expensive or not. The nearest is perhaps the in-boom furling systems which are now available. Even a smallish boat in-boom roller furling system is more than twice the cost of my system, and not including a sail either! Ultimately it just comes down to what you want, and what you are prepared to do if you can’t actually buy something ready made. There were times when I was ready to quit, and my family thought I was quite nuts anyway, which is probably true. But now, when I unfurl my beautiful sail, which I designed and engineered all on my own, and see it billowing forth, I’m pleased I persevered. My small square rigger is now unique.

There is another advantage of having a yard on the foremast. If the skipper fancies a G&T about noon, but the sun is still not yet over the yardarm, we just lower the yard a bit - problem solved.


The squaresail alone pushed Britannia at a good rate of knots in a stiff breeze.