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What Is Rigging?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated Feb 16, 2024
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Rigging is a combination of elements on a ship or sailboat that, when combined, are primed to push the ship forward using wind power. The four main elements of rigging are the cordage, masts, sails, and spars. The word may be of English origin, from the word wringan, meaning "to clothe," or from the Danish rigge, "to equip." The first use of rigging as a noun is dated to 1822, but was probably used long before.

The rig apparatus is attached to the hull of a ship. The hull is the main frame that sits in the water. The shape and position of the rigging are set out and changed in order to maximize wind power. If there is no wind to catch, then the rigging becomes useless and other means of propulsion, such as engines and oars, are needed.

Ships and sailboats vary in size and complexity. Early ships, like those that plied the Nile in Egypt and the Viking longboat, were simple affairs. They often have a single mast and sail. Over time, these developed into two- and three-mast ships with multiple sails per mast and complicated rigging designed to maximize wind power.

Masts are the most important element of the rig. They provide the skeleton and, without them, the cordage and sails would be just a mess of cloth and rope. Masts are tall, vertical poles set into the ship’s hull. Traditional masts were made from wood, but modern ones can be made from aluminum, carbon fiber, or composite materials.

Horizontal poles are called spars. They are attached to the masts, and sails are hung from them. The number of spars depends on the number of masts as well as the number of sails that can be hung from any one mast. Simple ships will have one mast, one spar, and one sail, but others may have four or five sails on any one mast.

Sails are a ship’s lungs. They catch the wind and propel the ship forward. Sails are used in two types of rigging: square and fore-and-aft rigs. The square rig uses square or rectangular sails hung on spars from a right angle. Dinghies and yachts prefer to use fore-and-aft rigs on which sails are mounted parallel to the keel.

Cordage, one of the key elements in rigging, refers to the ropes used to bind masts, spars, and sails together. The number of ropes used depends on the complexity of the ship. A ship with square rigging will require at least nine ropes per sail, while a ship with fore-and-aft rigging will require about three per sail.

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