Sheets, Shoals, and Sail Training:

A tall ship sailor’s guide for educators*

Tall ships are historical sailing vessels, of all different eras (1500s to 1930s, for the most part). Most of them have an educational function, as opposed to private yachts. Some tall ships are replicas; some of them are originals. Most of them are seaworthy and take passengers and students out sailing.

This guide is comprised mainly of a list of some books that tall ship sailors, riggers, officers, etc. use in their work; and some ways for educators to become acquainted with the tall ships industry.

Why might this information be useful for maritime educators and historians?

  1. People out there in the world are carrying on centuries-old traditions of seamanship and shipbuilding! Since tall ships of many different eras exist, there is a decent chance that one might exist from a similar era and/or geographic area to a maritime historian’s area of study.
  2. The professional mariners who sail these vessels are excellent resources on the practicalities of life aboard, life underway, seamanship, etc.; and they generally enjoy sharing their knowledge–in part because they are often educators, too.
  3. Since tall ships sail, and exist to share knowledge, there may be opportunities for educators and historians to go out sailing and physically experience a particular voyage, or a vessel type, or an event like a bar crossing.
  4. Because many tall ships operate educational programs, they provide potential opportunities for a historian’s research to be incorporated into those education programs, and to be taught to youth and adults on a daily or weekly (etc.) basis. It is a great way to get information presented outside the academy, and to reach lots of people while they are connecting to history in a physical or experiential way.
  5. Finally, accuracy is always a good thing. Sailors (and detail-oriented non-sailors) can often tell immediately when a maritime historian hasn’t bothered to spend time on a boat. That lack of believability detracts from the argument of an academic work, and shows that there were, quite possibly, important resources available that the historian did not take advantage of.

Towards a Working Bibliography

On rigging and seamanship:

Hervey Garrett Smith, The Marlinspike Sailor. Camden ME: International Marine, 1993 [1956].

Hervey Garrett Smith, The Arts of the Sailor. Eastford CT: Martino Fine Books, 2012 [1953].

Clifford W. Ashley, The Ashley Book of Knots. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1993 [1944]. PDF available online here.

Darcy Lever, The Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor; Or, a Key to the Leading of Rigging, and to Practical Seamanship. New York: Dover, 1998 [1808].

R.C. Anderson, The Rigging of Ships in the Age of the Spritsail Topmast: 1600-1720. New York: Dover, 1994 [1927].

Austin Melvin Knight, Modern Seamanship. Hoboken NJ: Wiley, 1988 [1901]. The 1917 edition(!) is available online here.

John Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail: An Account of the Shiphandling of the Sailing Man-of-War 1600-1860, Based on Contemporary Sources. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016 [1984].

Andy Chase, Auxiliary Sail Vessel Operations: For the Professional Sailor, 2nd Edition. New York: Cornell Maritime Press, 2016.

Brion Toss. The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice: Tools and Techniques for Modern and Traditional Rigging. New York: McGraw Hill Professional, 2016.

On navigation:

Nathaniel Bowditch, The American Practical Navigator. Blue Lake CA: Paradise Cay Publications, 2010 [1802]. This is re-released frequently by the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and is available online here.

The Nautical Almanac, 2019 edition. Blue Lake CA: Paradise Cay Publications, 2018 (Annual publication).

Jenny White Kuliesis, Peter Kuliesis, Robert Eldridge White Jr., Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, 2018 edition. Arlington MA: Eldridge Tide and Pilot, 2017 (Annual publication).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Coast Pilot, volumes 1-9. St Paul MN: Oceangrafix, 2017 (Frequently updated and re-issued). Historical editions of the Coast Pilot going back to 1796(!) are available online here.

Maritime histories whose authors worked with tall ship sailors:

Michael Jarvis, In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.

Peter Stark, Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier. New York: Ecco, 2014.

Timothy Walker, Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2021). Dr. Walker has sailed and taught onboard numerous tall ships, and continues to be involved in the tall ship community.

Jeffrey Bolster’s Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Harvard University Press, 1997) is a stellar example of professional maritime history written by a professional tall ship sailor. That dual expertise is particularly clear in his assessment of the historical importance of crew culture onboard.

On to the Practicalities

Tall ship organizations and vessels:

Different tall ships run different programs. Some run historical or ecological education programs that last anywhere from a day to months in length. Some do “sail training,” which involves teaching youth and adults how to sail traditional vessels, along with all the navigation and seamanship skills that a “hand” needs to know. Some tall ships do public programming, where members of the public come out sailing for a day or an extended passage. Many tall ships do some combination of the above, and the type of programming they operate may change from year to year (or even month to month).

Sail Training International fulfills a similar function to Tall Ships America worldwide, although it is heavily Europe-focused. Here is the link to their database.

Marlinspike Magazine is a publication that focuses on the modern-day tall ships industry.

Wooden Boat is a useful publication for traditional shipbuilding sorts of things.

Other resources:

Charting: Most tall ships still use paper charts. You can purchase paper charts online or at many nautical supply stores. Each region or body of water has a corresponding numbered chart; a voyage may include several charts in succession. They provide all sorts of information about the specific geographic variables that are important for vessel navigation: for instance, how deep the water is, which hazards (like submerged rocks) are nearby, where landmarks are, what the usual shipping routes are, and even, in some places, where whales typically migrate.

Electronic charts exist these days, of course; Navionics is a good resource for those. Charting software may also be useful for plotting historical voyages. TimeZero is a good one for professional use; Skipper seems to be a handy free one.

Some helpful mobile apps for figuring out sailing logistics are Sailflow (weather reports for sailing), Buoydata (ditto), Tides (interactive tide charts for different harbors), and MarineTraffic and VesselFinder for following a vessel’s route.

Additional links:

*This guide was curated by Emma Katherine Bilski with edits from Tall Ships America staff