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A traditional ship's mast, consisting of "lower" (i.e. Main-, Fore- or Mizzen-) mast, topmast and topgallant/royal mast. The topmast is highlighted in red. Topmast Diagram.png
A traditional ship's mast, consisting of "lower" (i.e. Main-, Fore- or Mizzen-) mast, topmast and topgallant/royal mast. The topmast is highlighted in red.

The masts of traditional sailing ships were not single spars, but were constructed of separate sections or masts, each with its own rigging. The topmast is one of these.

The topmast is semi-permanently attached to the upper front of the lower mast, at the top. Its shrouds run to the edges of the top, rather than to the sides of the hull, though long shrouds leading well aft to the hull, more in the manner of backstays, are sometimes seen. In accordance with the standard square rig sail plan, the topmast carries the topsail. In the late 19th century, however, topsails became so big that merchant ships began to divide them into two separate sails for easier handling; since these were still on the topmast they were known as upper and lower topsails to preserve the consistency of the naming scheme. The majority of large square-riggers today carry separate upper and lower topsails.

The main topmast carries the upper end of the main-topmast-staysail; a mizzen-topmast may carry the equivalent. The fore-topmast will carry a staysail, but depending on where the lower end of the stay is attached it may be called a fore-topmast-staysail or an inner jib.

When steel masts were introduced, with their lengths no longer limited by the height of a tree, ships were often constructed with single spars serving as both lower mast and topmast. In every other respect, however, the "topmast" lived on, with separate shrouds to the lower mast and a top between the two. The section of mast immediately above the top was often painted white as the lower masthead used to be, with the section of the steel mast representing the topmast continuing on above in its usual colour. Topgallant masts and royal masts were similarly combined, though, being shorter, they were often one spar even in the days of wood. A common arrangement on tall ships now in use is a steel spar as lower and topmast, surmounted by a wooden mast as topgallant and royal.

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Rigging Ropes, cables and chains which support masts of sailing ships

Rigging comprises the system of ropes, cables and chains, which support a sailing ship or sail boat's masts—standing rigging, including shrouds and stays—and which adjust the position of the vessel's sails and spars to which they are attached—the running rigging, including halyards, braces, sheets and vangs.

Schooner Sailing vessel

A schooner is a type of sailing vessel defined by its rig: fore-and-aft rigged on all of 2 or more masts and, in the case of a 2 masted schooner, the foremast generally being shorter than the mainmast. A common variant, the topsail schooner also has a square topsail on the foremast, to which may be added a topgallant. Differing definitions leave uncertain whether the addition of a fore course would make such a vessel a brigantine. Many schooners are gaff-rigged, but other examples include Bermuda rig and the staysail schooner.

Sailing ship Large wind-powered water vessel

A sailing ship is a sea-going vessel that uses sails mounted on masts to harness the power of wind and propel the vessel. There is a variety of sail plans that propel sailing ships, employing square-rigged or fore-and-aft sails. Some ships carry square sails on each mast—the brig and full-rigged ship, said to be "ship-rigged" when there are three or more masts. Others carry only fore-and-aft sails on each mast—schooners. Still others employ a combination of square and fore-and aft sails, including the barque, barquentine, and brigantine.

Sail plan Diagram of the masts, spars, rigging, and sails of a sailing vessel

A sail plan is a description of the specific ways that a sailing craft is rigged, as discussed below. Also, the term “sail plan” is a graphic depiction of the arrangement of the sails for a given sailing craft.

Brig Sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts

A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts. During the Age of Sail, brigs were seen as fast and maneuverable and were used as both naval warships and merchant vessels. They were especially popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Brigs fell out of use with the arrival of the steam ship because they required a relatively large crew for their small size and were difficult to sail into the wind. Their rigging differs from that of a brigantine which has a gaff-rigged mainsail, while a brig has a square mainsail with an additional gaff-rigged spanker behind the mainsail.

A jib is a triangular sail that sets ahead of the foremast of a sailing vessel. Its tack is fixed to the bowsprit, to the bows, or to the deck between the bowsprit and the foremost mast. Jibs and spinnakers are the two main types of headsails on a modern boat.


A topsail ("tops'l") is a sail set above another sail; on square-rigged vessels further sails may be set above topsails.

Standing rigging

Standing rigging comprises the fixed lines, wires, or rods, which support each mast or bowsprit on a sailing vessel and reinforce those spars against wind loads transferred from the sails. This term is used in contrast to running rigging, which represents the moveable elements of rigging which adjust the position and shape of the sails.


A staysail ("stays'l") is a fore-and-aft rigged sail whose luff can be affixed to a stay running forward from a mast to the deck, the bowsprit, or to another mast.

Mast (sailing) Pole used in rigging of a sailing vessel

The mast of a sailing vessel is a tall spar, or arrangement of spars, erected more or less vertically on the centre-line of a ship or boat. Its purposes include carrying sails, spars, and derricks, and giving necessary height to a navigation light, look-out position, signal yard, control position, radio aerial or signal lamp. Large ships have several masts, with the size and configuration depending on the style of ship. Nearly all sailing masts are guyed.

Yard (sailing) A sail-carrying part of the rigging of a sailing ship

A yard is a spar on a mast from which sails are set. It may be constructed of timber or steel or from more modern materials like aluminium or carbon fibre. Although some types of fore and aft rigs have yards, the term is usually used to describe the horizontal spars used on square rigged sails. In addition, for some decades after square sails were generally dispensed with, some yards were retained for deploying wireless (radio) aerials and signal flags.

This is a glossary of nautical terms; some remain current, while many date from the 17th to 19th centuries. See also Wiktionary's nautical terms, Category:Nautical terms, and Nautical metaphors in English. See the Further reading section for additional words and references.

Square rig Generic type of sail and rigging arrangement

Square rig is a generic type of sail and rigging arrangement in which the primary driving sails are carried on horizontal spars which are perpendicular, or square, to the keel of the vessel and to the masts. These spars are called yards and their tips, beyond the last stay, are called the yardarms. A ship mainly rigged so is called a square-rigger.

Full-rigged ship Sailing vessel with three or more square-rigged masts

A full-rigged ship or fully rigged ship is a sailing vessel's sail plan with three or more masts, all of them square-rigged. A full-rigged ship is said to have a ship rig or be ship-rigged. Such vessels also have each mast stepped in three segments: lower mast, top mast, and topgallant mast. Other large, multi-masted sailing vessels may be regarded as a ships while lacking one of the elements of a full-rigged ship, e.g. having one or more masts support only a fore-and aft sail or having a mast that only has two segments.

Topgallant sail

On a square rigged sailing vessel, a topgallant sail is the square-rigged sail or sails immediately above the topsail or topsails. It is also known as a gallant or garrant sail.

PNS <i>Rah Naward</i>

PNS Rah Naward is a sail training ship of the Pakistan Navy. She was commissioned in 2001 as Prince William for the Tall Ships Youth Trust and sold in 2010 to the Pakistan Navy and renamed Rah Naward.

Top (sailing ship) Platform at the upper end of a mast on a traditional square rigged ship

The top on a traditional square rigged ship, is the platform at the upper end of each (lower) mast. This is not the masthead "crow's nest" of the popular imagination – above the mainmast is the main-topmast, main-topgallant-mast and main-royal-mast, so that the top is actually about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way up the mast as a whole.


The spritsail is a four-sided, fore-and-aft sail that is supported at its highest points by the mast and a diagonally running spar known as the sprit. The foot of the sail can be stretched by a boom or held loose-footed just by its sheets. A spritsail has four corners: the throat, peak, clew, and tack. The Spritsail can also be used to describe a rig that uses a spritsail.


A jackass-barque, sometimes spelled jackass bark, is a sailing ship with three masts, of which the foremast is square-rigged and the main is partially square-rigged and partially fore-and-aft rigged (course). The mizzen mast is fore-and-aft rigged.

<i>Preussen</i> (ship) German steel-hulled five-masted ship-rigged windjammer sunk in Crab Bay after a collision

Preussen (PROY-sin) was a German steel-hulled, five-masted, ship-rigged sailing ship built in 1902 for the F. Laeisz shipping company and named after the German state and kingdom of Prussia. It was the world's only ship of this class with five masts carrying six square sails on each mast.