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Four-masted barque Herzogin Cecilie, an archetypal windjammer

A windjammer is a type of large sailing ship with an iron or for the most part steel hull, built to carry cargo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Windjammers were the grandest of merchant sailing ships, with between three and five large masts and square sails, giving them a characteristic profile.

Design and tasks

In general, the ships displaced several thousand tonnes and were cheaper than their wooden hulled counterparts for three main reasons: (1) steel was stronger and thus could enable larger ship size and considerable economies of scale, (2) steel hulls took up less space and allowed for more cargo to be carried, and (3) they were cheaper to maintain than a wooden hull. The usual cargo capacity was 2,000 to 5,000 tons.

The most common and efficient windjammer rig was the four-masted barque; the ultimate refinement of aerodynamic study and thousands of years of sea-faring experience. The barque rig can outperform the schooner rig, can sail upwind better than full-riggers, and is easier to handle than full square rig.

The largest windjammer ever built was the five-masted full-rigged ship Preussen, which had a load capacity of 7,800 tons. She was also one of the fastest, regularly logging 16 knots (kn) average speed on transatlantic voyages.

Windjammers are sometimes confused with clippers, but there are significant differences between them. Whereas clippers are optimized for speed; windjammers are optimized for cargo capacity and ease of handling. Most clippers were of composite construction, full rigged and had a cargo capacity of less than 1,000 tonnes; windjammers are of steel construction, usually barques by their rig, and have far greater cargo capacities. The clippers had already begun to disappear when windjammers emerged.

The largest windjammer in existence, four-masted barque Moshulu, the ship on which Eric Newby, author of Last Grain Race sailed, today a restaurant ship at Philadelphia, PA, United States.

Windjammers were mainly built from the 1870s to 1900, when steamships began to outpace them economically, due to their ability to keep a schedule regardless of the wind. Steel hulls also replaced iron hulls at around the same time. Sailing ships could hold their own on ultra-long voyages such as Australia to Europe. Since they were faster than steamers, did not require bunkerage for coal nor freshwater for steam, they were able to compete with steam ships, which usually could barely do 8 kn. Many of the famous windjammers sailed under the Finnish flag during at least some part of their careers. Ship-owner Gustaf Erikson of Mariehamn, Åland Islands, Finland, was famous for his windjammer fleet during the inter-war years. Other renowned sailing ship companies running their affairs despite the encroachment of the machine age were F. Laeisz of Hamburg and A.D. Bordes of Dunkirk.[1]

Typically, windjammers are equipped with semi-mechanized rigging, steel profile masts and yards and steel cables as running rigging where plausible. Since the windjammer hull is hydrodynamically optimized for good hydrodynamics because of sail handling, they were (and still are) capable of sustained high cruising speeds; most four-masted barques were able to cruise at 15 kn on plausible winds, some logged 18 kn regularly and Herzogin Cecilie is known to have logged 21 kn.

The crews, pay and discipline

The crew of a windjammer was surprisingly small; they could be operated with as small a crew as 14, and a typical crew could be master, mate, boatswain (bosun), 15 seamen and 5 apprentices. Herzogin Cecilie in 1926 sailed around Cape Horn with "only 19 men aboard, although not from choice."[2] The crew roster of Pamir on her last commercial voyage around Cape Horn in 1949 under the Finnish flag listed a total crew of 33:[3]

4 Officers (1st, 2nd, 3rd Mate and Bosun)
13 Able-Bodied Seamen
5 Ordinary Seamen
5 Deckboys
4 Cook/Assistant Cook/Steward/Assistant Steward
1 Donkeyman (Mechanic)

Owners ran their sailing ships with closest attention to costs. Officers and essential skilled crew, such as sailmakers, were paid still poorly, the captain of Moshulu in 1938 received about $100/month and the average sailmaker about $20/month. "The wages of other crew members were minuscule. A skilled able-bodied seaman (rated as an A.B.) received not more than, and often much less, than sixteen dollars per month."[4] Crews were readily available in spite of abysmal pay because Germany and Scandinavian countries still required sail experience for mariner’s licenses.[4]

Discipline, at the end of the nineteenth century, "especially on American sailing ships, could be brutal, often unnecessarily so."[5] As the end of the windjammer era drew near by the 1930s, "such tactics had pretty much disappeared in the Finnish ships [and] in the ... German ships." However, even the Finnish mates occasionally enforced discipline with their fists while sailing with minimal crews of largely inexperienced youths when "... instant obedience to orders was essential."[5]

Windjammer economics

Windjammers were used commercially (though recognized as a fast disappearing breed) until the 1950s. They occupied a niche in the transport of low-value bulk cargoes of little interest to steamship companies, e.g., lumber, coal, guano or grain (60,000 sacks on Pamir[6]). Cargoes were carried from remote ports, with fuel and water unavailable, such as Australia (carrying wool or grain), remote Pacific islands (guano) and South America (nitrates). The windjammers usually followed the clipper route around the world, ideally carrying different cargoes on each leg of their route, but most frequently sailing in ballast. The last leg from Australia to Europe, where the cargo was wheat or barley, became the source of The Great Grain Races as the ships' masters attempted to sail the leg as fast as possible, essentially only for prestige and pride[7] — usually from the grain ports of South Australia’s Spencer Gulf to Lizard Point at the Cornwall coast and on to the harbor of destination in Britain or continental Europe.

In the 1930s 'good money' could be made in the grain trade from Australia to Europe, "the carrying rates could vary from perhaps four dollars to eight dollars per ton." The owners of the Parma bought their vessel in 1932 for about ten thousand dollars and then loaded over 5,200 tons or 62,650 sacks of grain, for a gross income of $40,000. "The ship paid for herself and all her expenses for the year from the income of that one voyage even though she had sailed in ballast halfway around the world." In most of those years, the windjammers in the grain trade could clear about $5,000 each.[8]

The Germans in particular maintained profitable commerce through the 1930s to the west coast of South America, shipping general cargo out and nitrates home. They had built powerful vessels, such as the Peking, Padua and Priwall especially for the difficult west-bound voyage around Cape Horn and their captains were expected to make three round trips around the Horn over a two year period.[9]

Famous windjammers

The largest windjammer was France II. The largest windjammer in existence is the four-masted barque Moshulu, today a restaurant ship moored in Philadelphia, PA, USA. The largest windjammer in sailing service is a Russian school ship, the four-masted barque Sedov. The last windjammer in original layout is the Pommern, today a museum ship at Mariehamn.

A few windjammers among other tall ships can still be seen at international maritime events: SAIL Amsterdam, the Kiel Week and Hanse Sail.

See also


  1. Randier, Men and Ships around Cape Horn, p. 338
  2. Apollonio, p. xxii
  3. Stark, The Last Time around Cape Horn, Appendix I, p. 211
  4. 4.0 4.1 Apollonio, p. xxiii
  5. 5.0 5.1 Apollonio, p. 48
  6. Stark, p. 84
  7. ship owners severely discouraged racing since it could result in loss of canvas and gear that was never rewarded or tolerated [Apollonio, p. xxv]
  8. Apollonio, p. xxv
  9. Apollonio, p. xxiv
  • Apollonio, Spencer (Editor). The Last of the Cape Horners, Firsthand Accounts from the Final Days of the Commercial Tall Ships. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's. 2000. ISBN 1-57488-283-X
  • Randier, Jean. Men and Ships around Cape Horn 1616-1939. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1969.
  • Stark, William F. The Last Time Around Cape Horn. The Historic 1949 Voyage of the Windjammer Pamir. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-7867-1233-3
  • Villiers, Alan. Voyaging With The Wind: An Introduction to Sailing Large Square Rigged Ships. London: National Maritime Museum, 1975.

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