Why The Moonraker Is The Tallest Sail

The following yarn was inspired by a discussion with my brother Jim about sails and their names. In the nineteenth century Man was learning to conquer Nature and shorten both time and space. It was the age of steam, the telegraph, canal building, and the clipper ships.

The clipper ship was the epitome of speed at sea. As many as five masts were seen on some clippers and on all of them sail was crowded on where ever they could be made to draw. Above the courses, t'gallants and royals, sails never before seen began to appear. First of these were the skysails, then even higher were the moonrakers. But why did they stop there? What would they have called these most lofty sails if they had had them?

Although the historical record is a bit fuzzy, no doubt due to divine action to remove a certain ship from human memory, it seems to have happened this way:

Capt. Judas Pariah intended to set the new sailing record for the New York to San Francisco run. He had ordered all sail crowded on from the courses to the skysails and moonrakers -- stunsails and spritsails too -- but it's not enough; they still aren't pulling ahead of the Flying Cloud, which also left New York harbor on this January morning in 1854.

This had now become an ocean race between the world's two fastest clippers, and he knew that second place wouldn't signify. More than profit was at stake here; this was now a contest for Glory and Honor. A prize worth dying for in the nineteenth century.

Aboard the Shameless Hussy it has been a closely guarded secret about the bare poles standing above the highest named sails known to clippers, but Capt. Pariah realized that now was the perfect time to write a new chapter into the Age of Sail. So he orders the hands bend on the new Archangel Bumticklers and above that, the Godbotherers.

A satisfied smile spreads across Pariah's face as the heaven-piercing canvas swells and the Hussy planes off, leaving the Flying Cloud blinded in her spray...

The sailors on the Cloud watched in dismay as the Hussy shot over the horizon, but when they arrived in San Francisco 89 days later, there was no word of the Shameless Hussy. She was never seen again.

Perhaps there is a limit to God's tolerance for Man's constantly getting up His nose, but we shall never know for sure. To this day, the Flying Cloud holds the record for the sailing run 'round the Horn, and no ship since has ever tried to tempt God's wrath by mounting any canvas above a moonraker.

However, there was the Hubris, launched from the Mckay shipyards in 1859... but that's another yarn...


The Square Rigging
"There might never have been sails above the moonsails, but there are nonetheless names for them: heaven poker, angel poker, and cloud disturber."
Guide to Sailing Ship Rigs
"...above the royals (uppermost sails) might be set sails with such names as skysail, moonraker, Trust to God, or Angel Whispers."

Nautical History:

Origins of the Compass Rose

URL: http://www.gisnet.com/notebook/great_sails.php -- Last updated: June 2005
© 2005 by Bill Thoen <bthoen@gisnet.com>