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Cutter: The term can refer to any of four different watercraft.

(1) A cutter was a relatively small single-masted sailing ship developed in England at about the same time as the French lougre (Lugger) in the mid eighteenth century and was designed to do much the same tasks – naval despatch and reconnaissance, and customs and excise work mainly.

It was originally designed with fairly complicated rigging that required more than the average number of crew to operate. The single mast was, at the same time, both fore-and-aft and square-rigged, in that there was a gaff-rigged mainsail, with gaff topsail, at least one headsail attached to the bow or to a retractable boom out from the bow (bowsprit) while also having a large square–rigged sail with its yard at about the height of the gaff, and two square-rigged topsails above it. (Did you get all that?)

Over the course of the 19th century the square-rig was dispensed with, and the ship, still with a sizable sail area because of the height of the mast, became popular for inshore work, especially as a pilot vessel. Modern powered vessels used in the Pilot Service in Britain are still called cutters.

(2) A ship’s boat, up to about 32 feet long, powered by eight to 14 oars, clinker-built and originally fitted with two masts, from which lug-sails could be hung. Later one of the masts was done away with and the remaining one fitted with a kind of boomless gaff-rig.

3) A yacht – an old American version of a sloop – with a Bermudian rig and two staysails to a long bowsprit.

(4) An engine powered vessel of about 2000 tons used by the US Navy and other Government Services for weather watch, ice patrols and other coastguard work.


  • Rigging refers to all those ropes, chains etc. that support the masts, yards and booms or are used to trim the sails, or to hoist and lower them. The rigging used to support the masts and yards called “standing rigging”.
  • Fore-and-aft rigging refers to sails that are set along a line between bow and stern of a vessel. Obviously, depending on the direction of the wind in relation to the intended course of the ship, those sails attached to booms and/or gaffs* will be set at some sort of angle. Your standard yacht has fore-and-aft rigging.
  • Square-rigged refers to the set of the sails on what most people would consider the classic large sailing ship – the galleon or the clipper for example, or any large warship of the age of sail. The sails are set across the bow to stern line of the vessel and are four-sided and attached to yards that can be angled according wind direction. (Very few vessels in the last 500 years have been purely square-rigged – almost every ship has had triangular staysails set between the masts or from the foremast to the bow and most have a gaff-sail on its stern-most mast – usually called a “spanker” – whether or not there is square rigging on that mast.)
  • Gaff-rigged refers to a spar attached, by means of a fixture that allows it to swivel and be raised and lowered, to a mast. To it can be “hung” a square sail with its bottom corners usually attached to a boom. This is “gaff-rigged” and is one of the two common forms of rigging for the mainsail on yachts and other fore and aft rigged boats and ships. (The other is Bermudian.)
  • Gaff topsail is a triangular sail that uses the gaff of the gaff-sail below it as its boom.
  • (Headsail) Staysail: refers to a triangular sail set between two masts with two corners attached to the aftmost. (This corner is called the clew and it is here that the sail is trimmed by tightening or loosening it.) If set from the foremast it is called a headsail or forestaysail. If there is only one on the foremast that sail is called the jib. If more than one headsail, then jib refers only to the topmost.
  • Bowsprit. The boom projecting from the bow of a sailing vessel to which can be attached the forestaysails, also known as headsails, the leading one of which is referred to as the jib. Sometimes, during the Age of Exploration and after, a square-rigged sail would be set from it, or even from a tiny mast on it.
  • Yard refers to the spar (pole) which is attached more or less half way along its length to a mast. The portions on either side are called “yardarms.” To yards are attached the standard four sided sails of the square-rigged ship. The term also refers to the cross-spar atop a lateen sail or with the trapezoid lug sails of a lugger.
  • Lug-sails are trapezoidal four sided, attached to booms and slung to the mast much like the lateen rig of the dhow and usually set fore-and-aft
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