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Rumba Rue

sail colors

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Now here's an interesting question for you history buffs.

Is there a reason why some ships had red sails?

(There are some tall ships here on the west coast that do also)

RumbaRue

**I've hoisted that, I've hoisted this, but the best hoist is above the waterline**

:huh:

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Thames barges always have dull red or brown sails, it's supposed to protect the canvass from the effects of sunlight.

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Thank you kindly. I finally recieved the info I wanted on another message board. I posted it here in case anyone else was interested.

RumbaRue

*In the vessels cited as examples, they are modern representations of

the various shades of traditional "barking" (one ingredient used) that

varied in colours from yellow ochre through various brick reds to dark

brown and black. Now days people use tanbark coloured sails either to

imitate the traditional colours, or because they reduce the glare when

you're squinting at them in the bright sunlight. My own 18 ft gaff

knockabout, FEATHER, has red-tanned sails.

Traditional sails were commonly made of linen flax, cotton canvas,

wool, hemp, jute, and even nettle fiber. They all tended to rot or lose

strength to one degree or another when wet. Hence, in Europe and America

(the areas I'm familiar with the history of) sails, especially on fishing

boats and small craft, tended to be "tanned" with various mixtures of

boiled bark, tallow, ochre (for colour effect) and other ingredients. "Maritime Traditions" recently ran an article from the Roskilde, Denmark

Viking ship museum on making and using wool sails (a living tradition in

Norway until a century ago) which mentions one method of tanning sails;

Edgar March in "Inshore Craft of Great Britain in the Days of Sail and Oar"

describes other traditional techniques and colours used by British

fishermen.

The significance of colour that comes to my mind would be availability

of ingredients, relative cost, and wealth of the sailor. I believe in

Caesar's time the Romans complained of the Illyrian pirates that they were

so arrogant that their oars were silvered and their sails made of silk dyed

purple (an imperial colour at the time).

So, if you're in it for the long haul, and have a small boat, tanning

your sails will make them last enough longer that it will more than pay for

itself in the savings of buying or making new sails. If you want to flash

your wealth, dying sails for show would be one way of doing it. I'd say

most pirates wouldn't bother tanning their sails, but might have captured

or stolen a small vessel that already had tanned sails. In larger vessels

it's unlikely due to the cost, and the fact that most ship-owners tend to

be cheap, and would discount the long-term cost savings of tanning versus

the probability of the sails being damaged on a long voyage due to weather

or mis-handling by a hired crew. Ships commanded by their owner, or crewed

by owner and family, as happened in small coastal traders as well as

fishing vessels would be more likely to tan their sails. It's their

investment, and they are more likely to treat the sails carefullly enough

to benefit financially in the long run.

Of course, successful pirates might dye their sails as the Illyrians

did, but in the 17th and 18th centuries they seemed to be more concerned

with personal adornment and small arms rather that tarting up their ships. After all, their ships were usually stolen, and another could be acquired

the same way. Likewise, pirates were frequently known to take sails, cloth

and other ship's stores from a capture whenever they needed them.

Glenn,

Black Douglas,

Master of the

Sloop-Boat

FEATHER

and the

Terror

of

Scow Bay

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Another reason that sails were tanned, well not really a reason, but a nice side product...camouflage. As mentioned, it was mainly small coastal traders and fishermen that had tan-bark sails. Generally, they stand out less against the land than bright white ones. Therefore, it helped to avoid some detection by either enemy warships or pirates.

On a historical note, to prove that pirates sometimes had colorful sails, Capt. Kidd once was forced to use dyed linens to patch his sails. I forgot the island he was sailing from, but he and his few loyal crew members were essentially marooned. Imagine a ship coming in with a pokadot patch in the main and a pair o' breeches in the fore!

Coastie04

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I'm scratching my head trying to remember when wa the last time I saw black sails on an old sailing ship. Modern sailboats notwithstanding.

I can say that I've seen a lifetime of red sails, such as the schooner Aurora (below) slipping by it's home port of Goat Island, Newport.

aurora1.jpg

aurora2.jpg

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I don't recall ever seeing them referenced in anything I've read.

:lol:

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Well, I don't know how long she's had them, but the Alexander Von Humboldt sports green sails. I've seen those red (or tan bark) sails a lot, and they were traditional. Cotton sails were dyed with tannins derived from tree bark, which gave them the reddish color. This was primarily to help preserve the sail, though it did also add a degree of camouflage when sailing near a sand/dirt shoreline. The red sails, especially on smaller vessels, would not stand out as much as bright white sails. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=58893 reports that the term 'tan bark' was used to describe the use of oak bark to tan animal hides. The earliest reference to that process was in 1604. However, this source did not mention the process used on sails. I'm not sure when that became popular. However, I have also seen pictures of traditional vessels with other dyed sails, both in the Mediterranean and Viking ships.

AlexanderVonHumboldt.jpg

2008-06-15-11110701147.jpg

2008-06-15-10572903824.jpg

Bayeux_Tapestry_Viking_Ship.jpg

(The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidery that is roughly 20 inches tall and 230 feet long. It tells the story of the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066)

While I realize that these are completely out of the period, it does show some colorful sails from before the GAoP, and at least tan bark sails were around after. However, I have never seen black sails except on modern boats.

Coastie

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And a few more pictures of the Viking sails.

tap3.jpg

tap20.jpg

610x.jpg

Coastie

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Well, I found a little more info on tanning sails:

"SAIL CLOTH and CORDAGE, both of which were prone to rot, were also sometimes subjected to a process similar to tanning, hence the patent for a liquor for tanning thread sail-cloth, and modes of preserving the sail-cloth or 'tanned canvas' from mildewing and rotting [Patents (1768)] and the '18 score yards tand hering lint' [inventories (1677)] listed among fishing equipment."

From: 'Tan bark - Tawed', Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820 (2007). URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=58893. Date accessed: 26 September 2008.

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OK, one picture of a historical black sail. Technically, it's dark brown, but calling it black would be understandable.

wherry-albion.jpg

wherry_sailing.jpg

I don't know what this particular sail is made out of, but the boat is the Norfolk Wherry Albion, built in 1898. She was saved as a historical cargo vessel in 1949 to preserve some tradition. I saw one website (which I can't find again, sorry) that mentioned that the black sails were a result of a preservative to ensure the long life of the sails, so since it is dark brown, I wonder if certain tree bark creates an extremely dark tan bark color? However, that is pure speculation since I don't know about that particular sail and how traditional it was. As a note, other wherrys that I've come across on the internet have canvas colored sails, except for one that had a lighter tan bark sail.

Coastie

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As someone who used to be heavily into late Dark Age/Early Medieval re-enacting... One should use a great deal of caution when citing the Bayeaux Tapestry as a colour reference for anything other than tapestry/ebroidery colours. Several panels of the Bayeaux Tapestry show blue and green horses... I think it is safe to say that there were never blue (and by blue I mean navy blue) or green horses historically, and the various colours shown on the tapestry were to show contrasting colours and decoration and not an actual depiction of what colours were a part of the scenes depicted.

There are of course other depictions of red and white striped sails being used by the Vikings though... So I'm kind of debating both sides of this evidence... :(

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I have no historical reference.

That being said, black and dark colors in general were very expensive. Add to that the natural lightning caused by sun exposure would make black sails unlikely or gray in short time.

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One should use a great deal of caution when citing the Bayeaux Tapestry as a colour reference for anything other than tapestry/ebroidery colours.

Absolutely! However, most of the sails show the same striped nature that we are all familiar with for Viking sails, which is why I added a modern replica as another visual of how it could have looked. I know that there is other evidence, but honestly I was just a little too lazy to dig it out yesterday, so I sufficed with one example and visual ones are just more fun than text (at least at first glance).

black and dark colors in general were very expensive. Add to that the natural lightning caused by sun exposure would make black sails unlikely or gray in short time

I almost mentioned this, as I remember it from a clothing thread in the past. However, as I mentioned with the 'black' sail shown on the wherry, were actually dark brown. I have seen many different shades of 'tan bark' (though, I admit, none as dark as this), and figured it would probably fade over time into a lighter reddish-brown color. But, if new tan-bark sails could be as dark as this, then calling it black would not be out of the question. I tried to convey my skepticism of this particular sail, but if it was understated, I apollogize.

Additionally, I did more research and found that the Alexander Von Humboldt, the green-sailed barque from 1906 that I posted, did not have its current rig until 1988. Before that, she was a lightship with a hull design based on sailing vessels.

Coastie

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That one shot of the "black sail" with the sun on it makes it look alot like modern oilcloth.

Bo

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Found a couple of great pictures to show the large range of tan bark sails out there.

tanbark-sails.jpg

sailcloth-colors.jpg'

These two are from a boat builder's website showing the range of sail cloth that they can offer. What I found interesting, and there may be no basis in history for this, is that the darkest sail material, which is described as almost a chocolate color, is called 'European Tanbark'. Since this was a product of the local bark available, is it possible that the pre-faded tan bark sails in certain regions could be nearly black? Just a thought.

Also, depending on the sun, they can look bright orange: Schooner Picture

Coastie

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I can recall reading in one of my books that dark or red sails were outlawed only being alowed for nobles. The reason being that when sailing at night they would not reflect the moonlight giving a tremendous advantage to somebody trying to close on somebody at night.

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I don't know if they have any historical precedence, but I'd sure not like to be handling black sails under a tropical sun. I can attest that stepping, bare footed, onto a black deck fitting will get your attention.

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Well heck, walking around on an expensive teak deck barefoot can be a bit tough on feet that haven't been made tough yet. But then from experience walking around on a wood deck (in the sun) or coral rock isn' that hard on your feet. In fact I challenge somebody to beat me running in shoes over rocky, sandy, slippery terrain with myself having the choice of barefoot or boots.

Personally I think pirates would dress up and go out on the town in shoes but when it came to pratical they would wear boots going ashore or tramping thru brush and most likely barefoot when sailing.

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this is a 1750's era description[/i]

The sails of fishing-vessels are generally tanned: lightermen, &c. use the following composition to colour and preserve their sails, viz. horse grease and tar, mixed to a proper consistance, and coloured with red or yellow ochre, with which, when heated, the sails are payed over.

The following method is also much approved, viz. the sail, being spread on the grass, is made thoroughly wet with sea-water, and then payed over, on both sides, with brown or red ochre mixed with sea-water to the consistence of cream, it is then well rubbed over, on both sides, with linseed oil. The sail may be used within 24 hours after being oiled.

The tanning of sails in the royal navy has been tried, but is not approved of.

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I think that, during the Napoleonic era, you could tell French sails from British by their color. The British sails yellowed from extensive weathering on blockade duty; the French spent a lot of time blockaded in their ports, and their sails stayed white. I think I read that in C.S. FOrester. I doubt the same would be true during the Golden Age, though.

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all this is a convincing argument that there might've been pirate ships with red or black sails! I wouldn't doubt Blackbeard in his mastery of psychological warfare might've used these techniques both for practical purposes, but also for intimidation of enemies! maybe even coating his ship's hull in tar for protection from the elements! giving the impression of a black pirate ship! Although he also might've toned it down a bit for the element of surprise too...

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