Running rigging

Running rigging

Running rigging is the term for the rigging of a sailing vessel that is used for raising, lowering and controlling the sails - as opposed to the standing rigging, which supports the mast and other spars.

Traditionally the running rigging was easily recognized since, for flexibility, it was not coated with tar and therefore of a lighter color than the standing rigging which was tarred for protection from weather and therefore darker or even black in color.


In centuries past, a ship's rigging was typically fashioned from rope. In the 19th century this was commonly referred to as Manilla, a reference to the origin of much good quality rope -- even if the rope (technically) did not even come from Manilla. On modern vessels, running rigging is likely to be made from polyester and other synthetic fibers, while the standing rigging is frequently made of steel cable for strength. Since the 1990s, several new synthetic fibers have become more common, particularly on racing and other high-performance sailing boats. These fibers include spectra or dyneema, vectran, and technora.

Running rigging of a modern, fore-and-aft rigged sailboat or yacht

  • barber hauls, which adjust the sheeting angle of a foresail (jib)
  • Cunninghams, which tighten the luff of a sail
  • downhauls, which lower a sail or a yard, and can be used to adjust the tension on the luff of a sail
  • guys, which control spars
  • halyards (sometimes haulyards), are used to raise sails.
  • sheets, which attach to the clews (bottom corners) of a sail to control the sail's angle to the wind. Sheets run aft (for comparison, see tacks).
  • topping lifts, which hold up booms or yards

Running rigging of a square-rigged ship

A square rigged ship requires much more running rigging, and therefore much larger crews than a modern sailboat

  • Bowlines run from the leech (outer vertical edges) of a sail forward (towards the bow) and are used to control the weather leech, keeping it taut and thus preventing it from curling back on itself. To extend its spread it was often attached to a bridle and thence to three or four bowline cringles set upon the leech.
  • Braces, are used to adjust the fore and aft angle of a yard (i.e. to rotate the yard laterally, fore and aft, around the mast).
  • Brails run from the leech of a fore-and-aft rigged sail (a spanker or lateen mizzen, for example) to the gaff and mast and serve the same function as buntlines: to haul in the sail when furling. In the this case, however, the action is more horizontal than vertical, hauling the sail forwards, toward the luff and a bit up, towards the gaff.
  • Buntlines, spaced every few feet along the front of a sail, run from a point on the mast above the yard to the foot (bottom edge) of the sail and serve to raise the foot up for shortening sail or for furling.
  • Clewlines raise the clews (bottom corners) of a square sail to the yard above, either to the outer ends of a yard or, more commonly, to near the middle of the yard, near (but not quite at) the mast. As the clewlines were hauled in, the sheets would be slacked off. This process would be reversed when setting sail. Note that the clewline from the course (main sail) was called the Clewgarnet.
  • Halyards (sometimes haulyards), are used to raise and lower the yards (and thus their name: they are the ropes on which you haul to raise the yard).
  • Leechlines run to the leech (outer vertical edges) of a sail and serve to pull the leech both in and up when furling.
  • Lifts, adjust the tilt of a yard, to raise or lower the ends off the horizontal.
  • Sheets, attach to the clews (bottom corners) of a sail to control the sail's angle to the wind. Sheets run aft (for comparison, see tacks).
  • Tacks, are used to haul the clew of a square sail forward. Tacks run forward (for comparison, see sheets).


Seamanship in the Age of Sail, John Harland, 1984 & 1985, Conway Maritime Press, an imprint of Brassey's (UK) Ltd.

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