Spritsails and Goose Wings

A shad boat flying its goose wing. Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution

A shad boat flying its goose wing. Courtesy, Smithsonian Institution

This is the 9th part of my special series “The Story of Shad Boats.” The series features Earl Willis, Jr. and Mike Alford’s extraordinary journey to document the history of North Carolina’s “state boat.” 

As I grew more familiar with Earl and Mike’s research, I also learned that the shad boat’s sailing rig was another of its interesting features.

Shad boats carried what was called a spritsail (pronounced “spreet” sail) rig, a common rig for small workboats in that day and one that was named for its main sail.

A spritsail is a four-sided, fore-and-aft sail that is supported at its highest point by the mast and a diagonally running spar known as the sprit.

Drawing of a shad boat's sail plan (by Mike Alford).

Drawing of a shad boat’s sail plan (by Mike Alford).

A sprit rig was a common rig for small workboats.  But in addition to the basic rig—jib and mainsail—shad boat captains also employed a topsail that they called a “goose wing.”

Some shad boats also carried a second jib when setting a topsail, called a flying jib, that fishermen probably only used when they were racing or traveling long distances, such as when they sailed from Wanchese to Elizabeth City or Engelhard.

The shad boat’s rig was well suited to fishing.  A sprit mainsail was loose footed (meaning it had no boom) and no shrouds were necessary to support the mast, so fishermen had plenty of room to work without having to worry about a boom or shrouds getting in the way.

The topsail, or goose wing, was the rig’s very unusual aspect.  According to the Smithsonian’s Howard Chappelle, in fact, the shad boat’s topsail was unique among small watercraft in the U.S.  Mike and Earl agree it was one of the boat’s most distinctive features.

Hauled in or let out by a separate sheet that ran from the topsail sprit to a point on the transom, the topsail could be raised when needed.

What circumstances led builders to incorporate the topsail into the boat’s design is not 100% clear, but fishermen clearly set their goose wings mainly in rough weather.

According to Vernon Gaskill and other shad boat builders with whom Earl visited, fishermen in a good blow would take down the spritsail and sail with just the goose wing and jib.

Gaskill told Earl that you really knew it was blowing hard if you saw a shad boat sailing with just its goose wing.

I’m not sure if this is applicable to shad boats generally, but another of Earl’s informants, John Herbert, a commercial fisherman on Hatteras Island, recalled that a shad boat’s mast was typically 10 to 12 feet long and the spritsail generally required 75-85 yards of canvas.

Mr. Herbert was 85 years old when he and Earl got together and discussed shad boats in 1982. When he was younger, he had owned one of Hatteras Island’s two shad boats built by Capt. Nal Midyette, the master builder in Engelhard.

Herbert’s was a relatively small, 22 ft., 8-inch shad boat. She had a fine long life, but was lying abandoned in the Rodanthe marshes by the 1980s when Earl and Mike visited her.

The boat had known its share of glory, however. Like most Nal Midyette-built shad boats, she had been a fast sailor in her day. Mr. Herbert remembered that she had been a formidable competitor in the local shad boat races and that he had won many a race with her.

The old fisherman also recalled that his grandfather, James W. Meekins, made the sails for Hatteras Island’s shad boats.


A  quick tale: Vernon Gaskill told Earl this story in order to illustrate the good reputation that shad boats earned for handling wintry weather and rough seas.

Shad boats tied up at sound side wharf, Old Nags Head, ca. 1900. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Shad boats tied up at sound side wharf, Old Nags Head, ca. 1900. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

According to Mr. Gaskill, a pair of brothers, Thomas and Sam Baum, had the reputation as the toughest, hardest working fishermen on Roanoke Island.

Even when rough weather kept the island’s other fishermen at home, Thomas and Sam Baum and their mates would take their shad boats out into the local sounds to tend their nets.

Early one morning, when the winds were blowing something fierce, Tom Baum and his mate, Bill Dough, still raised the sails on Tom’s shad boat, the Bob Mullen, and headed out to check their nets.

The Bob Mullen was a 27-ft-long shad boat built as a stake boat by Capt. Nal Midyette in Engelhard.

I guess Tom Baum and Bill Dough assumed that other fishermen would be going out, too.

As the wind picked up and the waves got higher, Baum got curious about the island’s other fishing boats.

Over the roar of wind and waves, he shouted to Dough, “Bill, look to the loo’ard [leeward] and tell me how many boats you see!”

As the story goes, Bill Dough stopped what he was doing and scanned the horizon in every direction. Then he replied, “Capt. Tom, there ain’t any boats—only steamships, and they’re looking for harbor!”

The old timers around Roanoke Island loved that story. It said a great deal about Tom Baum and Bill Dough, but mostly they liked the story because it said a great deal about shad boats.

I can just imagine the old guys telling that story on the docks at Wanchese or Mill Landing. I expect they would have nodded and somebody would have said, speaking of the Bob Mullen, “Now that was a smart boat.”

On that note, I’ll finish up this post. Next time I’ll be exploring a “proggin’ life” and looking closely at the many different ways that watermen used their shad boats when they weren’t shad fishing.

One thought on “Spritsails and Goose Wings

  1. Hello David. Had not meant to be out of touch for so long but I had undertaken an old writing project and also gotten wrapped up in old sharpie research with David Bennett who has the position at the maritime museum formerly occupied by someone I knew as “me”. Two Davids, not to mention my own son as a third, can be tricky to juggle for an old octogenarian brain.  Anyway, your last installments did not give me cause to raise issues. I think they work just fine. I nearly always, or at least sometimes, find myself somewhat dissatisfied when technical issues are rephrased in nontechnical language.  But that is just an issue with myself and has “gone by the boards”. (nautical speak for “gone overboard” or “no longer an issue”). Saw the Tom Earnhardt show (second time) the other night with you and the canals. Good job. Super.

    Liked by 1 person

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