A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Sailors Aloft

Anchor Icon

The “engines” that drove Constitution forward were her sails: massive canvas sheets, some as big as a basketball court. Controlling them was the job of the topmen. Their work demanded strength, skill, and a head for heights. They climbed the rigging in all weather, often in darkness, and as high as 175 feet above the deck. The sails they set (spread out) or reefed and furled (pulled in) could weigh half a ton even when dry, and twice that when soaked with rain.


100 feet in the air

Using this primary source illustration as inspiration, ask students to write a descriptive scene that explores what the sailors may have been feeling. Clicking through the “Sailors Aloft” scene may also give them inspiration with sound effects and bits of conversation between the sailors. Prompt them to think of what the sailors might have seen on the decks below, smelled or tasted in the ocean air, heard around them, or felt as they strained against the wind and pulled up a thousand pounds of wet canvas.

Primary Source: “Reefing topsails, 1832”


Learn the Ropes!

To a sailor, knots are a vital tool and each type of knot accomplished a different task. In order to “shorten sail,” or bring up the sail cloth, sailors had to learn and practice the reef knot and then be able to tie it while aloft. Let your students take a hand at this task; use short pieces of rope or their shoelaces and use these directions to have them “learn the ropes.”

Activity: Knots: Reef, Bowline, and the Figure Eight


Sail Log Book

In 1824 Constitution’s First Lieutenant Elie Vallette drew each sailor’s exact position aloft in his log book. When the officer in charge ordered, “All hands to shorten sail,” each of these men scampered to their assigned position to heft in the heavy canvas sails. By studying the image, can your students tell how many sailors were needed to take in each sail? For lesson plans including math, tables, and force, visit Acres of Sail, Miles of Rigging from All Hands on Deck.

Primary Source: Elie Vallette log book/station bill of 1827-1828