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Sculpting a Square Rigger

By Vice Admiral Ganesh Mahadevan, New Delhi August 2010

The Square Rigger has always fascinated me as one of the grandest of human achievements in engineering. I have spent hours as a Midshipman and SubLieutenant learning how to sketch one1, poring through encyclopedic references in order to make sense of the rigging. I, therefore, leapt eagerly when Mrs Madhulika Verma asked me if I could try my hand at an 8 high mural depicting a square- rigged tall ship for the newly appointed Ivory Room in the Naval Officers Mess, Kotah House, New Delhi. I figured I would make the mural in the form of a relief sculpture in GRP. GRP is Glass-Reinforced Plastic, also called Fibre-reinforced Plastic or simply Fibreglass. This was something I could execute even in a garden shed. Delhi is not the best place where such a big mural can be made by an on-again-off-again amateur sculptor. I was used to the Naval Dockyard in Vizag, where I could very easily get a set of neatly tapered lengths of wood turned on a lathe, to serve as masts and yards. In Delhi I had to improvise from odds and ends, and count on good old jugaad. The only asset I had at Delhi was a generous stretch of garden in my house on Akbar Road, where I had to set up a studio from scratch. Eventually, the monsoon season persuaded me to site it in one of the spacious verandahs adjoining the house. A relief is sculptured artwork where a carved or modeled form is created on a plane from which the main elements of the composition project. Relief sculpture involves creating an illusion of a 3D scene. Relief can be low or high. Bas-relief, ( from the Italian basso rilievo) or low relief is the quality of a projecting image where the overall depth is shallow. The background is very compressed or completely flat, as on coins and medallions. High relief (or alto relievo, from Italian) is where the most prominent elements of the composition are undercut and rendered at more than 50% in the round against the background. I decided on a bas but not too bas relief. The space available on the wall was taller than it was wide, so the mural would have to be in the upright portrait format, which meant the ship would have to present a

Any one still interested in sketching them would find an excellent guide at which is in four parts.

bow-on view which would pose tricky problems on how to place and orient the bowsprit. I scanned the internet to find a suitable model, and found a lovely painting included as part of a collection of desktop themes based on nineteenth century China tea clippers like the Cutty Sark, made famous by the whisky bearing its name. A number of composite vessels were constructed in the mid-1800s specifically for the tea trade between China and Britain. These 'tea clippers' were built for speed to achieve quick passages both out and home again. These vessels were able, on occasion, to achieve passages superior to those of modern sailing vessels. Thermopylae, for example, took 61 days from The Channel to Melbourne. Today a passage of 70 to 90 days is regarded as being very goodremembering, of course, that this is for a vessel heavily laden. Over the years a keen rivalry developed between the vessels in this trade. This culminated in the never-to-be-forgotten race in 1866 between the clippers Ariel, Taitsing, Taeping, Serica and Fiery-Cross. After a voyage lasting 102 days over three quarters of the way around the globe, the Taeping won with a mere 20 minutes lead over Ariel, with Serica third, just one and a half hours behind the leader ! There was only three days' difference in the arrival of the first and last of the five ships. Tea clippers were legends of beauty and grace, with their fine, sleek prows - so much more elegant than the rounded bows of previous generations of merchantmen - together with their massive spreads of canvas. Have a look at the picture I decided to use.

The Square rig is a generic type of sail and rigging arrangement in which the primary driving sails are carried on horizontal spars which are perpendicular, or square, to the keel of the vessel and to the masts. These spars are called yards and their tips, beyond the last stay, are called the yard-arms. A ship at least partially so rigged is called a square rigger. Any article involving the vocabulary of sailing ships can get a bit overwhelming for the lay reader. I could not help making at least some use of the terminology. I have, therefore, tried to give as succinct an explanation as possible. There are numerous references available on the internet for the interested reader, some of which I have listed at the end. A full rigged ship has three or more masts, including a foremast, mainmast and mizzen, and all masts are square rigged.

On a square rigged mast the sails had names which indicated their vertical position on the mast. The lowest square sail was the course, the next sail up the mast was called the topsail, the next the topgallant sail. Some vessels shipped a fourth sail called the royal, above the other three. Sometimes a vessel might put out studding sails which would be fixed outboard of these sails along the yards. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the topsails and topgallants were each split into upper and lower sails ; this allowed smaller crews to tend the sails and provided captains with a greater set of options in choosing which sails to set. Sails are referred to by their mast and then name, e.g., "the foremast topgallant sail", often shortened to fore t'gallant. Before embarking on my project, the first issue to be tackled was that I would need skilled help. Rear Admiral Namballa, who heads the Vizag Dockyard, kindly deputed

my trusted and skilled team of sculptors assistants2 over to Delhi for about two weeks. The first technical question I had to tackle was of how high to make the relief. The decision hinged on how much I could let the bowsprit of the ship stick out of the picture without being in the danger of getting knocked off inadvertently by a passerby. If I made the bowsprit too flat against the mural, the sails would have to be in correspondingly low relief, like on a coin or medallion - not quite how I wanted them.

The bowsprit of a sailing vessel is a pole (or spar) extending forward from the vessel's prow. It provides an anchor point for the forestay(s), allowing the foremast to be stepped farther forward on the hull. On large tall ships the bowsprit may be of considerable length and have several forestays attached. Stays are part of the standing rigging and consist of wire ropes running fore-and-aft from strong points on the hull to support the masts. To minimize the risk of the bowsprit (and any crew working on it) being buried in large waves, the bowsprit is normally angled upwards from the horizontal. I finally settled on about 2 inches of projection for the fore-course (which is the lowermost and the biggest sail on the fore-mast). This would provide a reference for everything else. The mural was to be hung on a piece of wall located in an alcove, where the viewer would be standing more or less at the centre of the picture. So the bowsprit could be pressed a bit closer to the picture and I could always play around with the fore sails to give the bowsprit an anchoring point about 3 inches out, so it wouldnt have to stick out vulnerably on its own. The second question was of how I should make the shrouds. The shrouds are pieces of standing rigging consisting of a set of strong and stiff wire ropes or steel rods which hold the masts up from side to side. They extend from points on each of the masts to planks secured outboard on the gunwales of the ship. Lengths of thin line called Ratlines are tied between the shrouds of a sailing ship to form a ladder. They are found on square rigged ships whose crews must go aloft to stow the square sails and in order to make repairs or conduct a lookout from a higher position.

HS Kumar, Nayudu, Babu Rao and Sharma.

If the ships hull was to project about 2-3 inches, the port hand shrouds would have to project even more, leaving a whole lot of ropes and lines positioned well away from the main composition, - sort of in the air. I simply decided to provide them with solid supports beneath, hoping my viewers would overlook the fudge. I would have to take similar decisions on other bits of standing and running rigging, retain this. skip that .as convenient. The Admiral Superintendent, Naval Dockyard, Mumbai Admiral Shrawat kindly made me a large wooden frame, rather like a tray, about 8 by 6, and 3 in depth. I would have to fill this tray with sculpting clay, and create the sculpture on this base. I ordered 25 bags of my favorite clay from Kolkata. By the time the Ganges reaches its mouth at the Sunderban delta, it has ground the clay finely to microscopic proportions. The clay has a wide range of plasticity depending on the amount of water added, can be used for very precise modeling, and assumes a smooth leathery consistency on the surface without the least bit of graininess. It is perhaps the finest clay in the world. It is no wonder that clay statue-making has become a part of Bengal culture. The clay available in Delhi from the Yamuna River, for example, still contains sand and larger particles. It tends to dry faster, and cracks appear on the surface of the clay even while you are working on it. Delhi is HOT in August, and I had to cater for the short drying time. The 3 depth of the tray was for this reason. I filled the tray to a depth of 2 with coconut coir soaked in a fairly wet composition of local Yamuna clay. The upper 1 was the Kolkata clay. The moisture in the lower layers would leach into the upper layer and keep it from drying.

A mural depicting a square rigger requires very precise proportioning, and the first part of my work was like engineering drawing - marking the cardinal points precisely. I stuck toothpicks in wherever a point had to be marked. I then decided to position the yardarms. A bow-on view of a square rigger meant that I had to cater for four principal layers. The sky would be layer zero. The mizzen sails would be layer one, about 2 mm above the sky and the main sails would be about 3 mm higher. The fore sails would be the focus area and I could take liberties here and make them balloon out to my satisfaction.

For the yardarms I used lengths of 5 mm copper tubing obtained from a hardware store. I shaped the ends to a taper using m-seal inserted in the ends. Successive layers of sails were catered for by burying the tubing a bit deeper in the clay. The smaller yardarms had to be thinner. I needed straight lengths of thin, well machined wood for this. The closest I could obtain were a set of drumsticks from a musical instruments shop. I got them filed manually to acceptable thicknesses and

taper. In some places I have even used pencils and lengths of TV antenna wire that were lying around in my junk box. Look at the picture above. The reference photograph on the bottom left corner was to be my permanent guide. The sea is yet to be worked on. Look at the experimental lines for the ropes of the running rigging and rough calculations scratched on the clay on the right-hand bottom. The sails were then shaped with precision. After this, once the amount of projection of the fore sails had been decided, I shaped the hull. This was the most complicated bit. How do you make a hull viewed bow-on, and yet show enough of its length, so that it looks big enough to carry such a huge spread of sail ! A lot of tricks, and plain fudging with perspective had to be resorted to. If you see the picture I used as a model, the fore sails hang limp because the stern wind is shadowed by the square sails. I decided to ignore this and make the fore sails fill out dramatically, and come out up to where the bowsprit would be fixed. The shrouds were done next. I obtained spokes of varying diameters from a bicycle repair shop and cut out different lengths to represent the shrouds. The ratlines were made by sticking bits of matchstick between the shrouds. All other running and standing rigging was made from brake cables used on bicycles, twisted twine and electrical wires. Look at the bicycle spokes awaiting cutting to size, and dont miss the pencils, and the TV antenna wire! Also, the prow is pointing differently from where I finally decided it should.

I used PVC plumbing tubing of varying diameters and lengths for the masts. The bowsprit came next. This had to be made separately, and would be attached only in the final stages when the FRP work was over. The bowsprit was also fashioned using PVC tubing and wooden dowels. What about the sea ? It is difficult to decide how to handle this quirky, dynamic thing. It took me hours of agonizing to figure out how I should do it. The pressure of the deadline compelled me to act. I had a half an hour slot before I had to turn up in my office, on the morning of the last day available, I threw caution to the winds, braced my legs, and went berserk with my thumb, all the time picturing in my mind how the sea would behave. Behind every artist, they say, should be a wife with a hammer aimed at his head, to tell him when to stop. This is the most difficult decision when to stop. Finally it is the looming deadline that resolves the matter3. One last and most important bit the figurehead. I had to decide on a figurehead that would not get dwarfed by the size of the mural or get obscured by the detail. I sculpted the bust of a fine lady in clay, cast it in polyester resin, trimmed her down to her neck, ground the line of her neck to be flush with the prow, but I would attach it only in the end, directly on to the GRP, just before the application of paint. The clay work over, the wooden base had gotten very heavy nearly 500 kg, so a secure base for the work bench has to be planned very early on. Next came plaster time. A mould would have to be made of the mural using Plaster of Paris. This is massive, dirty and tricky work. The clay model would have to be covered with a thick layer of Plaster of Paris. Plaster when solidified is like stone, but has almost no strength in tension and bending, and has to be, therefore, reinforced. We used coconut coir as local reinforcement, and about four long bamboo poles about thick as area reinforcement. These poles had to stick out of the edges of the mould so as to let us handle and carry the mould when completed, like a stretcher. The first layer on the clay has to be a fairly runny mixture of good dental plaster and water, splattered and flicked on to the model so as to enter every crevice. The later layers can be of cheaper plaster, slapped on together with the coconut coir. Eventually our mould was about 8 thick and nearly 300 kg in weight. The work was tricky because you can mix plaster with water only in small batches, or it will solidify before application. In a large size mural you require a team to mix small batches at a brisk rate and keep supplying them to the mould-making team. Look at the picture below where you can see some plaster applied in separate pieces, first, on the more complicated portions where undercuts exist. Look at the small portion separated out by a low clay wall, where the plaster will be applied next.

There is an Artists Corollary to this. No matter how pleased you feel about your work in the first instance, the lament gradually creeps in that you could and should have done better.

Our problems began here. We had four days of welcome monsoon rain in Delhi which meant that the plaster would not dry fast enough. Moist and cold plaster can cause the GRP to blister. Glare lamps had to be used to accelerate the drying. Look at the clay work below completely encased in plaster, with unused coconut coir strewn about in front. Also look at the newspapers and cardboard carton material stuck on the wall to save it from the mess that can ensue. Once ready, the mould is brought down and the clay work destroyed. A bit disconcerting this. It takes time picking out clay from every crevice, cleaning the plaster until it is a glistening offwhite in color. This is hours of painstaking work with emery paper.

The entire plaster surface is then given about 8-10 coats of wax polish, the kind you use on a car. The wax presents a barrier between any remaining moisture in the plaster from the GRP, and also acts as a parting agent to make sure the resin, which is rather like araldite, does not stick to the plaster. The plaster is polished by hand to near mirror finish. The picture below shows the inverse image of the mural on the plaster.


Now comes GRP time. We used Polyester Resin for the GRP. This resin hardens to a solid when mixed with a catalyst. While plastic resins are strong in compressive loading, they are relatively weak in tensile and bending strength and can snap easily. Glass fibers are very strong in tension but have no strength against compression. They just bend or buckle. By combining the two materials, GRP becomes a wonder material that resists both compressive and tensile forces well. The glass can be in the form of a chopped strand mat or a woven fabric. The process of making the GRP mural is as simple as brushing on a mixture of the polyester resin and catalyst over the plaster mould, and interspersing brush strokes with layers of glass fibre. One important matter. Once the mould is separated from the hardened GRP, the mural has to present a clean, smooth surface. For this, the very first layer of resin to be brushed on is the Gel coat. The polymer is mixed with a coloring agent and a suitable filler material to bring it to a gel-like consistency. We used white for the color, and white talc ( and plain old chalk powder ) for the filler. The application of GRP resin needs a great deal of quick thinking and acting. Intricate shapes have to be reproduced true, fine detail has to be faithfully picked up and the mural has to be strengthened with extra layers where it could have weak points, like bends, all in the 15 minutes or so before the resin solidifies. The GRP layer was made about a quarter inch thick. Finally, the mural has to cure. Humidity creates a problem for this, and has to be factored in. Once cured the GRP mural is separated from the mould. This a moment of truth. The process of separating the two is a somewhat destructive process. The Plaster of Paris mould has to be broken and scraped out wherever there is an undercut, as would be clear from the sketch below, and if the final result on the GRP layer is unsatisfactory, there is no choice but to repeat the entire process from the beginning clay and all.
Plaster Mould

Undercut GRP Layer Direction of removal of GRP Layer


Look at the lovely piece that came out, and the frantic effort at the finishing work. My assistants were to work flat out, even through the night. It took us two days to give finishing touches repairing blemishes, cleaning up the surface, polishing it smooth, and finally giving it a coat of white, matte paint. The paint is essential because plastics crack and craze slowly on exposure to light. You can see the final piece of work below, ready for framing. The Kotah House administration gave the mural a fine frame 9 wide with a black underlay and a brushed silver finish. The mural now has pride of place in the Ivory Room. I do think it will contribute to the finery in this room, and add a nautical flavor to the atmosphere.


For me, as always, the journey was as exciting as the destination. Look at the welcome guest below who came in to see my work, making no secret of his appreciation with a salute, in the form of his resplendent train unfurled.

Now I can, hopefully, get down to my next mural, one for the house, which I have been promising my wife for the last 25 years.

13 about the great race between the Ariel, Taitsing, Taeping, Serica and Fiery-Cross

For All the Tea in China , by Stephen Sheppard , Century Publications; 1st edition (January 31, 1988), a helzapoppin book about a fictitious race between two China tea clippers and a steamship ! This book was available in the Kotah House library where I read it.

The Clipper Ship Era By Arthur Hamilton Clark, See the following internet reference in Google books for details of the great race:,+Ta itsing,+Taeping,+Serica+and+Fiery+Cross&source=bl&ots=x9XJ7KG_PK&sig=Ng1p5svO TBZGA6aKPnN9cmwf1OY&hl=en&ei=J89kTLS3JYWivgOz9umdCg&sa=X&oi=book_res ult&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Ariel%2C%20Taitsing%2 C%20Taeping%2C%20Serica%20and%20Fiery%20Cross&f=false