The Rigging Restoration of Glenlee by Jamie White – Rigging Master

~ Tale of the Spars – the Rigging Restoration of the barque Glenlee ~

look in Glenlee photographs for rigging restoration photographs

In August of 1997 while I was employed as lead rigger aboard Balclutha (Clydebuilt 1886), The Clyde Maritime Trust, through Mr. Hamish Hardie, Chairman of the Glenlee Ship Committee, asked me to lead the rigging restoration of Glenlee and train a crew of Glaswegians.  

In February 1998, I spent 2 weeks in Glasgow hiring a crew, building a rigging loft, and starting to train the crew before returning to San Francisco to finish the foremast rigging restoration on Balclutha.  While everyone learned basic marlinespike seamanship (knots, bends, hitches) and how to worm, parcel and serve, only a couple learned how to splice wire and clap on wire seizings.  There was not enough time to train everyone – that would have to wait until my return in 6 weeks.  The wire rope splicing practice continued after my return to San Francisco thanks to FedEx.  Every week for the next 6 weeks until I returned full time to the project, I received parcels from FedEx filled with practice wire eye splices for my critiquing.  In late April 1998, I returned to Glasgow for the duration of the rigging restoration and began in earnest an intense training program for the crew on how to rig a barque. 

Many aspects of Glenlee’s rig and hull were changed or modified when she sailed as Clarastella and Galatea.  This included attaching a jibboom over the existing spike bowsprit, adding a flying bridge spanning the poop deck which changed the location or leads of a lot of main mast rigging, raising the deck cringle of the main stay to a fitting above the spider band on the fore mast while leaving the main topmast stay at the deck lugs on either side of the foremast, adding boomkins for the main braces, and adding additional and increasing the size of deckhouses, amongst many others. Every one of these changes altered the original rigging.  With every modification, the ship moved farther and farther from her halcyon days under the Red Duster.

The first step in the rigging restoration was to determine how to change the many modifications made to return the vessel to her Cape Horn appearance.  Most of the deck fitting positions and corresponding angles for a lot of the running rigging were altered when larger deckhouses, life rafts, main brace boomkins, etc. were added. 

The Islamount ex Glenlee and Janna ex Lindley (sister ship to Glenlee) ship photos helped tremendously and were my primary resources.  From the photos, details began to emerge like original locations of the main yard and main upper and lower topsail brace blocks.  Did Glenlee use hooks, shackles, or sister hooks on brace blocks, downhaul lead blocks and halyards?  What style of blocks were used on Glenlee and did they have forged eyes or open bails?  Were Glenlee’s blocks oiled, varnished, or painted?  Was Glenlee’s standing rigging served full length? The photos answered all of these questions.

Before the masts and spars could be installed, the spars had to be re-joined. The Spanish had removed the spars and rigging when they rigged her down into a hulk.  After the Clyde Maritime Trust, purchased her – arrangements were made to load the cut-up rigging and spars into 40-foot containers and ship them to Scotland.  Any spar that was longer than 40 feet was further cut down to fit into the container.  This meant many spars were cut into 3 or more sections and would need to be put back together again.  This was accomplished by welding an inner sleeve and butting the sections together using 8 welding passes.  All the welds were later inspected and passed by Lloyd’s of London inspectors.  

Many missing or damaged fittings had to be designed and fabricated.  Some of these were the “tops” or the platform on the lower mast, topmast cross trees, yard truss bows and cranes, and the heavy cap irons that supported the topmasts.  Most of the missing items were flame-cut from billets of steel with fine results.  Fortunately, we usually had at least half of the missing item to make a pattern.  

An interesting challenge of the rig design was duplicating the angle of the replacement chain plates.   The chain plates have two angles – the rake aft and the pitch inboard.  Finding the correct angle both fore and aft as well as how far to angle the replacement chain plates inboard was one of the most difficult tasks.  I used the sail plan of Galatea and a 15′ lofting string on a tripod on deck which allowed me to visualize the angle each chain plate must scribe.  Remember there were no masts stepped, which would have made the whole exercise rudimentary and much more simple.

We stepped all three masts on July 16, 1998.  The fore mast was lifted off the quay at 9:50 in the morning and was in place 35 minutes later at 10:25. The main mast followed and after lunch we stepped the mizzen mast.  The two things I remember most about stepping the masts were the size or stand of the tides in Glasgow and having the event filmed live on the BBC.  The difference between high and low tide was such that the crane operator had to either spool out wire or take up continually to keep ahead of the rising or falling water.  This would not have been a problem with a floating crane, but with a mast that weighed over nine tons, the communication between me and the crane operator had to be spot on to prevent the mast from not landing fully on the keel or landing too soon causing it to lean over on a rising tide before the mast wedges could be driven home.  I think finding out that the mast stepping was going to be on “live” television gave me pause as only one of the crew had ever stepped a mast on a sailing ship.  I should not have worried for the crew performed flawlessly.

After the masts were in place, the rest of the rigging was installed.  This involved a lot of effort and material.  Some of the gear and fittings used in the rigging restoration of Glenlee were:

  • Over 16,000 feet of wire rope
  • 12,000 feet of fiber cordage
  • 15,000 feet of seizing wire
  • 13 full hides of leather
  • 96 bottle screws
  • 550 shackles
  • Over 300 thimbles
  • Almost 200 wooden blocks
  • 426 wire seizings
  • 265 wire rope eye splices 
  • Over 1,100 fiber cordage eye splices

It is difficult to condense such a large job into a thousand or so words, but there are two stories which nicely bookend the Glenlee rigging job.  My first day at Glenlee I met Charlie MacIntyre, who was a longtime volunteer and a retired boss rigger from John Brown shipyard and oversaw the re-rigging the RMS Queen Mary after WWII.   Charlie’s first words to me were “so you’re the Yank that they sent to rig my ship”.  After hearing this, I thought that this was going to be a long job, but Charlie was only having a go and became a friend and great resource of knowledge and encouragement, as many of the volunteers did in the course of the job.  Towards the end of the job, all of the standing rigging was slathered with Stockholm tar to weatherproof it – this is what gives the ship its ambrosial fragrance.  The tar has a very smoky scent and one of the rigging crew did not change out of his work clothes before riding the Glasgow subway home.  After several minutes the train stopped with the driver racing through the cars trying to find the fire! 

I treasure my time spent in Glasgow and the friendships I gained.  The rigging of Glenlee is my proudest achievement, and I remain grateful for the opportunity to participate in this wonderful project.

Fair leads,

Jamie White