Portuguese muleta illustration from The Story of Sail by GS Laird Clowes and Cecil Trew. Click on the image to see some of the amazing details, including the weird sails at the stern
E Keble Chatterton’s book Fore and aft craft – the story of the fore and aft rig turns out to be a fascinating document, despite my instinctive distrust of any writer with such an extravagantly salty writing style.
Much of this book is drawn from personal observations of old paintings over the centuries, and there are some real gems here in among the old-fashioned hyperbolic rambling.
As I was reading the other day I particularly liked his analysis of the wonderful Portuguese muleta illustrated above. Here’s what he has to say – as you read it, you may like to consider that Keble Chatterton didn’t manage to include a picture of a muleta in his own book and also that this is a fairly restrained example of his writing!
‘Another characteristic to be noted is that whereas the lateen of the Orient tends to become practically a rectangular shape, the Spanish fishing craft retain their strictly triangular form. But it is the Portuguese moletta or muletta which, though a lateener by descent and nationality, does her very best to disguise herself from any other vessel afloat in any part of the world. Looked at for the first time, it seems impossible to place her in any category of sailing craft. Her sail plan seems less like that of any rational vessel than a terrible nightmare of a geometrician. Everywhere it seems all angles and squares; the number of straight lines is bewildering and apparently utterly meaningless. You would put her down at the best as a freak of an exceptional type and past the wit of any sailing man to comprehend, let alone the average layman accustomed only to pleasure craft or the picture of full-rigged ships. But it is when we begin to examine the muletta that we find out her true nature. In the main she is still a lateener, as her biggest sail shows. Forward she carries those square “water-sails” which belonged to the first full-rigged ships of the Middle Ages, and handed down to us through the Tudor and Elizabethan periods even to the early part of the nineteenth century, when our sailor-men used to call them “Jimmy Green’s”. Right aft a jigger projects something over the stern something after the manner of a West of England lugger, and thus additional after-canvas can be set. Forward of the lateen a staysail is set, which reaches from the top of the mast to the bowsprit or sometimes to the stemhead. Forward of that, again, comes the jib, and besides the lower water-sail there is also an upper square-sail which extends from a small foremast with considerable rake forward, after the manner, and a survival of, of the classical artemon which existed even in St Paul’s time.
‘What is the meaning of all this complication, do you ask? The answer is very simple. These mulettas are employed in the trawling industry, and the intention is to balance the sail of the bows against that of the stern so that they may easily regulate the speed of the ship when the trawl is down. These beamy black-hulled craft are about fifty feet in length and carry a crew of ten men, their home being the Tagus. The muletta is evidently very proud of her ancestry, for she still paints eyes on her bows, still fits those curious spikes forward above the waterline, features which are curious but interesting survivals from the time when Roman galleys used to ram each other on the waters of the Mediterranean.’
If you’re having trouble relating all this to the drawing above, you aren’t alone – but I still contend that the muleta is nevertheless a wonderful thing to contemplate.
For an earlier post on this topic, click here.
One thought on “Keble Chatterton analyses the astonishing Portuguese muleta”
This story brings to mind the book "Cod – A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World" by Mark Kurlansky. It's worthwhile reading for anybody interested in the history of boats and commercial fishing. In it, the author makes the assertion that Portuguese fishermen were catching cod on the Georgia Banks and drying them and salting their cach around Newfoundland by the early 1300's AD.