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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 fore-mast to be stepped farther forward on the hull.
The word bowsprit is thought to originate from the Middle Low German word bōchsprēt - bōch meaning bow and sprēt meaning pole. Early ocean-going vessels tended to tilt the bowsprit, known in centuries past also as a boltsprit, at a high angle, and hung one or two square spritsails from yards. In the 17th century and early 18th century a vertical sprit topmast was added near the end of the bowsprit and another square sail added to it; this was not a particularly successful design however, the mast tending to carry away in heavy weather. Fore-and-aft sails known as jibs hung from the stays proved more useful for speed and maneuvering, and the basic bowsprit was lengthened with a jibboom and then even further with a flying jibboom, resulting in bowsprits of tremendous length, up to 30 metres total.
On smaller vessels, where the bowsprit is not used for stowing sails, it is often horizontal. Bowsprits are rare on modern yachts, the forestay merely running down to the tip of the bow, though they were typical of traditional Bermudian design; the Bermuda rig having become the most common yacht rig during the 20th Century. On some modern racing yachts and dinghies, the bowsprit is retractable and primarily used to fly an asymmetrical spinnaker.
The very end of the bowsprit is traditionally painted white on tall ships, unless the ship in question has ventured into either the Arctic or Antarctic circles, in which case it is painted blue (i.e. bluenose).
On large tall ships the bowsprit may be a considerable length and have several forestays attached. When not in use the headsails are stowed by being tied onto the bowsprit. The crew must then work out on the bowsprit to stow or prepare the sails. To minimise 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.
The bowsprit has an ominous nickname widowmaker; maintaining the headsails upon the bowsprit was very dangerous business, especially on rough or stormy seas.
Some hang gliders use a bowsprit, rather than a spar to spread their wings. The bowsprit is formed by extending the keel tube about a metre beyond the leading edge of the wing. In 1879 a patent in England by F. W. Brearey was filed (followed by U.S. patenting in numbers 234947 and 320042 ) that taught bowsprit structure for flying machines. In the modern mid-1900s renaissance in hang gliding a Dial Soap TV commercial featured in 1973 a bowsprit cross-sparless hang glider. Other examples of bowsprit hang gliders were exampled in the gliders manufactured by Bautek in the 1980s.
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