Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Sheet

When I saw Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in the theater a not uncommon misconception came up in the audience during the first engagement between Surprise and Acheron. Jack Aubrey gave an order regarding “tacks and sheets” and the gentleman behind me repeated the words as a question. His lady companion, in rather a self-assured manner, said: “He means the sails.” And that was the end of that.


In fact, Jack was not referring to the sails at all, but to a specific part of their mechanism. A sheet is a length of rope or cable attached to one or both of the lower corners of a sail. They are then fastened to a yard to keep the clue, as the corner is known, down and allow the sail to do its job of catching the wind as a means of propulsion. When sailing with a side wind, certain types of a ship’s sails are held down on one side with a tack (which is almost always made of rope) and the other with a sheet. The common usage is to put a tack to windward and a sheet to leeward. While tacks are disused in specific situations (when running before the wind, for instance) all sails’ are held down by at least one sheet while in use.

Sheet may refer to other items aboard us as well. A sheet-anchor is one of the two smaller anchors held just behind (abaft) the foremast. The other is known as a spare. These are used in harbor and particularly in dirty weather to take some of the strain off the bow, where the two main anchors are generally attached. Use of hemp cable almost exclusively for sheet and spare anchors helps as well, as it is more elastic than rope made of some other materials.

A sheet bend is a double hitch in a sheet used for connecting two pieces of sheet together to elongate them. A sheet cable is the hempen rope spoken of before used with a sheet and spare anchor, particularly in deep water.

Sheet copper is that rolled out into thin sheets for coating – or “coppering” – the bottom of a wooden ship to deter worms, seaweeds, barnacles, etc. A sheet-fish is a type found in northern European lakes that was considered a bit of a delicacy by sailors, being as it is not of the salt water varieties that they were used to.

Sheet home! can be an order to extend the sheets as far out on the yards as possible in order to fill them with an advantages wind. It can also refer to driving something home as in hitting a nail with a hammer.

Finally, of course, we have all heard of someone being “three sheets to the wind”. The addition of “three” is a lubberly misunderstanding of what a sheet is. A sheet in the wind, as the saying went at sea, meant that a sailor was half-drunk as a sail was only half-useful if one sheet came loose allowing that corner to flap in rather than catch the breeze.

Happy Saturday, Brethren. I’m for a mug of grog, and maybe even a sheet in the wind.

Header: A Sheet to the Wind by Don Maitz

6 comments:

Luiz said...

so let's have a toast for the seven seas

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Luiz! I am raising my glass right now; Huzzah!

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I kind of figured you were going to get to that expression at the end. Being a lubberly sort myself, it's one that I like, but at least now I have a better appreciation for where it comes from and what it actually means.

Thankee and cheers, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Plus, Maitz's take on it is really awesome! Cheers!

Charles L. Wallace said...

Sheet home!
Modern equivalent = "Liberty Turns"
haha :-) Good stuff, Pauline.

Oh, and hitting the pub for a pint o' grog? Splice the mainbrace, aye!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles and thankee! And now it's Monday morning, 7:28 AM and I'm wishing I'd been a bit more temperate last night... So it goes.