Y is for Yard, or Yardarm

a to z - SquareRig

Yard: a main horizontal member timber in the rigging of sailing ships to which a squaresail, lateensail or lugsail is bent. (the word ‘bent’ in this sailor’s jargon means ‘attached to’)

Yardarm: The main horizontal timber in the rigging of square rigged ships to which the sail is bent (i.e. a squaresail). It is a long piece of timber tapering toward the ends that is mounted on the mast at its middle.

Yes, we’re talking square-riggers here. Clipper ships, ships of the line, the Mary Rose, and even the Black Pearl of Captain Jack Sparrow. Heck, with regard to this we’re also talking the dragon ships of the Vikings, the Bremen Cog, the Bounty, Nelson’s Victory, and the most ancient shipwrecks of the Greeks and Phoenicians excavated in the Mediterranean etc., all square riggers with yards. One of the most magnificent of square rigged vessels was Preussen, a 5 masted clipper ship built of steel right at the end of the clipper ship age. Sadly, she met her end being rammed by a steamship in the fog, an oddly symbolic tragic end to the era.

a to z - Fuenfmastvollschiff-Preussen

Square-riggers are a bit more complicated to sail than a fore and aft rig. There were so many lines to memorize, that learning what the lines were and what they did was an integral part of a sailor’s training. That’s where the phrase ‘learning the ropes’ originated.

a to z - confusion 73ddec0d5fa95c34df8a4492e8b4a5af

If I might detour for just a moment, for those who are new to sailing, the lines used to do various things on a boat are named for their function. For example, the main sheet is the line that controls the main sail (because the sail looks a little like a bedsheet, I suppose, but that’s pure conjecture). The line that controls the jib sail is called the jib sheet and so on. It’s not completely consistent, as the anchor line is called the anchor line and dock lines are called dock lines, but lines controlling the sails truncate the ‘line’ at the end of the term. The reason is probably that over time commands were just made simpler that way. Now back to your regularly scheduled post.


a to z - RoyceSails600

A square rigger is a bit different than a fore and aft rig. You have a mast, a crosspiece that is the yard and a sail that hangs down from that. Attached to either end of the yard are lines called ‘braces’. The braces control the angle of the yard relative to the ship so the sail can be oriented to best advantage to the direction of the wind. Remember Errol Flynn in ‘Captain Blood’ shouting out ‘Man the braces!’? Whether the movie writers realized it or not, those are the lines that Blood was talking about. Rigging the yard is also a bit different. First thing is you have to get it up the mast. It’s supported in the middle, of course, but how do you get it up there? You do it with a line similar to the line used to haul any sail up the mast, a halyard. Yes, you haul the yard up the mast using the halyard. You guessed it, that’s where the name of that line came from, a shortening of ‘hauling yard.’

Other nautical terms or phrases come from the yard or yardarm. The phrase ‘sun is over the yardarm’ is suggested to have come from the custom aboard ship that once the sun had suck low enough over horizon and no longer struck the yardarm, the officers could retire below for their first tot of spirits for the day. Now the expression means around 5:00 pm or the end of the working day. I’ve also heard it used for lunchtime for the sun to be literally over the yardarm so it’s time to eat. The phrase ‘yardarm to yardarm’ means very close together, as when the braces are manned and the yardarms are pulled almost fore and aft to where the tips are touching. And of course, ‘hung from the yardarm’ is self-explanatory as the punishment for mutineers. Don’t you love sail talk?

Now that I’ve bungled my way through ‘y’, I think I’ll splice the main brace (have a drink), scratch my head and see what I can come up with for ‘z’ before I’m three sheets to the wind (the line let loose so the sails are flapping and the ship is out of control). Arrrrh.








W is for Wanderlust

This post is a bit more mystic, in that it covers a singular aspect of why people sail. This is not so much for power boats. I’ve heard it said (and it rings true for me) that folks who go on powerboats go with the intent of going somewhere or doing something in particular, whether it’s fishing or trawling or skiing. Sailors go with the intent of enjoying the going, not the getting somewhere. I believe that feeling is the edge of wanderlust, the simple desire to move.

a to z - wanderlust drama_adventuresinparadise_1

The first time I can remember feeling wanderlust was as a five year old child, watching the television show ‘Adventures in Paradise.’ The waving palm trees, the schooner Tiki, and the adventures of Captain Troy were all I needed to light the spark.

The term ‘wanderlust’ has its origins from the German words wander (to hike) and Lust (desire). According to Wikipedia, in modern German the use of the word Wanderlust is less common, having been replaced by Fernweh (literally ‘farsickness’), coined as an antonym to Heimweh (homesickness). I rather like that as a definition for wanderlust. ‘Farsickness’, for to me the longing feels like a sickness of sorts, similar to the ripped heart of lovesickness, but a longing for what is beyond the horizon literal and figurative.

Wanderlust is universal, it seems. Many people, disillusioned with the greed sickness of the modern commercial world, have taken off to parts unknown, many of them single-handed. There is a book by Richard Henderson, ‘Singlehanded Sailing’, that covers the techniques of handling a sailboat on your own. How to set up self-steering, various rigs, anchoring, etc are but a few of the subjects, but the opening chapters cover the huge number of people who have faced the sea alone. The reasons for singlehanding are various. From Henderson’s book, actual answers are “I proved to myself I could do it alone”, “I simply had to”, “Restlessness was nagging me”, “The best way to find peace” and my personal favorite, “Because I bloody well wanted to.”

a to z - blackburn_howard_sitting

A man named Howard Blackburn is one of the most remarkable of all singlehanders, because the man had no fingers. He lost them to the sea when fishing in a dory as a young man from a Glouscester schooner in a blinding snow storm. He lost his mittens and his fingers were frozen stiff, but before he lost all feeling, he formed them into cupped sockets so he could still row. He could not reach the mother vessel, so he struck out for Newfoundland. He was 5 days at sea in that dory, lost all his fingers, many toes and half of each thumb. After all that, he still went to sea as a singlehander and went transatlantic twice. There had to be more in his soul than just ‘Oh I’ll see if I can make it’. Wanderlust had to be part of the very fiber of his being. And speaking of transatlantic, I’m reminded of Helen Tew, an 88-year old grandmother who sailed eight thousand miles in a 26 foot gaff cutter (not alone, her sons were with her), proof positive that wanderlust is not limited to the young. Sir Francis Chichester and Sir Alex Rose were 66 and 60, respectively, when they completed their circumnavigations. I take heart from them, knowing from that that it’s never too late to start an adventure. But for me, the one to take the cake for pure wanderlust is Harry Pigeon.


1986.0034 pidgeon islander

Harry Pigeon was a landsman until relatively late in life. He was 48 when he yielded to his yearning to visit the South Seas so he built his own boat, the Islander, and studied navigation in the local public library. His first circumnavigation took four years, his second took five years. The thing is, he didn’t do it as a test of bravery, or a publicity stunt. He did it because he wanted to see more of the world. At the end of his book, he wrote: “My voyage was not undertaken for the joy of sailing alone. It was my way of seeing some interesting part of the world … any landsman who builds his own vessel and sails it alone around the world will certainly meet with some adventures, so I shall offer no apology for my own voyage. Those days were the freest and the happiest of my life.”

So perhaps that’s what wanderlust is really about, freedom. When Bernard Moitessier abandoned the around the world race when he had the thing won, his communique to his Sunday Times contact read: “Dear Robert: The Horn was rounded February 5, and today is March 18. I am continuing non-stop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.”

The literal, physical act of going is freedom, of ever seeing new things, meeting new people, breathing deep of what the world has to give, up to the last moment when we shuffle off this mortal coil, the absolute refusal to die before our time.


“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

(Dylan Thomas)


So wanderlust, distilled to its core, is lust for freedom and the deeply branded belief that it’s never too late for wonders. May we all, in our own way, be thoroughly infected by it.


K is for Ketch


No, not kvetch, no whining allowed on board this post. KETCH. A ketch is a sailboat type. It is a fore and aft rig (as opposed to the clipper ship square riggers) with two masts, a main and a mizzen. This has the advantage of breaking up the sail area into smaller sails that can be handled more easily. The question most often I hear asked is ‘what is the difference between a ketch and a yawl?’ It is a fair question. The comedic answer is that a ketch is a boat and ‘yawl’ is the southern contraction for ‘you all’ (chortle chortle). The real answer is that a ketch has the mizzen mast (that’s the one aft) in front of the rudder post and a yawl has the mizzen mast in the back of the rudder post. Practically speaking, that means that the main and mizzen sails on a ketch are more even in size than in a yawl.

This is a yawl:


This is a ketch:

ketch 42Ketch

See? Big difference. Generally speaking for boats of the same size the main sail on a yawl will be larger than that of a ketch. The advantage to a ketch, as I understand it, is not only the aforementioned smaller sail size (making it easier for persons of less than burly builds to handle said sails), but a great ability to balance the sail rig, which makes it easier for self-steering arrangements, which in turn makes single-handing the boat easier. Proof positive is the fairly recent achievement of an amazing young woman by the name of Laura Dekker, who is now the youngest person to ever sail around the world alone. She did it in a 37 foot ketch named ‘Guppy.’

Laura Dekker Guppy

She began her voyage when she was fourteen and completed it when she was sixteen. Granted, the young lady was born on a boat, spent the first five years of her life on board the sailing vessel of her parents and is an exceptional sailor, a sea gypsy in the tradition of Bernard Moitessier. Check out her website: http://www.lauradekker.nl/English/Home.html and her book ‘One Girl, One Dream.’

But the point is made that if properly motivated and properly trained, even a fourteen year old girl can handle a 37 foot yacht with a ketch rig and sail it around the world. Pretty amazing.

Ketch ya’ll later. (You know I had to say it.)

J is for Jib


Firstly and simply, a jib is the triangular sail on the front (the bow) of a sailing vessel. The bottom corner, or tack, is fastened at the bow or the bowsprit if the vessel has one. The function of the jib is not just for jaunty appearance or to provide more sail area, but to smooth the flow of air on the back side of the mainsail. Again, not to get too complicated about it, when a sailboat is going against the wind, it’s the effect of the airflow on the back side of the mainsail that draws the boat through the water.

air flow 1

In the figure, the flow to the right of the sail causes a low pressure area. Think of being in the shower with a shower curtain. When you turn the water on, the flow of water causes a flow of air on the inside of the shower curtain. That airflow draws the curtain in on you. It’s maddening, especially if you’re in a hurry. So, in the figure above, the flow on the left side of the said is pushing, but the flow to the right side is pulling, just like that shower curtain. Now you put a jib on the boat.

air flow 2

The jib smoothes the flow of air on the backside of the sail, making it much more efficient. Jibs are really cool that way. It increases the power of the sails but also enables the boat to point a little further into the wind.

There are, as you might imagine, many kinds of jibs, especially on classic sailing ships. Working from the inside out, there’s the staysail (still a jib), the inner jib, the outer jib and the flying jib.


In addition there are storm jibs (much smaller for strong winds), Genoa jibs (usually on smaller vessels that have fore-and-aft rigs. Genoas can be great huge things that overlap the main sail, very efficient and wonderful in light air), and working jibs.

In the olden days of sail there were many more types. Remember the phrase ‘Arrh, Captain, I don’t like the cut of his jib’ from swashbuckling movies? In those days of sail, the shape of jibs of all types in the royal navy were very clearly defined, manufactured by military specification if you will. Pirates, not being limited by military specifications (‘they’re more like guidelines really.’) and/or orders, were free to experiment with different cuts of sails to increase their efficiency and did so frequently. So when a merchant ship was being approached by another ship at sea (ostensibly benign) it was a good idea to look at the cut of their sails to have an idea if the other vessel was play-acting and they might well be attacked by pirates.



E is for Engine

tohatsu outboardtohatsu 2013_6hp_3

This subject is timely for me right now, because I’m finally in the process of looking around for an outboard engine to provide auxiliary power for my sailing skiff. I know, I’m a blow-boater and have called power boats ‘stinkpots’ more than once in my life, but now I’m thinking about sailing on bigger water on the sounds of North Carolina and that makes it a safety issue. Years ago I had a tiny little outboard to power a daysailer sailboat. At the time all I could afford was a rebuilt Sears Gamefisher with a whopping 1.2 horsepower. No, that 1.2 hp is not a misprint. It ran well but sounded somewhat like a kazoo with hemorrhoids and was vastly underpowered for anything but very calm conditions. The boat I have now is a little heavier and I’m going to be sailing on bigger water so an increase in horsepower and dependability is essential. I’ve settled on one, I think, but the selection process has been long and that is as it should be.

Engine selection should be based on what the boat is or might be used for. An outboard engine to power a small sailing skiff like mine to get me off the water when it’s glassy calm and I see black storm clouds on the horizon will be very different from an inboard auxiliary to power a 150 foot yacht commanded by the rich and shameless. An old rule of thumb is that the engine should be powerful enough to give a speed of at least 2 knots (that’s 2 nautical miles per hour) against a Force 5 wind with the weather shore at least 2 miles distant. A simple old formula for estimating that speed in knots is to take the square root in horsepower, multiply that by 15 and divide by the beam (that’s the width) of the boat in feet. That is for a displacement hull (one that goes through the water), not a planing hull (one that rides on top).

One final word of advice on boat engines, and this goes to inboard engines especially, be sure to check the oil level every time before you run it. Just like a car, if the level is low you may well have a leak and that could lead to engine seizure. But for a boat engine if the level is high, it’s entirely possible that water has found its way into the oil sump. In that case you could crack the cylinder head, break a piston or both, just by cranking it.

All in all, marine engines are pretty durable things, they have to be in order to do what they do. Just be certain to perform your preventative maintenance (PMs), including flushing the engine to get the salt out of it and mothballing procedures at the end of the season so you won’t have to pull your arm out of the socket cranking it the next year.

Happy boating!


C is for Circumnavigation

The literal definition of circumnavigation is a journey around the earth. According to John Vigor, a rule of thumb is that the route must encompass two points opposite each other on the surface of the globe. It is not literally possible to stick to the equator in a boat, and the northwest passage is only navigable by boats of extraordinary capabilities (they must be able to withstand extreme cold and perhaps being frozen in ice, as in ‘Fram’) so when one considers the ‘usual’ route for circumnavigators it is the southern route where the sailors must double the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa) and Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America). Both of these capes are fraught with danger, as the winds are always high and the seas are always rough as the southerly latitudes are reached. I’m sure you’ve heard the term the ‘Roaring Forties’ and perhaps even the ‘Screaming Sixties’ but that does not refer to the 1940s nor the 1960s (though they might be referred to in jest). No, those terms refer to numbers of latitude. The Equator is the horizontal line of zero degrees latitude and as one moves further north or south the numbers increase until ninety degrees at the poles. The terms ‘Roaring Forties’ and ‘Screaming Sixties’ refer to the unending sound of wind tearing through the rigging that sailors hear in those regions of the earth. Intrepid indeed are those who choose to face those winds and seas and braver still are those who do it alone.

The first recorded solo circumnavigation was by Joshua Slocum in his ‘Spray’.

slocums spray

Spray was a gaff-rigged oyster sloop Slocum found that was going to seed in a pasture. He rebuilt her and sailed her around the world, leaving in April of 1895 and returning more than three years later in June of 1898. He wrote about it in his book ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’, which is a classic of sea literature.

He was the first but nowhere near the last, followed by Harry Pidgeon and Sir Francis Chichester. But to me, the most incredible circumnavigation solo was by Bernard Moitessier.

moitessier joshua

In 1968 Moitessier was entered in the first organized non-stop solo race around the world, the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. He was the fastest, the best and the hot favorite to win as all the other sailors and their vessels but one (Robin Knox-Johnson) had either dropped out, sank or committed suicide. On the homeward leg Moitessier decided that the money, the publicity and inherent materialism of the race were not the reasons that he sailed and to continue to participate in it was contrary to the personal values he held dear. Therefore this vagabond sea creature decided when he was in the Atlantic on the homeward leg, victory within his grasp, to alter course and keep sailing. He sling-shotted a message onto the deck of a passing freighter for his London Times correspondent, saying: “parce que je suis heureux en mer et peut-être pour sauver mon ame” (“because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul”). He completed another two-thirds circumnavigation for a total of 37,455 nautical miles in 10 months and ended up in Tahiti. He wrote about it in his book ‘The Long Way.’

I have dreamed of sailing around the world, after reading the books of Slocum, Robin Graham, Moitessier, and more recently the youngest to sail around the world alone, a remarkable 14 year old girl (she finished when she was 16) named Laura Dekker. I have dreamed of it, but unfortunately a deadly combination of extreme mal de mer and claustrophobia have prevented me. A friend years ago took me with him on a passage to Bermuda and I found that after a few days at sea there is a mental shift, that the boat becomes not so much a mode of transport as it is a domicile. After those few days I could not sit still. In the middle of all the light and space in the world, those limiting few feet of deck and the simple need to take a walk drove me mad. So I am not a creature of the open ocean like the sea gypsy Moitessier, but I am glad that such people exist in the world to show us what is possible with a bit of knowledge, faith and sweat.