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.
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.
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 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.