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.







G is for Grog

Arrrhhhh, Matey, arrrrrrrh! Grog is a traditional drink of nautical folk. The standard recipe today, if and when it’s served, according to Pusser’s British Navy Rum website, is 2 parts water, 1 part rum, lime juice to taste and dark cane sugar to taste. You can also sprinkle a little cinnamon (ahh, sweet cinnamon) or nutmeg on top for that final taste of the dandy. That’s the modern version.

grog a to z

The traditional/original version is a little different and the origins are a little fuzzy, but basically it came to be in this way. On old sailing ships distilling fresh water was not practical, so enough water was taken on board in barrels to last for the length of the passage or cruise. After a time at sea, without methods of preservation like the addition of chlorine to keep it fresh, stored water became distinctly slimy, algae being ubiquitous stuff. To make the water more palatable, it was mixed with beer. As longer voyages came about, the sheer volume of stowage of the beer in addition to the water became a problem, so the beer was replaced with rum in 1655 after the conquest of Jamaica. At first they gave this to the sailor straight, but this caused disciplinary problems, especially since some sailors would hoard their ration and drink it all at once. Finally (change being difficult in all the Navy’s of the world) the rum was mixed with water and served at specified times during the day to curb the excesses of drunkeness. Lime juice was added to improve the taste, also having the effect of fighting scurvy. The sailors were served grog twice a day in the ration of a half a pint of rum to a quart of water (a 4:1 ratio of water to rum). The practice was carried over into the American Navy, except we made a change to rye whiskey as the American sailor preferred it. That is until the teetotalers barged in (wouldn’t you know they would put an end to a sailor’s fun) and ended the practice in 1862. The ration continued in the Royal Navy until July 31, 1970, now known as ‘Black Tot Day’ when the last pipe of “Up Spirits” was heard.

The name ‘grog’ most probably came from ‘Old Grog’, the nickname of Admiral Vernon because he wore a grogham cloak. Americans actually called their alcoholic ration ‘Bob Smith’, after Robert Smith who was Secretary of the Navy when the rye ration was instituted.

Traditional toasts of the Royal Navy were/are as follows:

Sunday – To absent friends

Monday – To our ships at sea

Tuesday – to our men

Wednesday – to ourselves (as no one else is likely concerned for us)

Thursday – to a bloody war (and a quick promotion)

Friday – to a willing foe and sea room

Saturday – to sweetheart and wives (may they never meet)


So in conclusion for today, let’s raise our mugs of sweet libation to the ambrosia of the seas.



B is for Boat

What is a boat? There is an old joke that a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money. As an individual who has owned boats for a number of years now (small ones) I can tell you that this old joke has a lot of truth to it, particularly if the boat has an engine. Perhaps I’d best begin by saying what the difference is between a boat and a ship. Basically you can carry a boat on a ship, but you cannot carry a ship on a boat. A little thought on that will reveal that there is a lot of leeway wiggle room for the definition, but that will do for now. Boats have been made by humans ever since somebody somewhere in the mists of time wanted to get across a body of water that might have been too wide to swim. The first ‘boats’ were probably handy logs, then the logs were tied together to make rafts, or rafts of reeds in the case of ancient Egyptians. The traditional Brazilian Jangada is in the line of these boats.

brazil boat

Other very early boats were animal skins sewed up shut, sealed with wax or tar and inflated. Other boats were made by making baskets and covering the outside with animal skins (the origin of the coracle and the Irish Curragh.)


The coracle was/is pretty much a single person boat, but the Curragh can be built much larger as evidenced by Tim Severin’s Brendan, where he re-enacted a voyage described in the writings of an Irish monk, Saint Brendan. The Brendan is made of a latticework of wood covered by oxhides to duplicate the curragh of the times.

Early boat development went from rafts, to shaped rafts, to boards mounted edge to edge with mortise and tenon joints or boards sewn together (as in the case of the Egyptian boats of the pyramids). Vikings built the most beautiful wooden vessels ever made (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) by fastening their planks together with rivets.

gokstad ship

And bear in mind that the Gokstad boat was built entirely without plans, just a shipbuilder with a vision in his mind and a sharp axe in his hand. Exceptional what a person can do with a bit of practice.

Now all of those designs were basically European, Native Americans built canoes from willow and birchbark (literally bark peeled from birch trees and sewn together and sealed with pitch) which were very serviceable for the waters around them.

canoe - birchbark

The Egyptians (inventive people that they were) made very serviceable boats from bundles of reeds. If that seems odd to you, do an internet search for Thor Heyerdahl’s ‘Ra’ expeditions. And speaking of Heyerdahl, if you’ve never read ‘Kon-Tiki’, I highly recommend you do so for it illustrates the capabilities of primitive peoples to build ocean going craft, for Heyerdahl and his cronies built a raft of balsa logs and sailed it from Peru to the South Pacific.


Heyerdahl made a documentary of the subject and won an Oscar for it. As recently as 2012 a re-enactment of the Kon-Tiki voyage was made by none other than Heyerdahl’s grandson called the Tangaroa expedition.

Why do folks do all these things? What is it that makes humans want to build boats and float upon the water? There are all kinds of theories about us humans returning to our ancient roots before we crawled out of the primordial ooze. I can but offer one reason, gained by personal experience.

It’s a hell of a lot of fun.

A is for Anchor

I’m starting this A to Z challenge with the theme of boats, as you know. I’d love to go into what a boat is, as opposed to a ship, but that will have to wait for tomorrow, as today is dedicated to letter A. (Anyone else having Sesame Street flashbacks?) In any case, the word I’ve picked for today is Anchor. There are all sorts of anchors from the simplest to the sublime. The function of all of them is to hold a boat or ship in one place. Now this is relative, because changes in tide will cause currents to reverse, so the boat will swing around its anchor point, so if you’re in a small boat gunkholing around and anchoring, please take that into consideration with regard to other boats in the area and the shore, for you don’t want to find yourself high and dry the next morning after you’ve anchored in place for the night. But very basically an anchor is a heavy thing on the end of a line or chain that rests on the bottom that keeps your boat from drifting off. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Except you have to take into account this thing called ‘scope’. That is the ratio of the depth of the water to the length of the anchor line let out. In average conditions of wind and tide a ratio of 7:1 is usually okay. That means that for every foot of depth of the water, seven feet of anchor line must be let out. Now this does not apply for really mild weather, in a rowboat on a calm lake you can get away with a lot less than that, but if you’re staying the night in salt water, go at least 7:1 and in heavier weather 10:1 is not thought of as too much.

The earliest, simplest anchors were simply relatively large rocks, around which were tied lines of some sort of fiber and lowered overboard and let down into the water. Later these rocks became more complicated and crosswise flukes were attached to them.

stone anchor

Later anchors looked much like the standard stereotypical image of an anchor we have today:

lead stock anchor 2lead stock anchor 1

These had vestiges of the stone and/or lead up at the top, mounted crosswise, where the stone and/or lead (now called a ‘stock’) could turn the flukes (those curvy things at the lower end) into the bottom so they would grab better. Later, anchors were made from steel with wooden stocks and a length of chain was attached to provide the weight necessary to hold the anchor down as well as provide additional durability against rocks and other nasty stuff on the bottom that tends to cut anchor lines. These are the anchors used during our revolution.

wooden stock anchor

Later still, anchors were made of all steel and that is the standard ‘fisherman’ design we know today.

fisherman anchor

This is a standard storm anchor for yachtsmen today and requires chain to hold it flat against the bottom. Further anchor development produced the stockless anchor made entirely of steel, using the weight of the chain alone to hold it against the bottom. These are the kinds that hold modern ships in place.

stockless anchor

Now this is not by any means a full catalogue of anchor types, just the ones representative of most of the anchors out there. Full sized ships have stockless anchors, and each link in the chain weighs hundreds of pounds. On the other end of the spectrum is the modest fisherman in his little john boat that has a coffee can filled with concrete with an eyebolt set into it tied with nylon line from the hardward store for anchor line. One of the best anchors I ever had for a small fishing boat was a sash weight. But I digress. They all do basically the same thing, that’s to hold us in place when we want to be there and not be so heavy that we can’t lift it back up into the boat when we want to leave.

Next time I’ll cover something beginning with ‘B’. Until then, fair winds.

A to Z challenge

WATER2Writers write for people to read. Unfortunately the response to our work, in this world of immediate feedback, is usually slow. It’s not like the world of the stage actor who knows they’ve done well or screwed up royally by listening to the applause or boos. So sometimes we need a little encouragement or failing that, some definite task to accomplish, a specific goal. To that end, my blogging friends Noelle Granger at SaylingAway and Elizabeth Hein at Scribbling In The Storage Room have been the good friends they are and encouraged me to sign up for the A to Z blogging challenge. The game is to post something every day except Sundays, going through the alphabet from a to z (see how this works) with a different subject every day that begins with the letter of the day. I have chosen the hard way to do this (of course, why wouldn’t I?) to use an overall theme under which the different subjects live. My theme will be Things Nautical, a general theme of things waterborne because it is close to my heart. I love the water, I love to sail (though I don’t make nearly enough time to do it). I’m also lazy, I suppose. Since things nautical are near to my heart I’ll have automatic enthusiasm for writing about it. The shindig kicks off on April 1st (a date I’m suspicious was selected on purpose as a sidelong glance of a comment) and continues until I and the others who are participating finish the alphabet 26 working day later. I hope you’ll tune in and hope you’ll enjoy. Thanks..

woodstock typewriter