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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Putting the Old Woman to Work

Afloat on a Sea of Words, Part 2 —
Sticks, Strings, and Rags

By Farwell Forrest

March 28, 2006

A Note to the Reader  This is the fourth article in a series. The first is titled "A Short History of Canoe Sailing," and that's more or less what it is, too. The second is "Ways to Harness the Wind." It's a look at how paddlers can become part-time sailors without having to mortgage their homes or get a second job. And the third? That's Part 1 of "Afloat on a Sea of Words." It begins our exploration of the language of sailing. Needless to say, I recommend them all.

I'll cut right to the chase. If you aren't sure you want to read this article, take a look at the first "Afloat on a Sea of Words" and make up your mind then. On the other hand, if you already know you're interested in stocking your ditty bag with sailor's words, you've come to the right place. Read on. But don't expect an alphabetic glossary. You may remember that I'm following the time-honored journalist's checklist in organizing this series: Who? What? When? Where? How? Important questions all. The last time out we asked Who? and I did my best to give an answer that shed a little light on the division of responsibilities in sailing a small boat. Now it's time to look at What? Be warned, though: this is no easy task. Every stick, string, and rag on a sailboat has a proper name, as do most of their component parts. So whenever you ask an old salt "What's that?" expect to hear a new word in reply. Many of these will be defined in the paragraphs to follow, but don't be surprised if you're still left with more questions than answers at the end. Be patient. You're learning a new language, one word at a time. It's bound to be a slow process. If you like the idea of putting the Old Woman to work for you, though — and how else can a flatwater boater get a free ride? — it's well worth the effort.

Luckily, acquiring a sailor's vocabulary won't always be hard sailing, at least not in the beginning. We'll start with the easy stuff first. A sailing canoe is still a canoe, after all. It has a bow and a stern, a bilge and a deck (two decks, probably), gunwales and thwarts. It also has a hull, and the hull has a keel, or at least a keel line, along with tumblehome or flare, as well as some degree of rocker . These are all sailor's words, but they mean what canoeists and kayakers expect them to mean. No problem so far, eh? (There is a problem? OK. Take time to read "Naming of Parts: Canoes" and "Naming of Parts: Kayaks." Then come back here.) The real trouble begins when you start gazing up at all those unfamiliar sticks, strings, and…


Or sails, to give them their proper name. These have to come first, I think. After all, a sailing canoe has to have at least one sail, right? If it doesn't, it's not a sailing canoe. Of course, it can also have two sails, or even more. Let's stick to one- and two-sail rigs for now. That's one mast and one (or two) fore-and-aft sails. We'll leave miniature square riggers to the bathtub admirals. (A square sail is suspended from a yard, which pivots at or near its midpoint on a mast. A fore-and-aft sail is attached at its leading edge to a mast or stay.) Fore-and-aft sails are far more efficient when sailing into the wind, and unless you only want to go where the wind blows you, this is important. Most modern fore-and-aft sails are triangular: they have three points and three edges. The topmost point is the head — no problem there, I guess — while the foremost point is the tack. If it helps, think of this as the point that's "tacked" to the mast, boom, or stay. And the third point, the aftmost point? That's the clew. By the way, it doesn't matter if the sail in question is a foresail (a jib, in other words), or a mainsail. The three points have the same names in both instances.

Sail Talk

Now let's look at the edges of a three-sided sail. The bottom edge is the foot. That makes sense, doesn't it? But wait. The leading edge is the luff, and the trailing edge is the leech. If you sail too close to the wind — that is, if the bow of your boat points too near the direction from which the wind is blowing — the luff of your mainsail will start to quiver. Keep rounding up (i.e., turning into the wind) and the luff will shake. Then it will flap, and unless you fall off the wind in a hurry, you'll find yourself dead in the water. This is known, logically enough, as "luffing," and it's a great way to go nowhere fast.

Getting the hang of it? Good. Things are about to get more complicated. Not all fore-and-aft sails are triangular. A minority are four-sided. You're most likely to find these on gaff, gunter, sprit, or lug rigs. They were once common on small craft. Now they're rare, but they still crop up from time to time, particularly on older boats. In any case, four-sided mains have one more point and one more edge than their triangular ("jib-headed") counterparts. Clew, foot, tack, luff, and leech stay the same. So far, so good. But the head is no longer a point. It's now the topmost edge. And the two top points? The forward one is the throat, while the aft is called the peak. Why? It's almost always the higher of the two, that's why.

Many sails also have one or more lines of ties across their bellies. These help you make a big sail smaller in a high wind. This is called reefing the sail, and a very good idea it is, too. Not surprisingly, the ties are called reef points.

So much for our rags. On to the…


Among sailors, these are known as lines. A sail does you no good if it's not feeling the breeze. You have to raise sail in order to get your boat under way, in other words. And what do you use to raise it? A line called a halyard. Don't let the "yard" in halyard confuse you. Yards, the massive spars from which the big square sails on tall ships are suspended, are "swayed up" — never "hoisted" — on jeers. Halyards raise sails. Period. The name comes from an earlier word, hallier. The association with "yard" is accidental, and unfortunate. In any case, the halyard that raises the jib is — you guessed it — the jib halyard. And the one that raises the main? The mainsail (or just plain "main") halyard, of course. But raising sail isn't enough by itself. Like a spirited colt, a sail has to be reined in if you want to get any work out of it, and sailors' reins are called sheets. This is a fertile source of confusion, I'm afraid. Sheets are lines that control sails; they are not sails, even though sails often look like sheets hanging on a clothesline, at least to landlubbers. In fact, it bears repeating: A sheet is not a sail. The mainsail is controlled with, yes, the mainsheet. It's typically led through two or more blocks (pulleys). These give the crew a bit of help holding in the mainsail when a breeze gets up. And the jib? It has a two-tailed jib sheet, bent (tied) to the clew of the jib. The two tails — you can think of them as independent jib sheets, if you want — are led aft through separate blocks or eyes (fairleads), one on the port (the left side of the boat) and the other to starboard (on the right side of the boat).

And speaking of jibs, they're bent to a forestay, a line running from the top of the mast to the bow of the boat. The forestay also helps keep the mast from toppling. (Larger craft have backstays, as well.) Not all sailing canoes have jibs, of course, and not all masts have stays, but if your boat has a jib, it almost certainly has a forestay as well. And there's a further complication. Though stays, sheets, and halyards are all strings, not all strings are equal. Stays are standing rigging; sheets and halyards, running rigging. Running rigging hoists, lowers, and trims sails. It runs through blocks and fairleads, while standing rigging only…well…stands. But it's got a mighty important job, nonetheless. It helps the mast stand up to the buffeting of gale-force winds.

Ah, yes. The mast. At last we've come to the…


These are the wood, aluminum, or carbon-fiber spars that support the sails. The mast is the most obvious spar, but you shouldn't ignore the boom under the foot of the mainsail, particularly in a jibe, or downwind turn. If you should happen to forget the boom while jibing, however, and if it then comes across unexpectedly, you'll wish you'd paid closer attention. And you'll have a very sore head, into the bargain.

That's about it for most sailing canoes, though if you have a gaff main (or gunter) you'll have a spar called the gaff at the head, and if you have a lugsail, you'll have a yard, reflecting the fact that lugsails are very much like square sails, even if they're set on edge, so to speak. (Pedantic sailors will also insist that gunters too have yards, and not gaffs, but I'm not a pedantic sailor.) And what if you have a spritsail? Then you'll have a sprit. Now that is it. We've finished our initial tour aloft. Next time, we'll go exploring on deck (and below the waterline, as well). Till then, I wish all sailors reading this a fair wind and a flowing sheet.

A sailboat without sails is just a boat, and sails without spars and sheets are only badly cut tarps. But to novice sailors, all of this essential gear is just a tangle of unfamiliar sticks, strings, and rags. And the tangle of strange words is even worse. Today, however, we've begun the naming of parts. There's always more to learn, of course, but the hardest leg of any voyage is getting under way. Now that we've done that, the rest of our journey through the sea of words should be plain sailing.

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