English Afloat

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Postyacht - view towards Replot

The world of boating probably contains more strange and unfamiliar words than almost any other activity. One reason for this is a very long history going back thousands of years, plus the fact that sailing has caused us to travel and come into contact with all the coastal-living cultures in the world.

If you are a landlubber, the moment you step onto a boat you are going to say something wrong. Boats have no front, no back, no walls, no ceilings, no floors, no kitchens, no bedrooms, no beds, no living rooms, indeed no rooms at all, and here’s a surprise – no ropes! Every ‘rope’ has a job and this gives it its name. Rope is just raw material down below, waiting to be given a purpose. Virtually every word is different and many a book has been written on the subject.

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Springs and neaps, ebbing and flowing

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For the student of English, two of these words will probably be familiar. Spring could mean that part of the year when nature wakes up again, or a coil of wire which stores kinetic energy. Flowing is a word describing smooth liquid movement, but can also be used to describe any process which moves, or should move, in this way (i.e. work flow, traffic flow etc).

However, put together, these four words are used to describe tides along the coast. Britain is very much a maritime island and tidal behaviour is something we need to think about when building a house or planning land use near the sea, or simply taking a walk under some cliffs.

Careful planning is needed when building close to water.

Careful planning is needed when building close to water. These swans had not read the flood-risk warnings.

Spring tides happen when the sun and moon line up together and have the greatest gravitational pull on the sea. The result is the highest and lowest water levels along coasts and in estuaries, where rivers meet the sea and where tides can travel far inland along the river. High tides can be made even higher by low air pressure (about 1 cm per millibar of pressure), and by strong winds from a certain direction. The result is often then floods. Many communities just tolerate flooding, as the cost of protecting against it can be higher than the benefit.

Flooded garden in Totnes - photo copyright Malcolm Pemberton

Flooded garden in Totnes – photo copyright Malcolm Pemberton

Neap tides happen when the sun and moon are at right angles to each other, viewed from the earth. These tides have the least difference between high and low water levels.

If the earth had no land masses to stop these tidal flows, tides would be a fairly simple one-metre high lump of water travelling around the planet, with a one-metre deep trough following, about six hours later. However, the English Channel is a fine example of how things change when land gets in the way. This lump of water travels west to east across the Atlantic (actually, of course, this is caused by the spinning of the planet in the opposite direction), and then Europe and Africa get in the way.

The result of this is a massive build up of water in the Bay of Biscay (west of France and north of Spain), and a funnelling of water up the English Channel, causing water level changes of over five metres along the coast, not to mention a flow of water travelling up to 5 knots (five nautical miles per hour) eastward up the Channel for just over six hours, and then back westward as the tide ebbs. As you see, tides flow and ebb, rising and falling and travelling up and down channels and estuaries.

As tides depend on the spinning of the earth plus the positions of the sun and moon, they are completely predictable and the working lives of many people are dictated by them. Sailors must wait for there to be sufficient water to enter or leave a harbour, and sailing boats need also to wait for the tidal current to be going their way. Obviously, if your sailing boat can only travel at 5 knots with the available wind and you are sailing against a five-knot current, you will have an unchanging view of the coast!

There are no ropes on a sailing boat …


Yes, it’s true – there are no ropes on a sailing boat, but of course there are. What I am saying is that apart from spare rope or cordage down below decks, all the ropes already in use already have a name and, among sailors, should never be referred to as ropes. I shall not attempt to name every piece of rope on a huge old man-o-war, but here are some basic terms to get you going (and help you sound knowledgeable at the yacht club).

Spars and Sail

Photo copyright: Malcolm Pemberton – all rights reserved. The photo shows a replica of a 17th Century Baltic post yacht being rigged. The loose-footed gaff will be raised by the halyard running through the wooden block (or pulley to a landlubber).

So, to get started, all this rope falls into two basic categories – standing and running rigging. Standing rigging is there to support the mast and other spars, and generally requires only rare adjustment. Running rigging is there to hoist and control sails etc.

Standing rigging consists of fore and aft stays, supporting the mast, as you might guess, from the front and back of the boat. Now don’t go talking about front and back of the boat at the yacht club, you’ll show yourself up as a landlubber straight away. The front of the boat is the bows, and the back is the stern. Then there are the lines leading from the mast to the side of the boat, which on larger sailing vessels resemble a rope ladder, up which the crew race to change sail, or to which the pirate hero clings with one hand, whilst waving his cutlass with the other. These are called the shrouds.

Running rigging also falls into different categories:  
Halyards are the ropes which raise and lower sails, spars and flags etc. Each is usually named by function, so the main halyard lifts the mainsail, the jib halyard lifts the jib, and the gaff halyard raises the gaff (note: the gaff is the spar at the top of a square sail, the boom is the spar at the bottom – the one that can knock you out stone cold if you stand up at the wrong moment).
Sheets control the sails, and usually lead back from the tip of a sail, or its spar, to the helm (steering position) of a smaller vessel. They are also named by function, main sheet, jib sheet etc.

All types of running and standing rigging may make use of blocks (see the photo), both to increase their lifting power and also to change the direction of the force (we haul or pull down to make the sail go up). Where greater power is required then winches may also be used.


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