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Ahoy there!

Speaking like a sailor? Not necessarily a bad thing. Let’s call it Gippslandia’s ode to the handful of skilled sailmakers who still ply their trade in the region today.

Jul 31, 2023


Words: Gippslandia

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Casting a birds-eye view across the region for industries or individuals that utilise large swathes of fabric without chopping them up, three things float to mind: truck or train tarpaulins, hot air balloons and ships sails.

Given that we’re not averse to dropping the odd ‘Arr my mateys!’ or ‘Shiver me timbers’ each September for International Talk Like a Pirate Day, or the many other times the spirits of Davy Jones's locker imbue us, we decided to dive into some billowing sails.

Echoing textile advancements in other industries, the first sails were made from woven natural materials like linen (from flax) and cotton, depending on the plant that grew most proficiently in a particular region. Apparently, the Vikings enjoyed a wool-based sail.

Canvas sails are heavy and durable, but required regular maintenance, including treatments with oils and tar to improve water resistance.

Then, we gained the knowledge and ability to synthesise materials; dacron, also known as polyester, revolutionised sailmaking in the mid-20th century. It’s a lightweight synthetic material that offers excellent strength, durability and resistance to UV radiation – all factors that greatly reduce the need for maintenance.

We began to use nylon for spinnakers and lightweight downwind sails, given that the material is lightweight, strong and has good elasticity. Nylon sails are known for their ability to stretch and 'bag' under load, providing additional power in certain sailing conditions.

From here, we start to head into the more exotic, high-strength fibres that can provide an edge in high-performance sailing: materials like kevlar, carbon fibre, Technora, mylar and laminated fabrics that seek to gain the benefits from multiple materials all combined into one high-tech and highly expensive sail.

Before you hoist the mainsail and set off at a terrific rate of knots, we’ve compiled the following list of terms with roots in the 300-odd years known as the Golden Age of Sail that still colour our conversations today. Let’s call it Gippslandia’s ode to the handful of skilled sailmakers who still ply their trade in the region today.

...If the child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun”.

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Above board

Anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.


Cut of your jib

Many times warships had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship, a captain might not like the cut of their jib and would then have an opportunity to escape.


Dressing down

Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. This was called 'dressing down'. An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.


Give a wide berth

This means anchoring a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.


High and dry

This term originally referred to ships that were beached. The ‘dry’ implies that not only were they out of the water, but that they had been for some time and could be expected to remain so.


Loose cannon

A cannon having come loose on the deck of a pitching, rolling and yawing ship could cause severe injury and damage. It has come to mean an unpredictable or uncontrolled person who is likely to cause unintentional damage.


Pipe down

Ship crews received a variety of signals from the boatswain’s pipe. One signal was 'piping down the hammocks' which instructed the crew to go below decks and prepare for sleep.


Scuttlebutt

A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the place where the ship’s gossip was exchanged. Now known as 'watercooler talk'.


Son of a gun

When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, wives and ladies of easy virtue were often allowed to live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a convenient place for this was between guns on the gun deck. If the child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun”.

Three sheets to the wind

A sheet is a rope line that controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a three-masted, fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be 'in the wind'. A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind.


Toe the line

When called to line up at attention, the ship’s crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.


Under the weather

Keeping watch onboard sailing ships was a boring and tedious job, but the worst watch station was on the 'weather' (windward) side of the bow. The sailor who was assigned to this station was subject to the constant pitching and rolling of the ship. By the end of his watch, he would be soaked from the waves crashing over the bow. A sailor who was assigned to this unpleasant duty was said to be ‘under the weather’.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 27

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