Sheets ropes and lines

Posted in: Featured on Thursday, August 9th, 2012

I had no experience with boats or the world of sailing before buying Tygress and moving aboard.

I don’t come from a long line of salty sailors, there were no summers spent messing around in boats at the local dam, no fishing trips in the humble little dinghy. I was and in some ways still am, thoroughly a land lubber.

One very steep learning curve of boating life for the uninitiated is understanding and using the wonderfully rich vocabulary of the sea.

In the planning stages of our escape I bought any book I could find related to sailing, one of which was a hardcover dictionary for yachtsman.  I don’t normally read dictionaries, other than to refer to them as needed, but a quick flick through this one soon had me engrossed in the vast and quirky world of nautical terminology.

On my casual flicks through the dictionary’s pages, and particularly yesterday when posting the photo of the day it’s become apparent how little sailing lingo I know despite living daily on and amongst boats.

Time to begin my education. My teachers? Books, the internet and fellow sailors.

Today’s lesson, sheets, ropes or lines? The definitions are:

Sheet A rope attached to the clew of a sail and used to trim it / A rope used to control the setting of a sail in relation to the direction of the wind.

Line A small rope capacle of many functions, each with its descriptive prefix, eg gantline, heaving line, etc. Some are also described by their weight, and others by their functions in fishing / The correct nautical term for the majority of the cordage or “ropes” used on a vessel. A line will always have a more specific name, such as mizzen topsail halyard, which describes its use.

Rope Cordage of 1in circumference or more, made from yarns of hemp, jute, manila, sisal, coir, etc. Threads of fibre are spun into right-handed yarns that are twisted left-handed into strands, and the strands are laid up right-handed into a right-handed rope / A rope is a linear collection of plies, yarns or strands which are twisted or braided together in order to combine them into a larger and stronger form.

By my understanding of these definitions, and my limited first hand experience sailing, since the ropes in yesterday’s photo of the day are not primarily used to trim the sail or change it’s setting they are referred to as lines.  Their descriptive prefix would be furling because they’re function is to furl and unfurl the headsail.

But since they could also be used to trim and set the sail maybe they should be called furling sheet lines or furling line sheets.


Now the ropes in this picture to the left are coiled and not currently in use, so have no present function. I think it’s safe to call them ropes.

The ropes in the right hand picture are sheets because they adjust or set the main sail.

Main sail sheets

Hopefully with this knowledge under my belt I will be able to quickly and correctly identify sheets, lines and plain old ropes in future.

If any more knowledgeable sailors are reading this (who are hopefully not shaking their heads at my ignorance), please feel free to correct me or educate me further.

‘A Dictionary for Yachtsman’ by Francis H Burgess



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