Sails and Sailing at Mystic Seaport

By The Maritime Executive 08-21-2017 02:38:33

Despite what cartoons might lead most people to believe, sailing goes far beyond hoisting a bedsheet up a pole and speeding off with the wind. There are nearly endless sail materials, shapes and configurations, each of which serves a specific purpose. 

At Mystic Seaport, master craftsmen bring the art of creating, repairing, and setting sails to life, in the museum's most recent video.

Here are a few terms in everyday language that have derived from sailing a vessel:

Cut of One’s Jib

You don’t hear this one as much these days, but you might say it regarding someone’s appearance or personality. It comes from the age of sail, though, when a sailor could identify a faraway ship as friend or foe based on the shape of its sails.


Today this term means being carefree or noncommittal and is usually connected back to the Kevin Bacon movie of the same name. In fact, footloose originally referred to a sail that was not attached properly to the boom (at its “foot”), making it difficult to control and sail

Learning the Ropes

Teaching a newcomer about any process or rules is called “learning the ropes” these days, but the term originates from sailors learning to navigate the rigging of their particular vessel, along with the knots required to sail effectively.

Three Sheets to the Wind

This phrase is similar to footloose, but usually nowadays involves an alcoholic beverage. “Three sheets to the wind” originates from a vessel losing hold of several sails or lines, causing them to be taken by the wind. As a result, the vessel was out of control, much like a person described in the same manner. 

The Museum

Mystic Seaport was founded in 1929 to gather and preserve the rapidly disappearing artifacts of America’s seafaring past. The Museum has grown to become a national center for research and education with the mission to “inspire an enduring connection to the American maritime experience.”

The Museum’s grounds cover 19 acres on the Mystic River in Mystic, CT and include a recreated New England coastal village, a working shipyard, formal exhibit halls and state-of-the-art artifact storage facilities. The Museum is home to more than 500 historic watercraft, including four National Historic Landmark vessels, most notably the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, America’s oldest commercial ship still in existence.

The Museum hosts 284,000 visitors annually and has an active membership base of 14,000 from all over the U.S. and the world.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.