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World Association of International Studies

Post "Tight" and "Taut"; "Hard" and "Slack"
Created by John Eipper on 03/20/14 5:03 AM

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"Tight" and "Taut"; "Hard" and "Slack" (Cameron Sawyer, USA, 03/20/14 5:03 am)

Actually, in response to John Heelan (20 March), we say "hard" and "harden up"; the opposite being "ease" or "slack" or "eased" or "slackened." I have never heard either "tight" or "taught" said on board a sailing vessel--to my ear, both of these terms sound lubberly. And certainly sails would not be necessarily "tight" or "taught"--the trimming of sails to produce the desired aerodynamic effect is much more complicated than just making them "tight." It is in fact incredibly complicated with a large number of controls interacting in an almost unlimited combination of ways. For example, just the mainsail, on many boats, will have the following controls:

1. Halyard

2. Mainsheet

3. Outhaul

4. Traveller

5. Vang (or Kicker, to the British)

6. Cunningham

7. Backstay

The halyard controls tension across the luff of the sail, that is, the forward, vertical edge. You use this tension to move the "draft" of the sail--the point at which it is fullest--forward and aft. The mainsheet controls twist of the sail, and when the boom is amidships or nearly amidships, the tension in the "leech" of the sail, that is, the after edge of it. The traveler controls the angle of the boom to the wind. The vang controls the tension in the "foot" of the sail--that is, the lower edge of it. The cunningham, like the halyard, controls tension in the luff, but by hauling down on it, rather than up like the halyard does. A backstay tension control (my boat doesn't have this) can be used to depower the mainsail by opening up the leech and letting the top of the sail twist off. The object of using all these controls is to produce the right shape for the point of sail and strength of the wind. When going upwind, the most challenging point of sail by far, since a sailing vessel can make way against the wind only by generating aerodynamic lift, the sail should be trimmed to minimize drag and maximize lift. In light wind, the sail needs a full, powerful shape, which you get by slacking the mainsheet (if we're still talking about a mainsail) and outhaul to let the sail assume a fuller shape. Then you use the other controls to get the draft in the right position and get the sail at the right angle to the wind. In stronger wind, drag becomes a great danger, as it not only counteracts lift you are generating, but also generates heeling moment, which pushes the boat over, reducing the amount of sail exposed to the wind, and producing undesirable hydrodynamic effects between the keel and underbody of the boat and the water (specifically, weather helm, which makes the rudder act like a brake). So going upwind in stronger wind, the sail is flattened as much as possible by hardening up the outhaul and mainsheet, and letting down the traveler to angle the sail further into the wind. The halyard and/or cunningham will also be hardened up to move the draft as far forward as possible. This way, you make a sleek wing out of the sail which produces as little drag as possible, increasing lift and reducing heeling moment. It's very tricky and very satisfying when you get it right.

Nautical terminology is always a tricky thing, and there are many controversies. For example, many American sailors have an abhorrence for the word "rope," calling every bit of cordage on board a "line." British sailors disagree with this, and I think they're right--a "line" is cordage at work fulfilling a specific function; "rope" is the material itself, without reference to its function. In my opinion this is a much better use of the terminology than just making "line" a meaningless synonym of "rope" with a nautical flavor. There is also "head" or "heads," which is marine-speak for toilet. American sailors will say "the head" to refer to both the toilet and the compartment in which it is housed. British sailors say "the heads" to refer just to the compartment--as the term was used in olden days. The fixture is just a "toilet." Again I agree with the British on this. I could go on forever.

JE comments:  Quiz to follow!  I don't know if I'm more impressed by the abilities of skillful sailors, or by their mastery of such a daunting vocabulary list.  I am reminded of a January 1953 postcard Prof. Hilton sent from on board the SS United States, as he sailed to Europe.  He explained to his daughter Mary that "port" means left and "starboard" right.

I checked Wikipedia, and the maiden voyage of the United States had been just the previous summer, in July 1952.  When Prof. Hilton crossed the Atlantic, it (OK, "she") must still have had that "new-ship smell."  The ship was retired in 1969 and has been at dock in Philadelphia ever since.  There have been several plans to revive her for service, or as a stationary "floating attraction," but nothing concrete has emerged thus far:


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