Saturday, September 8, 2007

Apple #266: Three Sheets to the Wind

Some of you may have noticed an erroneous post here. I maintain another blog elsewhere, and I accidentally posted an entry I meant to go there onto the Daily Apple. It was, not coincidentally, about being drunk -- on Bell's Two Hearted Ale, by the way, which is my beer of choice when I can find it.

(Ben at, where this photo comes from,
agrees with my opinion of this way-tasty beer.)

Someone alerted me to blogging my error this morning, and in my reply thanking him, I said, "that's what happens when you're sheets to the wind."

Then, of course, Apple Lady me wondered where that phrase, "three sheets to the wind," comes from.

  • It is a nautical term, dating back roughly to the 1820s. Contrary to what I had always thought, "sheets" are not sails but the ropes that secure the sails.
  • If the sheets (ropes) are to the wind, they are flapping loose, and so are the sails.
  • One or two loose ropes is not great but it is not chaotic either. But three ropes flapping in the wind, that's out of control.
  • The ropes and/or sails and/or ship that's out of control is a metaphor for a really drunk person.
  • And in fact, the phrase reflects a ratings system that sailors used to use to quantify the level of drunkenness.
      • One sheet = tipsy
      • Two sheets = sloppy drunk
      • Three sheets = reeling drunk
      • Four sheets = unconscious

On a ship this complicated, if the majority of its sheets were not under control, it would be complete chaos on board.
(Diagram from Power Moby-Dick)

So that's the short answer. But the Apple Lady who likes specifics and who likes to understand things as completely as possible wants to know, is it the ship that's out of control, or is it the sails? I mean, are we meant to see the drunk person as the ship, or the sails? And in what way is the ship out of control -- rolling and pitching? Listing too much to one side? Blown about in any direction whatsoever? I want to know because I want to know how we're meant to see the drunk person: staggering? Wobbling about? Weaving side to side?
  • Various sources have offered all of the above and more as the true definition of the phrase. But the answer, I think, will lie in understanding how the ropes (sheets) and sails work on a ship.
  • Sheets are not just any ropes, but they are lines used to pull the sails taut (trimmed) or eased to give them slack.
  • A boat or ship of small size has two primary sails: the mainsail (pronounced mainsuhl) and the jib (or sometimes the Genoa). The mainsail has one sheet that controls it, and the jib has two sheets that control it.

This diagram shows only one jib sheet on this small craft. But there is another jib sheet on the other side of the boat.
(Diagram from Building Sailing Skills)

  • And, by the way, the original saying was "three sheets in the wind." Which actually makes more sense, now that I'm learning more about sails and wind and such. But let's press on.
  • If the sails are not trimmed or slackened appropriately depending on the wind condition, they will luff.
  • Sometimes luffing is okay, and it's unavoidable for a bit when the wind changes direction or with a change in boat speed. But the vigilant sailor will adjust the sails, usually by tightening the sheets, when luff occurs, thus keeping the sails in a position to make the most of the available wind.

Luffing, or flapping, means the sails are not making the most efficient use of the wind. See how, in the diagram above, the lines of the sail are wobbly, as opposed to the tight, clean, brisk lines of the sail shown in the diagram below of sailing across the wind, with the sails trimmed appropriately.

(Drawings from MacGregor's How to Sail)

  • If luffing continues, or if multiple sails are luffing, that essentially means you're not steering the boat.
  • And "to the wind" or "in the wind" suggests to me that not only are the sheets loose, but they are completely untied and flapping in the wind.
  • If one sheet is united, that's not good but probably correctable. Two sheets, it's getting dicey. Three sheets -- which would probably be the mainsail sheet and both jib sheets -- sounds like bad news. This means that the mainsail and jib have absolutely nothing guiding them at all and they are at the complete fancy of the wind.
  • So I'm picturing the sails completely slack or sagging, now and then rippled or flopping in a gust of wind. And because the boat is barely moving, it's not skimming over the waves, but it's getting slapped by them and pitching and tossing willy-nilly.
  • So a three-sheets-in-the-wind drunk person is still up and about, but he or she is moving almost at random, rolling and pitching, swerving in a way that makes very little sense. Bad news, way-gone drunk.

Looks like this guy and his friends are working on untying their third sheet.
(Photo from The Drunken Blog)

  • On a larger ship or a spinnaker, there is a fourth sail, called the spinnaker. It, too, has its own sheet to control it. So, on a larger ship, which is probably what most sailors back in the day were sailing, if all four sails are under zero control, the ship is going to be dead in the water. Not moving. And in drunken terms, this would be unconscious, passed-out. Zip.

For the record, I was not at three sheets. More like two.

This is what sailing is supposed to look like. Whoo, that looks good, doesn't it?
(Photo from Macgregor's Photo Gallery)

Word Detective, Lemmings Ahoy!
World Wide Words, Three sheets in the wind
The Phrase Finder, Three sheets to the wind
.NET Hobbyist Programmer, Nautical Terminology: Three Sheets to the Wind, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, three sheets to the wind
Ask Yahoo! How did the phrase three sheets to the wind come to refer to being drunk?
Wikipedia, Sheet (sailing)
IdiomSite, Three Sheets to the Wind, What Do You Call the "Ropes" In a Sailboat?
Roger MacGregor, How to Sail
UK-Halsey's Encyclopedia of Sails, Mainsail Trim and Genoa Trim
wikiHow, How to Sail a Boat


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