It is well understood that sailing while inebriated is a very bad idea. It’s contrary to Tradewinds policy, and it’s against the law. But even on one’s own boat, offshore beyond the reach of society’s sanctions, the notion that one can confront the sea with less than his best game represents a cracking good example of overconfidence.
All this being granted, one would have to be living under the proverbial rock to be unaware of the fact that hard drink has a long association with sailing—so long that it was less than five decades ago that the British Navy abandoned its daily distribution of alcohol to men on warships. It’s hard to believe they were drunk while blasting away at the enemy with cannon fire in all those legendary battles. But come to think of it, it’s just as hard to believe they weren’t. The practice has spawned a whole category of colorful phrases like “splice the main brace,” “groggy,” “three sheets to the wind,” and “the sun’s over the yardarm.” The first three of these are amply defined in Admiral W. H. Smyth’s commodious lexicon of 1867, but the last goes unmentioned despite the author’s obvious fondness for salty language. In fact it doesn’t appear until 1899, well past the golden age of sail, when Rudyard Kipling uses it in Sea to Sea, and even then not in a particularly nautical context. In a passage excoriating the loutish behavior of Americans, he writes: “As you know, of course, the American does not drink at meals as a sensible man should. Indeed, he has no meals. He stuffs for ten minutes thrice a day. Also he has no decent notions about the sun being over the yard-arm or below the horizon. He pours his vanity into himself at unholy hours, and indeed he can hardly help it.” Yeah, Rudyard, but we won the Revolution.
Nevertheless we can ask, just what is a “yardarm,” anyway, and how do we use it to measure the height of the sun? Having accomplished that, how to we convert the sun’s altitude to establish the time of day? Can it have been this easy to tell the hour by just looking up at the rigging? Even though the answers to all these questions are of no use whatsoever to the modern mariner, they will be the subject of our next few installments.