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A Midwesterner learns about sailing ships

The past few weeks have conspired to finally make me learn the difference between a sail and a sheet.

I can hear many of you, dear readers, chuckling to yourselves right now, and I honestly don’t blame you. I have been a maritime librarian for several years and still had no firm grasp on the workings of a sailing ship. No understanding of it beyond the barest essentials needed to not make a fool of myself. I have always exculpated myself by pointing to my Ohio roots (I am reminded of the donation the Library received yesterday from a New Mexico public library. They gave us several maritime-related books, saying in their letter that there wasn’t much interest in them in the high desert). I also blamed my work on the age of steam, though as I have written in these pages, I know little to nothing about steam-engines either.

However, in the past few weeks, several events have occurred that have driven me to learn the difference between a sheet and a tack, to successfully point to bowlines, and to be able to distinguish a jib from a gaff. First, I reread for my book club the entire Horatio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester that I first began reading as a child. Thankfully, the Library has all eleven of them.

Knowing of my interest, a book club member, who is also a docent at the Museum, lent me his copy of Seamanship in the age of sail: an account of the shiphandling of the sailing man-of-war, 1600-1860, based on contemporary sources, by John Harland (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984, call no. VK543.H3 O). I have been consuming this at a snail’s pace for bedtime reading, as it is dense reading and requires multiple re-reads of sections before a landlubber like me gets it.

Finally, I received my copy of the Museum’s Ahoy! magazine and saw the announcement of the new on-line exhibit of the Winnifred and August F Crabtree miniature ships. The exhibit can be found at I was astonished when I looked at the ship on the cover of the magazine and discovered (to my child-like delight) that I knew the names of most of the lines and ropes on the model, and that I could tell the general period of the vessel by looking at the bowsprit! Amazing!

Oh, what a little learning can do!

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