When Men Were Men And Sails Were Cotton

by Peter H. Vanderwaart

The literary-minded among you may have noticed the Walter Mitchell poem that appeared in the Arts section of Duckworks a little while ago. My wife had become aware of it while researching the author. It is far from the only poem that Mitchell ever published. Another, "Rounding the Stake Boat", was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. I did not offer that one to Duckworks' publisher because I don't think it's very good, but it triggered a little spot of historical research of my own when lines from the poem called up a faint memory of something I had once read.

"Rounding The Stake Boat" describes a large racing yacht turning the windward mark and setting off on the run. The ninth stanza reads:

A light hand leaps on the heel of the boom,

And with swift knife slashes the reef knots free;

Drops in the bunt as it yields him room,

While it brushes the crest of the sending sea.1

Or, prosaically, a crew member runs out along the boom, cutting the reef points so the mainsail can be raised to full area for the downwind leg. The "bunt" is the loose fold of cloth that billows out as the sail is freed from the reefing lines. The final line is:

the "cup-defender" speeds up the bay.

Taken together, I was reminded of a description I had once read of a an exciting America's Cup race in New York Bay. After a fair amount of looking, I found the following in an account by William P. Stephens:

"Now, as they ran off before the rising gale, I saw a man suspended from a halyard and hauled by an outhaul along Vigilant's boom, cutting the stops as he went."2

At first, it seemed possible that the poem had been written to commemorate this famous race. There is a fatal flaw in the theory, however. The poem was published in 1889, and the race between Valkyrie and Viligent described by Stephens took place four years later in 1893. Looking at the America's Cup races in the years preceeding the poem's publication, I found that Cup racing had been plagued by calm weather, and the only heavy weather race in the previous several years had a run out with beat home, where the poem describes the reverse.

Finally, I noted that the poem's first stanza includes the line

The fleet of fliers is left behind,

And the white foam kisses her low lee rail.

The race in the poem is not an America's Cup race at all, but a fleet race. My entire theory that the poem commemorates a famous America's Cup race was in tatters.

As I thought the matter over, I decided that sending a hand out along the boom to cut the reefing lines must have been the usual way to shake out a reef. The sails were cotton, and delicate by today's standards. Reefs were tied in using separate ties every few feet, and booms were very long. Stephens cites several examples over 90 feet. The press of racing is not going to allow for untying forty or fifty knots pulled tight by the force of a fresh wind on a 10,000 sq ft mainsail.

I wonder what they did the second time around.


It was usual to have men in the rigging throughout the race, I believe. That would have given an interesting perspective during whatever moments you weren't working too hard to have a look around. Here are two complete paragraphs from the Stephen's account from which the above sentence was excepted:

"While Valkyrie had started with a half-reef, Vigilent turned in a full reef and set a working topsail; after rounding she set her spinnaker in American fashion, in stops, with sheet and tack slack and sail bellying forward; then she set her balloon jib topsail. With the latter the halyard jammed in the block and a man was sent down the stay to clear things. Valkyrie, of course, followed the English practice of setting her spinnaker flying; by ill luck the foot was slightly torn in getting out the sail. The tear was extended until the tear was in ribbons; it was taken in and her light-weather spinnaker of fine linen was set, this fouling the bitts before it was up, and blowing across the topmast stay, where it fouled a hook of the jib topsail. As a last resort the "bowsprit spinnaker," the equivalent of our balloon jib topsail, was set."

"I had my glasses on the boats from the time that the Committee tug reached the line. I had witnessed some thrilling Cup and trial races, but none like this. Now, as they ran off before the rising gale, I saw a man suspended from a halyard and hauled by an outhaul along Vigilant's boom, cutting the stops as he went. At the topmast head was a second man, one at the end of the gaff, and a fourth whom I could not see at the masthead. The head of the working topsail was lashed and the halyard sent down, the clew of the sail lashed to the gaff end and the sheet sent down, and when all was ready the reef was shaken out, the whole mainsail spread, and immediately the second club topsail was sent up to windward of the working topsail. The fight for the last three miles was an inspiring one, perhaps more so than the last half hour of the final Genesta-Puritan race, Vigilant gaining foot by foot and winning by a margin of 2 minutes 13 seconds actual time."

1I would write "scending sea."

2Stephens, William P., Traditions and Memories of America Yachting, page 202.