Spinning a Yarn: Maritime History in the Age of Sail

Common sailors had their own ways of recording maritime history during the Age of Sail, in colorful and surprisingly practical yarns.


| October 2014



Sailing ship

Spinning a yarn or two during routine work and in off hours was an integral part of shipboard life in the Age of Sail.

Photo by Fotolia/James Steidl

Marcus Rediker offers a dramatic view of the Age of Sail in Outlaws of the Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2014) through the stories of common sailors, slaves, indentured servants, pirates, and other outlaws. He demonstrates the importance of maritime history in understanding the formation of the modern Western world, from the bottom up. The following excerpt from Chapter 1, “The Sailor’s Yarn,” deals with the development of a distinct storytelling genre among sailors.

Maritime History According to the Sailors

Let us explore briefly the genesis of the sailor’s yarn, which grows from four related worlds of work: textile manufacture, fishing, rope making, and seafaring. The term “yarn” in its original definition refers to spun fiber—cotton, wool, silk, or flax—prepared for use in weaving or knitting. On the eighteenth-century waterfront the meaning shifted to cord and rope: a fisherman’s net is made of yarn, as are the strands (eighteen-, twenty-, and twenty-five-thread yarns) in rope making. We are getting closer to the ship.

“Yarn” soon takes on a meaning in nautical slang: spinning a yarn is telling a story or tale, usually one of maritime adventure, about dramatic shipwrecks, bloody battles, tyrannical officers, or determined resistance. These were often long, complex, and colorful narratives, incorporating humorous, marvelous, and fantastic elements as well as communal lore, practical knowledge of class and work, and death-defying experience. The yarn is perpetually invented and reinvented in each and every maritime setting, whether at sea or ashore, as individual storytellers add their own talents and fashion their tales for an ever-changing audience.

The maritime story is called a yarn because of a specific labor process on the ship, where work was collective, lonely, and noncontinuous. Ships were isolated for long periods, and the crew lived in close, forced proximity. Many times there was nothing to do. This could happen in the doldrums, when there was little or no wind, and it could happen when the ship was clipping along at a good pace in high winds. Captains therefore created “make-work” of various kinds to fill the porous workday, holy-stoning the deck (scrubbing and whitening it with sandstone) being one of the most dreaded and infamous among sailors.

Another was “picking oakum.” The running rigging on a deep-sea vessel was made of hemp rope covered with tar. When the tar wore out (and the rope went slack when wet), the rigging had to be replaced. The old hemp rope would be cut into short strands, a couple of feet long, and sailors would gather on deck to pick it apart—picking oakum. This was dull and tedious work, hard on the fingers, even though the hands of sailors were rough to begin with from hauling rope. The sailors sat together and untwisted the hemp rope to individual fibers, then they rolled and twisted the hemp fibers back together. The oakum would then be used on the ship for caulking: mixed with tar, it would be forced by the ship’s carpenter, using special tools—a caulking iron and a mallet—between the seams, or intervals, of the hull planking, to stanch leaks. (Picking oakum always had low and slavish associations. It was often part of “hard labor” in a workhouse or a prison. It was historically linked to coerced, unfree work, as sailors well understood.)

As sailors sat together picking apart the yarn of their ropes, someone would spin a yarn for a bored, unhappy, unwilling, ready-made audience of common labor. The yarn, then, was in several ways a spoken-word equivalent of the work song. One of its purposes was to entertain, to help to overcome drudgery, to make the time pass, to transport both speaker and listener to a different, better place. It was, in short, born of alienation at work aboard the ship, which proved to be a nursery of narrative talent.