Skip to Content

Why are Sailing Ropes Called Sheets? (All You Need to Know)

Sailing terms can be confusing especially for people who are new to sailing. Are ropes the same thing as lines? Why are ropes referred to as sheets? Let’s find out. 

Why are sailing ropes called sheets?

Sailing ropes are called sheets to distinguish between sailing ropes as they all have different uses. These terms are used by sailors when the weather is bad or when two or more people are crewing. It has also been derived from the word ‘sceatline’ which means the lower part of a sail. 

3 reason why sailing ropes are called sheets

Sailing terms can be tricky:

There are many types of ropes and when on the sea, there needs to be clear communication. It is especially necessary during racing and harsh weather.

To distinguish between the items, sailors use the word sheet to refer to lines that control the sail. Different named lines that have different functions. It is easy to get confused. 


The word has been shortened from the old English word ‘sceatline’ which became the word “sheet line”. This was back in the 13th Century. Another finding suggests that it comes from the phrase “three sheets to the wind”.

This phrase was commonly used among sailors in the early 1900s to signify how intoxicated they are using the scale one, two, and three sheets. Three is the highest stage of being intoxicated. 

Sheet, line, and rope, all have different purposes:

To know what a sheet is, first you need to understand the term line. All of them are ropes. It is called a rope when it is in a coil and does not have a job or use.

Simply put, it is unassigned cordage. When you start to do something with that very rope, it has

a job and is considered a line. A line has many names and types and a sheet is one of them.

Sheets are responsible for adjusting or trimming the sails. They are named after the sail they control such as mainsheet or jib sheet. 

What is the mainsheet on a sailboat?

The mainsheet is a line used to adjust the sail angle to the wind and control the speed of the boat. It can be found attached to the boom or the mainsail clew. 

It also affects the twist when you sail close to the wind. The mainsheets exert a larger force on the leech of the sail than the kicker. This happens when the boom is right above it.

The mainsheet needs to be adjusted so that it is parallel to the boom. The sail set has to be correct to depower the sail in gusts, without damaging twist using the mainsheet traveler. 

What does to the wind mean?

To the wind refers to how much the sailboat has moved forward when it is headed into or almost nearly into the wind. A sailboat cannot directly head into the wind. But this happens when the sail is angled in a greater forward direction when compared to the sail force.

The boats then forward. The force of the keel keeps the force of the sail balanced. This prevents the sailboat from moving in the directions of the sail force. 

What do 2 sheets to the wind mean? 

This refers to how unstable the sailboat is when it is going directly into the wind. The sheet controls the sails of the sailboat.

When you mishandle several sheets at once or if they are loose, the boat’s movement becomes unstable. Two sheets mean it is close to losing stability and two sails are loose. 

Why is it called three sheets to the wind?

“Three sheets to the wind” means danger. This happens when the ship or sailboat is out of control because all three sails are loose. 

What do Four Sheets to the Wind mean?

This means the ship is almost out of control as 4 sails are loose. This makes the sail flap. The sailors can no longer control the ships and the ship will rock about abruptly. 

What do five sheets to the wind mean?

This is when the ship has more than 3 sheets and 5 is the limit. Once again, it means the boat is out of control and all the sails have been mishandled. 

What is a halyard on a sailboat?

A halyard is a rope that is used for hoisting a sail into position for use.

This word came from the 13th-century word ‘halier’. It was later changed in the 18th century due to its association with yardarms. It comes from the phrase ‘to haul yards’.

There are many types of halyards and different sizes. On small sailboats, they are short. On large sailboats, they can be 80 feet in length. Usually, on small sailboats, they have a basic 5mm line whereas they have a double braid line on large boats.  

There are three main sail types. 

A square-rigged sail:

This is attached to a halyard which is then placed on a lifting yard. The halyard is then used to pull up the yard when setting sail. 

A gaff-rigged sail:

They have two halyards, a throat halyard, and a peak halyard. A throat halyard hails the end of the gaff which is nearest to the mast. A peak halyard is the complete opposite of that. It lifts the end further from the mast. 

A Marconi sail:

It only needs one halyard. It is attached to the head at the top. This is attached either using a shackle, bowline, or a half hitch with a figure-eight knot. The rope that lowers the mainsail is called downhaul. 

What is halyard made of?

Halyards are produced of many different materials. Traditionally, they were made of natural fiber such as hemp and manila. Times have changed and now they are made with synthetic fibers. 

Some traditional sailboats still use halyards made of natural fiber. But safety precautions for it are mandatory.

The reason people no longer use hemp to make halyards is that hemp ropes are very heavy and become heavier when exposed to water. This makes it very hard to handle when wet. 

Now they are made with HMPE (High Molecular Weight Polyethylene), Liquid Crystal Polymer, and Polyester. All three have a high abrasion resistance. 

HMPE (High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) Rope:

This is very popular among sailors. It has only a little stretch and is very light. This rope is not affected by seawater or oil. It is very durable too. 

Liquid Crystal Polymer Rope:

This is less strong than HMPE but it is five times stronger than steel. Ropes made of liquid crystal polymer, barely stretches and is very flexible to use. 

This makes it perfect to be used on halyards. However, it does not have good UV resistance which is why the line needs a cover.

Polyester Rope:

They are quite inexpensive and are of two types, either twisted or braided. The main issue with this rope is that it has some stretch. This is why they are not preferred by racers. 

What’s the difference between a sheet and a halyard?

Both halyards and sheets are types of lines. The line is the same as rope but is referred to as ‘line’ commonly between sailors. Both sheets and halyards are used to control the saints.

A halyard is used to pull up the whole sail whereas a sheet is used to adjust the corners of a sail. 

Halyards are used at the beginning of the sail and the end. Sheets are used when you have mishandled the halyards and pulled the sails up. That’s when the sheets come into play.

They adjust the angle of the sails to the wind. To give the sail a certain shape, you need to pull the sheet. This shape creates the lift which makes the boat go onwards. 

Most sailors coil the halyards up to make sure the line runs smoothly and does not get tangled up. If you let them go up the sail, it will jump around with no use. It will look like a flag instead. 

What size rope do I need for my boat?

Bigger ropes are usually better, just like anchors. For every 1 foot of water, you will be sailing in, you need 8 feet of rope.

Hence, to find out how long your anchor rope needs to be, multiply the water length you expect to anchor in with 8. In other words, if you plan on anchoring in 25’ of water, you need 200’’ of rope. 

You should also have ⅛ inch of rope diameter for every 9 feet of boat length. For example, if your boat length is 26 feet then you require ⅜ inch line and 1/2 inch rope for a 28-foot boat. 

How many ropes should a sailboat have?

Usually, there are around 4 types of ropes on a sailboat. The bigger your sailboat, the more ropes you will need. Let’s talk about the 4 main types.

Foot Rope:

It runs the length of a yard that sailors stand on when they are working aloft and stowing the sails. It is located under the yardarms. 

Tiller Rope:

This rope ties the tiller and is used when the tiller can be put in one position. You don’t have to stand at the tiller to keep it in one position, all you have to do is tie the tiller off. 

Bell Rope:

This is the most common type of rope. It hits the clapper against the side of the bell. (Just like a bell). It is attached to the bell’s clapper and is used to sound the bell repeatedly. 

Bolt Rope:

This rope is usually covered by a fold of canvas which is why it stays hidden in the front of a headsail. It secures the sail to the spars, reinforces, and strengthens the sail. It is found on the luff and foot of the sail.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why Do Sailboats Have Two Steering Wheels?

Why Do Sailing Catamarans Have Trampolines?

Will a Sailboat Right Itself?

Why Do Sailboats Lean So Much?