Learn the Ropes!

To a sailor, knots are a vital tool and each type of knot accomplished a different task. In order to "shorten sail," or bring up the sail cloth, sailors had to learn and practice the reef knot and then be able to tie it while aloft. Let your students take a hand at this task; use short pieces of rope or their shoelaces and use these directions to have them "learn the ropes." To further the lesson, have them try and write directions for tying their shoes - easier said than done!

Goofing off aloft: Skylarking

Young sailors during their leisure time might have frolicked about in the ropes high above, an activity known as skylarking. It was described as "wanton play about the rigging, and tops." Have your students imagine playing "tag" or "keep away" 100 feet above deck, while the ship sways with the sea. Can your students name the reasons why skylarking may have improved sailors' skills? They may have gotten faster and more nimble at scampering up to the topsails, a great skill to have during a storm or battle. Are there any games we play as children that reinforce life skills? Work with your students to create a game for younger children that will reinforce reading, math or social skills. For example, they may create a rhyme for multiplication or a sing-a-long for learning their anatomy like "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes".

All Hands Shorten Sail, Ahoy!

In 1824 Constitution's First Lieutenant Elie Vallette drew each sailor's exact position aloft in his log book. When the officer in charge ordered, "All hands to shorten sail," each of these men scampered to their assigned position to heft in the heavy canvas sails. By studying the image, can your students tell how many sailors were needed to take in each sail? For lesson plans including math, tables, and force, visit Acres of Sail, Miles of Rigging from All Hands on Deck.

Sailors Aloft

The "engines" that drove Constitution forward were her sails: massive canvas sheets, some as big as a basketball court. Controlling them was the job of the topmen. Their work demanded strength, skill, and a head for heights. They climbed the rigging in all weathers, often in darkness, and as high as 175 feet above the deck. The sails they set (spread out) or reefed and furled (pulled in) could weigh half a ton even when dry, and twice that when soaked with rain.

Descriptive Writing: 100 feet in the air

Using the primary source illustration "Reefing topsails, 1832" as inspiration, ask students to write a descriptive scene that explores what the sailors may have been feeling. Clicking through the "Sailors Aloft" scene may also give them inspiration with sound effects and bits of conversation between the sailors. Prompt them to think of what the sailors might have seen on the decks below, smelled or tasted in the ocean air, heard around them, or felt as they strained against the wind and pulled up a thousand pounds of wet canvas.