The Crotchet-Yard

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1500 – 1830 The Crotchet-Yard

Viewing 12 posts - 1 through 12 (of 12 total)
  • Author
  • #2640
    Malcolm Lewis

      In Jane Knight’s very interesting Document, ‘Lt J.H.E.Hill’s account of the shipwreck of the Valke, 10 November 1799’ in the May issue of The Mariner’s Mirror, reference is made (P.211) to the heavy sea striking the Crotchet-yard.
      I cannot find reference to this in the OED. Can anyone define the position and use of this yard please?

      P.S. B

        I havn’t yet received the May MM so the suggestion may be inappropriate but the only thing I can think of would be the Cro-jack yard (cross-jack) on the mizzen.

        Frank Scott

          ‘Crotchet-yard’ is clearly a variant of ‘Crotched-yard’, which was an old method of spelling for ‘Crossjack yard’.
          ‘Crossjack’ is the traditional term for the lower yard on the mizzen mast of a full-rigged ship, and at the time of the wreck no sail would have been set on it, its role being to spread the foot of the mizzen topsail. In this position it is easy to visualise a heavy sea passing ‘over the Quar deck’ and striking it.
          John Harland in Seamanship in the Age of Sail (London 1984), is the most readable source on how the sails and yards obtained their names in square riggers.
          Dr Samuel Johnson, who compiled his great dictionary in the 18th century, was famous for his loathing of seafarers and the sea, and not surprisingly his lexicon was littered with maritime howlers. Although the modern OED is a collective effort with extremely high academic standards, it still falls short of being the absolute source for the traditional language of the sea that one might expect.


            Although this spelling is unfamiliar to me, it can hardly be anything other than a variant of ‘crossjack’. Smyth’s The Sailor’s Word-Book (London 1867) notes it was pronouced ‘crojick’.

            Malcolm Lewis

              My thanks for what must be the explanation of Crotchet-yard. I am familiar with ‘cross-jack’ but why cross and why jack?


                Not sure about the ‘jack’ part, but the first element comes from Dutch. The mizzen topsail first evolved as an alternative to the fore-and-aft mizzen, being more useful when off the wind. Kruis-zeil = Cross-sail. The yard to spread its clews was the Kruis-ra = Cross-Yard.


                  Although the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the premier source for derivation and meaning for English words, and therefore rightly consulted by Malcolm for his originating post, the nautical lexicon is often not fully (or is sometimes incorrectly) represented therein. While it has antiquarian attraction and some usefulness for the scholar of early modern maritime history, Captain Smith’s Sea Grammar (1627) is too early for the bulk of sailing navy terms. W. H. Smyth’s Sailor’s Word-Book (London 1867), is a more useful source, and includes a wide variety of archaic words and contemporary technical terms of nascent steam power in addition to the more esoteric usage of the age of sail.
                  However, may I recommend as a standard source of words for the sailing navy (not without its faults or lacunae, but extensive and detailed) Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine originally published in 1769?
                  The best edition is the last – that of 1815 edited and much extended by William Burney, with many line illustrations. I was the proud recipient of the superb facsimile edition – a gift from my students – published in London by Chatham in 2006, and this is now my first port of call for terms of the period prior to the steam and iron navy.
                  The following notes come from these and other sources.
                  A ‘Jack’ is a secondary, smaller or younger version of a related item, a common useage in middle and early modern English (OED). Perhaps the cro’jack-yard or cro’jack-s’l were regarded as later additions to the usual rig?
                  In nautical parlance a Jack can also be a small flag (Falconer) – hence of course ‘Union Jack’ when used as the correct term for the Union flag worn on the jack-staff (as distinct from the often very large battle flags or festive banners worn at mast-heads). Incidentally and discursively, Samuel Pepys stated that Charles II insisted on the maritime use of the Union flag – which he refers to as ‘the Jack’ – exclusively for the King’s warships (Pepys’ lecture to the Court of Trinity House, June 1674, quoted in the Pepys’ Day Lecture 2008 by Captain Richard Woodman, printed by the Pepys Club).
                  ‘Jack’ in the context of flags derives from ‘jacket’ (originally old French), and harks back to the era when retainers wore brightly coloured designs on tabards or over-jackets to distinguish their allegiance to one side in battle. It is assumed that some bright spark used his jacket (or jack) as a rudimentary flag when the standard was lost; the unlikely sounding derivation of this useage convinces me that there is an element of truth in it.
                  A Tudor mariner’s Jack could also be a leather jerkin (‘jacket-kin’ – small jacket) like a gilet or waistcoat, with plates of metal sewn into the lining or attached to the outside as light armour. Those worn by officers were often adorned with costly embroidery, as one can see in portraits of naval commanders such as Frobisher (Bodleian), or Clinton (Ashmolean Museum), often covering a steel cuirass.
                  Putting “crossjack” in the search box of the MM Index in the online Members’ Area produces four references to the use of the word in article titles, the earliest in the first issue of 1911.

                  Frank Scott

                    Although the mizzen mast at first only carried a fore-&-aft lateen, by 1600 or so it had been augmented by the square mizzen topsail, spread at its foot by the Cross-jack yard. So it easily precedes any English Maritime Dictionary (see below).
                    In the sailing world ‘Jack’ was used quite often a prefix or suffix for various items of rigging. Thus you have the ‘jack-yard’ gaff topsail, ‘jack-stay’, ‘jack-line’ reefing, luff ‘jack-line’, ‘lazy-jacks’, and so on.
                    Well into the eighteenth century the mizzen was still set on a Lateen yard, and with this physical obstruction there was no practical way that a sail could be set on the mizzen lower yard. Consequently the sole purpose of this ‘cross-jack’ yard was as a tool (or jack) to spread (or cross) the foot of the mizzen topsail. Interestingly, even when a gaff came to be substituted for the lateen, bending a sail on the cross-jack yard did not become common for many years. Indeed at the end of the age of sail some Captains still would not set a sail on this spar.

                    The French term for this yard is ‘vergue sèche’ or ‘vergue barrée’, which roughly translates as the dry yard or the obstructed yard.

                    Falconer is good in its way, but it provides no feel for how rigging evolved. For that you are much better to consult James Lees, Masting and Rigging of English Ships of War, 2nd revised edition (London 1984), and John Harland, Seamanship in the age of Sail (London 1987).
                    For definitions in the early modern period John Smith would not be my choice. More useful is G.E. Manwaring & W. Perrin (editors) The Life and Works of Sir Henry Mainwaring Vol II, NRS Volume 56 (London 1921), which contains a much fuller and slightly earlier Seaman’s Dictionary (circa 1622). Valuable as a cross-reference is W. Perrin (ed.) Boteler’s Dialogues, NRS Volume 65 (London 1929).

                    Malcolm Lewis

                      I am grateful for the various explanations regarding the origins of crotchet yard, cross jack and crojack yard. These contributions are a good example of the valuable participation on the part of members to this Member’s Area.
                      Such gems as the word ‘jack’ being derived from the Old French ‘jacket’ are, I suggest, particularly rewarding in increasing our knowledge of matters maritime.


                        The explanation of “crossjack” that I was taught, almost long enough ago to be contemporary with the item in question, was that a “jack” is a slightly derogatory term for something a bit useless — as a jackstay is stretched between the two ends of something solid. “Cross” is, of course, merely an alternative for “square” in the term “square sail” and one still refers to yards being “crossed’ when they are aloft. Hence, a square yard which does not carry a sail (and is thus, on its face, a bit pointless) becomes a crossjack yard.

                        Robert Legge

                          The Art Of Apparelling and Fitting of any Ship with Masts, Yards, and Cordage…,Henry Bond, 3rd edition London 1704, continually refers to the yard as the “Croffe-jeck Yard” or “Crosse-jeck Yard”. This book [can be viewed as a PDF online] at:

                          [The first and second editions of this book were published in 1663; a searchable digital alternate of the 3rd edition is also available at Eighteenth-century Documents Online, at:

                          Colin H

                            I have been most interested in reading the various replies to the original query here. As one would expect, adequately answered by our members. What I find equally interesting is the way the topic has become a reference for early mentions of the ‘crossjack yard’. I don’t think we have included Blankley’s A Naval Expositor, 1750 – “Crofsjack” – or Hayward’s Sizes and Lengths of Rigging, 1655 – again “Crofsjack”.
                            Does anyone know of a font which has the long ‘ess’?

                          Viewing 12 posts - 1 through 12 (of 12 total)
                          • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.