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A member of my model club asked me a question about why yards on square-rigged sailing ships were sometimes skewed at severe angles to their masts. He mentioned that he's seen this unusual aspect in various historic paintings of square-rigged sailing ships in harbors.


I told him all that I knew - which is that this was a practice to signify that a senior officer aboard the ship had died. I believe this practice (ritual) was only done while the ship was anchored in harbor, for obvious reasons.


Can anyone confirm when and where this practice originated and whether or not countries other than England also practiced this display?


Also, can anyone add more details about the practice and if, in fact, it was always called "cockabill?”





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Ron, this definition is from the Sea Talk Nautical Dictionary.

"Term: cockbill, cock-a-bill (adv) Definition: Suspended on an angle, such as the anchor when it is boused to the cathead, or the yards when they are tilted to signify that the ship is in mourning."



Edited by markjay
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Whether this helps or not,but British royal yachts of the latter part of the 17th century,rather than furling or brailing the topsail,the sail and its top yard would be lowered to the deck;the lower yard was then left 'a'cockbilled'.Donald McNarry wrote about the subject in an edition of the Model Shipwright magazine.

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Many thanks to all  - Mark, Henry, Laurence.  I'll check back later to see if there is more collective wisdom on the subject; in the interim, I'll advise my model club colleague to proceed with his plan to display his Sovereign Of The Seas model with "cock-a-bill" yards."


My best guess is that the SOS never got anywhere near to either a wharf or quay after her launch, so I'll inform my friend to do some research and decide who might have passed away so he can answer queries when asked why the model's yards are "crooked!"



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  • 5 years later...

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