Sailor’s yarn, also known as tackle yarn, was made from old ropes and was used by sailors to wrap lines and hawsers. Twining or spinning yarn was a secondary nautical task, an occupation for fair-weather days. As it was a pretty boring job, sailors would pass the time recounting their experiences and telling their fellows what was on their minds. Sagas, anecdotes and drolleries were common. This was how, over the years, spinning sailor’s yarn acquired a new meaning. The story itself became the main thing, the work was incidental – the term came to refer just to the narrative. In more recent times ‘spinning sailor’s yarn’, or just ‘spinning yarns’, has replaced the ancient turn of phrase, and nowadays real sailor’s yarns are taken to be sailors’ accounts of their adventures, somewhere in the borderline zone between truth and fantasy – the sort of story where it’s all a bit confused, but impressive enough to command belief. Still, the listeners never quite know whether they are being taken for a ride or not. And the truth gets embroidered to such an extent that a little fish can easily metamorphose into a monster shark, or the kraken wakes and sends entire ships to the bottom.
Sailors’ yarns also include stories about the Klabautermann (a water sprite of the Baltic), as well as sea monsters, mermen and nixies, uncanny stories like those of the ‘magnetic cliffs’ that attract ships ineluctably and shatter them, spirit vessels like the Flying Dutchman and ships’ graveyards in the open sea (originating from the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic with its twining waterweed – vast expanses of floating brown seaweed of the genus sargassum). Modern sailor’s yarns can also run to stories about UFO sightings or the disappearance of ships in the Bermuda Triangle.
Among the stories that were for years wrongly reputed to be sailors’ yarns are reports of monster waves coming out of nowhere that can swallow ships whole. For centuries there were reports of sightings of giant squids and encounters with these creatures, but these were generally dismissed as yarns and relegated to the sphere of myth. Even when squids measuring over ten metres in length were found washed up on the beach, few were inclined to believe the story. Today we know that there really are such beasts. In view of this, it doesn’t do to dismiss sailors’ stories too hastily as the product of a heated imagination.