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What Is a Footrope?

By Paul Scott
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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A footrope is a length of rope or cable suspended below the yards on square rigged sailing ships for sailors to stand on while working on the sails. There are typically two footropes per yard, each being attached on their outer ends to the yardarms and approximately two thirds of the way down the yard on their inner ends. This arrangement sees the footropes crossing each other in the center of the yard and allowing access to almost its full length. The very ends of the yards are served by two shorter ropes, one on either end, known as Flemish horses. In addition to its two end attachment points, the footrope is further supported along its inner length by lines known as stirrups which run vertically from the footrope to the yard.

Much of the sail work on square rigged ships is done from the deck via buntlines and clewlines. When the sails require stowing or setting, however, the crew has to ascend the rigging and physically fold and secure or release the sails. This requires several crew members per sail which have to position themselves along the yard while working. This is made possible by suspending a stout rope or cable a short way below the yard for the crew members to stand on while working on the sails. This line is attached at its ends to the jackstays that secure the sails.

Known as a footrope, this line will typically be one of a pair of footholds along the yard. The reason for using multiple footropes is the maintenance of stability with two shorter ropes being less inclined to yaw than a single long one. Each of the footropes run inward from the yardarm to approximately two thirds of the way down the yard's length. In other words, the two footropes cross at the mid point of the yard, thereby effectively allowing access to virtually its full length.

The footrope naturally rises upwards as it nears its attachment points and becoming to close to the yard to work on in those areas. The center of the yard does not present any real problems because crew members can step across to the opposite footrope when the other starts to get too high. The outsides of the yard are problematic, however, and for this reason a pair of shorter ropes, known as Flemish horses, are attached to the ends of the yard to allow the crew to access its full length. To maintain correct working heights along its shorter length, each Flemish horse usually hangs down lower than the main footrope. Each foot rope is given additional support along its inner length by several vertical lines called stirrups which attach to the yard.

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