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Stays are ropes, wires, or rods on sailing vessels that run fore-and-aft along the centerline from the masts to the hull, deck, bowsprit, or to other masts which serve to stabilize the masts. On a ship with a single mast, stays that run aft are called backstays and stays that run forward are called forestays. Along with shrouds, they form the primary stabilization for the standing rigging.
To "miss stays" is an unsuccessful attempt to tack.
Types of stays
"A stay is part of the standing rigging (as opposed to the running rigging) and is used to support the weight of a mast. It is a large strong rope extending from the upper end of each mast and running down towards the deck of the vessel in a midships fore and aft direction. The shrouds serve a similar function but extend on each side of the mast and provide support in the athwartships direction. The object of both is to prevent the masts from falling down but the stays also prevent springing, when the ship is pitching deep. Thus stays are fore and aft. Those led aft towards the vessel's stern are back-stays while those that lead forward towards the bow are fore-stays. For example, one fore-stay reaches from the foremast-head towards the bowsprit end. The main-stay extends to the ship's stem. The mizzen-stay stretches to a collar on the main-mast, immediately above the quarter-deck. The fore-topmast stay goes to the end of the bowsprit, a little beyond the fore-stay, on which the fore-topmast staysail runs on hanks. The main-topmast stay attaches to the hounds of the foremast, or comes on deck. The mizzen-topmast stay goes to the hounds of the main-mast. The top-gallant, royal, or any other masts, have each a stay, named after their respective masts. Spring-stay is a kind of substitute nearly parallel to the principal stay, and intended to help the principal stay to support its mast. A triatic stay is a stay that runs between masts. On a ketch it runs between the main mast and the head of the mizzen mast and is used to stop the upper section of the mizzen mast being pulled backwards. On a steamer, an iron bar between the two knees secures the paddle-beams. (See funnel stays).
"To stay. To tack, to bring the ship's head up to the wind for going about; hence to miss stays, is to fail in the attempt to go about. In stays, or hove in stays, is the situation of a vessel when she is staying, or in the act of going about. A vessel in bad trim, or lubberly handled, is sure to be slack in stays, and refuses stays, when she has to wear."
- Keegan, John (1989). The Price of Admiralty. New York: Viking. p. 280. ISBN 0-670-81416-4.
- Smyth, William Henry; Belcher, Edward (1867). The sailor's word-book: An alphabetical digest of nautical terms, including some more especially military and scientific ... as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc. London: Blackie and Son. pp. 652–653.