Three sheets to the wind
Our colleagues at CANOE, the Committee to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything, have been hard at work and, to their great pleasure, they can add this phrase to their list. 'Three sheets to the wind' is indeed a seafaring expression.
To understand this phrase we need to enter the arcane world of nautical terminology. Sailors' language is, unsurprisingly, all at sea and many supposed derivations have to go by the board. Don't be taken aback to hear that sheets aren't sails, as landlubbers might expect, but ropes (or occasionally, chains). These are fixed to the lower corners of sails, to hold them in place. If three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.
The phrase is these days more often given as 'three sheets to the wind', rather than the original 'three sheets in the wind'. The earliest printed citation that I can find is in Pierce Egan's Real Life in London, 1821:
"Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind."
Sailors at that time had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just 'one sheet in the wind', or 'a sheet in the wind's eye'. An example appears in the novel The Fisher's Daughter, by Catherine Ward, 1824:
"Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr. Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure."
The earliest manifestation of the phrase in print that I know of is the 'two sheets' version. That is found in The Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, 1815, which recounts Asbury's travels through Kentucky. His entry for September 26th 1813 includes this:
The tavernkeepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be; they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!
That leads us to think that the phrase may be of American origin. However, Asbury was English, born in West Bromwich (a short walk from where I was born, as it happens) and travelled to America when he was in his mid twenties. Whether he took the phrase with him from the English Black County or heard it (or indeed coined it) in the US, we can't be certain.
Robert Louis Stevenson was as instrumental in inventing the imagery of 'yo ho ho and a bottle of rum' piracy as his countryman and contemporary Sir Walter Scott was in inventing the tartan and shortbread 'Bonnie Scotland'. Stevenson used the 'tipsy' version of the phrase in Treasure Island, 1883 - the book that gave us 'X marks the spot', 'shiver me timbers' and the archetypal one-legged, parrot-carrying pirate, Long John Silver. He gave Silver the line:
"Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind's eye. But I'll tell you I was sober; "