The expression “three sheets in the wind” means, of course, pretty drunk, reeling from too much indulgence in strong drink, somewhat more tipsy than “half-seas over.”
Like many other common expressions, the phrase dates back to the times when ocean navigation was entirely by sail.
But in nautical use, a sheet is not a sail, as landsmen are accustomed to suppose, but the rope or chain attached to the lower corner of a sail by which the angle of the sail is controlled. In a strong wind the sheet may be loosened, and is then said to be “in the wind,” flapping and fluttering without restraint.
If all three sheets are loose, as in a gale, the vessel staggers and reels very much like a drunken person.