The proper use of nau­ti­cal terms pro­vides clar­ity for the crew

Soundings - - Contents - BY PAT MUN­DUS

Port and star­board may as well be up and down if you don’t know nau­ti­cal lingo. Pat Mun­dus ex­plains the im­por­tance of un­der­stand­ing the lan­guage of the sea.

De­spite the rib­bing and head­scratch­ing re­ac­tions that it in­spires from our land- bound friends, nau­ti­cal ver­nac­u­lar is as es­sen­tial to­day as ever. Nomen­cla­ture can seem aw­fully es­o­teric, es­pe­cially if know­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween a bowsprit and a boomkin is of lit­tle use in your life on board. Yet, there are com­mon ev­ery­day terms we all share. Know­ing these terms is part of the art of seamanship.

Whether you learn the lingo from fam­ily and ship­mates, or you glean it from read­ing ma­te­ri­als and watch­ing videos, once mas­tered, it cre­ates a shared mother tongue for mariners. Ob­jects and places, pro­ce­dures, con­di­tions, and lev­els of in­ten­sity all have spe­cific words to de­scribe them. Noth­ing sets a sea­man’s teeth on edge faster than hear­ing some­one call for “putting out the bumpers” in­stead of “rig­ging the fend­ers.” The cor­rect us­age is not about the cap­tain’s need to show off, but in­stead is about pro­vid­ing clar­ity—and in­di­cat­ing our re­spect for the sub­ject mat­ter.

The right nau­ti­cal lan­guage has a purely func­tional pur­pose, too. At a min­i­mum, ev­ery sea­man should learn the com­mon names to de­scribe a ves­sel’s land­scape. This in­cludes, but is not lim­ited to, the tran­som, top­sides, sheer, deck and deck­house, boot top, chine, cock­pit, fly­bridge, Bi­mini top, bulk­head, coam­ings, rail caps, bilges, lock­ers and sole. Flu­ency in the names of var­i­ous deck fit­tings, dock­ing equip­ment and an­chor­ing gear is es­sen­tial, too. For com­mu­ni­ca­tion and team­work to be pos­si­ble, ev­ery­one needs to know the dif­fer­ence be­tween open and closed chocks, a scup­per and a hawse, bitts and cleats, and dock­ing breast lines and spring lines. Pas­sen­gers should also be fa­mil­iar with the cor­rect names of all the parts and pieces that make up the ground tackle sys­tem. Us­ing the right words can avoid stress­ful mis­un­der­stand­ings or, worse yet, ar­gu­ments among the crew.

We know all too well that di­rec­tions some­times get com­mu­ni­cated in a hurry. The right words make a world of dif­fer­ence. “Fend off the bow pul­pit” is a spe­cific, em­phatic direc­tive that takes only sec­onds to ar­tic­u­late. Com­pare that to, “push away and keep the an­chor and the bow safety-pro­tec­tion from hit­ting that dock struc­ture.” Fend off, surge, hold, haul away, make fast, stand by, be­lay that ( there’s an old- school phrase), let go, ease, stop off, take the strain off and flake out are all suc­cinct yet highly ef­fec­tive di­rec­tives.

Ac­cu­rate nomen­cla­ture also de­scribes places and lo­ca­tions on board, which are of­ten rel­a­tive. With­out the right words, con­fu­sion would en­sue while ma­neu­ver­ing one­self around a mov­ing ves­sel. The star­board and port sides of a ves­sel are al­ways the right and left sides of the boat, no mat­ter which way the sea­man faces. This speci­ficity is also true for for­ward, aft, amid­ships, athwartship, aloft, down be­low, in­board, out­board, lee­ward, wind­ward, abaft, abeam and dead ahead. Con­ve­nient and suc­cinct, right?

Cor­rect words also de­scribe types of con­di­tions and lev­els of in­ten­sity. A ves­sel doesn’t just move in a se­away. It rolls, pitches and yaws— three dis­tinct types of mo­tion. The bal­ance be­tween the forces of grav­ity and buoy­ancy make a ves­sel stiff or ten­der. When a ves­sel is strug­gling, it is la­bor­ing. Weak gear may carry away. Lines that are slack or lazy are in a re­laxed state. A ves­sel that is hogged or sagged is awash. Weather and cur­rent can be el­e­gantly de­scribed in one beau­ti­fully ar­tic­u­late word: fair or foul.

A sailor’s vo­cab­u­lary changes over time, as some names and de­scrip­tions are in­vented or oth­ers fall out of com­mon us­age. Old-timers might still use the nau­ti­cal term gilhickey to de­scribe a makeshift or rare un­named gad­get. Mod­ern rac­ing sailors have a whole slew

of names for gear. For the truly cu­ri­ous, there are as many nau­ti­cal dic­tionar­ies, man­u­als, glos­saries and et­y­mol­ogy col­lec­tions as there are words they at­tempt to de­scribe. Open­ing to a ran­dom page in any of them is apt to make one feel hum­ble. And yes, there’s an app for that, too.

Nau­ti­cal lan­guage can be amus­ing. As a teenager, I sailed with a cap­tain who came up with games to com­bat bore­dom when the wind dropped out. He once chal­lenged the crew to come up with nau­ti­cal words and phrases named af­ter liv­ing things. Mon­key fist, lizard band, cat’s paw, pel­i­can hook, hatch tur­tle, dol­phin striker, worm gear, mare’s tales, crow’s nest, deck horse, don­key en­gine, dog the hatch and mouse a hook are just a few.

Who among us doesn’t find sat­is­fac­tion in know­ing the most ar­tic­u­late words to de­scribe a sit­u­a­tion on board? It’s a beau­ti­ful thing. My fa­vorite nau­ti­cal word is the verb soo­gie, which is pretty much only used by old-timers these days: “To­day, we’ll soo­gie the bulk­heads and over­head.” Don’t know the mean­ing? Look it up.

The goose­neck con­nects a boom to the mast.

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