Monday, September 9, 2013

Garbled(a): The Words We Use

It's a few minutes after noon on Monday, and while my mother would like me to report that I'm having a cup of Joe(b), I'm actually on my second Vanilla Porter, because ... well, I can. What's the point in working a month straight with nary a sip of alcohol if I can't enjoy a day off?

It's merely warm here today, and I'm sitting on the patio of the local cafe surrounded by a decorative sampling of Austin's unemployed or otherwise idle.

Not quite everyone is taking a break. The fellow two tables down is conducting business. Something to do with platforms and developers and software. He appears to be speaking English, but I don't understand half of what he's saying.

It occurs to me that if he were a guest at my workplace, he might be equally in the dark.

As with many professions, seafaring has a language all its own. Some of it is traditional, some of it practical, some of it obscure, and much of it very useful.

As with all sorts of jargon, nautical terminology is used as a shorthand that permits a great deal of specificity (and efficiency) for things and actions that simply don't pertain to shoreside life.

It can be exclusionary; fluency in nautical jargon marks an insider, a member of the brotherhood. The opposite also is true. Get it wrong, and the old salts can get rather cranky(c).

The most basic convention a newbie should know is that in English all vessels (boats and ships) are feminine, even if they bear masculine names. Thus, the M/V Gary Rook or the U.S.S. John S. McCain, for instance, are both referred to as "she," as of course are M/V Lady Glenda and the U.S.S. City of Corpus Christi.

Why this is, especially in a language with largely gender-neutral nouns, is not clear. Some surmise that it dates to a time when ships were dedicated to goddesses, though I find this unpersuasive. Others say it is because sailors long considered themselves to be married to the sea, and transferred that relationship to their ships.

I would guess there is something to that: we certainly lavish a similar level of attention on our vessels as we do our significant others back on land. Or we should, anyway.

Many of us find a well-drawn vessel a thing of beauty, with curves that seem feminine. And as more than one wag has written: a ship behaves like a woman -- look after her, and she'll take care of you. Ignore her, she'll ditch you. You have to love your ship or she'll make you suffer.

While we no longer use miles and miles of cordage aboard non-towing commercial vessels, there is still a lot of rope on most boats. That rope is found in the form of dock and mooring lines, taglines, flag halyards and the odds-and-ends traditionally known as junk(d).

On my boat, when our dock lines become so worn as to be unservicable, we order rope -- usually it comes in a spool of a cable (100 fathoms(e), or 600 feet) or half-cable. It remains just "rope" until we've measured it and cut it and spliced eyes into the ends and employed it as dock line.

Rope is unemployed cordage; a line is a rope with a job.

With that said, it's not unusual in the Gulf of Mexico to hear someone speak of "throwing a rope," but I've never heard anyone say "dock rope, or "tag rope."

Sailing vessels have even more specialized lines: halyards, sheets, topping lifts, etc. They are, in every case, made of rope, though sometimes it is wire rope.

There is a a temptation to refer to the physical operation of a vessel as "driving," which is incorrect. One drives cattle, golf balls and trucks. A ship or boat is steered, conned or piloted, usually from a helm station. I personally prefer "piloting," as it connotes more than simply directing the direction of the vessel.To my ear, it includes things like coastwise navigation, radar observation and operating the radios.

Nonetheless, with a perverse pride in ignoring the proper terminology that only insiders are allowed, we sometimes speak among ourselves about "driving" the boat. We know we should say "steering," but because we know that we know, we can (with an appropriate feeling of irony) use the wrong term.

In the oilfield, I've run across some even more specialized terms. "On-tower," for instance, to describe being on watch. It's a drilling term meaning much the same thing and a carryover from the offshore rigs
we service.

One that puzzled me for a while (until a quick Google search revealed the answer) is the use of "Texas deck" to refer to the open deck aft of the wheelhouse.

I had guessed this had something to do with an innovation in crewboats or OSVs somewhere along the line, and I was prepared to be suitably proud that said innovation arose in my home state.

As it turns out, the term is a carryover from steam-powered river boats of the 1840s. Texas then was the newest -- and largest -- state in the Union, and the cabins on the deck aft of the wheelhouse were the largest cabins on the boats. Thus: Texas deck.

I have not yet discovered conclusive evidence, but I suspect that the use of the term "wheels" to refer to propellers also is a throwback to similar shorthand for the "paddlewheels" that drove the big river boats. Less happily, I admit that it could simply be an analogue to the wheels on a truck or a car.

Something I frequently hear new guys stumble over is the use of port(f) and starboard(g) for left and right, respectively. When referring to part of the boat, or when using the vessel as a reference point, port and starboard are the appropriate terms.

For instance: "... calling the vessel off my port bow," or "the third tire on the starboard side," or "I'll meet you port to port," or "today we're going to paint the starboard crash rail."

It's equally correct, though, to instruct a helmsman to "come right five degrees." But one could also say: "I'm altering my course to my starboard to cut your stern."

I've never had a problem with leeward and windward, perhaps because my nautical education began more than 30 years ago under sail, where knowing the strength, direction and effects of the wind are self-evidently important.

Surprisingly, in conversation I've encountered a few experienced captains who apparently aren't clear in their own minds that the lee side is the downwind side, and the windward side is the upwind side.

There is much more, of course. And I could have a field day(h) with the many words we use every day ashore that originated among sailors.

But I think I'll stop here for fear of seeming overbearing(i), or overwhelming(j) you, my gentle reader.

(a) "Garbling" was the practice of mixing worthless items or refuse with cargo, or the the practice of sorting-out the garbage from the good stuff. Today, of course, it means "muddled, mixed-up, distorted."
(b) Coffee, according to a U.S. Navy legend from Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century. Among his reforms of the Navy were the introduction of women into the service, and the abolishment of the officers' wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".
(c) Irritable. From the Dutch krengd, an unstable sailing vessel. 
(d) Something of little meaning or worth, useless, discarded. But the original meaning was discarded, well-used cordage.
(e) Unit of measure that equals six feet. When we say we can't fathom something, we originally meant we couldn't get to the bottom of it.
(f) The left side of a vessel, so-called because that was traditionally the side along which a boat or ship made fast to the wharf or pier in order to protect the steering board.
(g) The right side, from "steering board," or steering oar. 
(h) A time of extraordinary pleasure or opportunity, originally a day for military exercises or review, but commonly used to denote a day for cleaning all parts of a vessel.
(i) Unpleasantly or arrogantly domineering, but originally to sail downwind directly at another vessel, thus stealing or diverting the wind from her sails.
(j) Overpowering in effect or strength, but originally Old English for capsize or founder.


  1. Ha, I totally say that I'm "driving the boat" all the time. My dad - a retired ship captain - freaks out when I do this

    1. Honestly, I do too! "Steering," "piloting," etc., always sounds a bit too precious on a workboat. Thanks for stopping by -- I enjoy your blog.

    2. Thanks so much! I enjoy yours too!