It Pays to Increase Your Nautical Word Power:
Compiled by Allen Mordica, TMLHA
TARHEEL and BACKSLIDER: Something in common?
North Carolinians consider the name Tarheel a complement, but where does the term come from?
Aboard ship, the sailor with the masthead lookout watch had a long, hard climb up the ratlines
(pronounced "ratlins"), the rope ladders running up either side of the mast to his post. After
four hours up there, he would normally climb back down, another tedious process. Or, lazy
(or hungry) sailor Jack could reach out to the backstay that ran directly from the masthead to
the deck, hook his ankles over the line and quickly, feet first and hand over hand, down Jack
would go, sliding effortlessly past the rest of the watch section climbing down to the deck, and
reserve his place at the head of the mess line!
The only problem for Jack was that backstays were Standing Rigging (permanently installed to
keep the masts upright and smeared with tar to prevent rotting from constant exposure to sea air).
Upon being inspected by the officer of the watch before being sent below to mess,
it would be revealed that lazy Jack had, you guessed it, Tar Heels from Backsliding! Not a
complement at all, when you think about it!
THE BLACK FLAG (or, the "Jolly Roger"):
Everyone has seen pictures of the famous Pirate Flag. But actually that flag was not the
symbol for pirates at all!
For centuries, a plain Black Flag was a military symbol, rarely used, that signified "No
Quarter" or no mercy given, none expected and no prisioners taken. This flag was flown by an
army unit, or a ship, in place of the regular regimental or Naval Colours. The flag might also
be emblazoned with the heraldic symbol of Death, the Skull and Crossed Bones (Crossbones)
nicknamed, "the Jolly Roger".
Since piracy on the high seas carried the death penalty, pirates knew that if they were
captured by a naval vessel it would be a quick trip to the gallows for the lot of them. As
pirate ships were considered "stateless vessels" anyway, their flying of the Black Flag, the
"Jolly Roger", was only natural.
A ship, when entering a river's mouth, or a harbor, was forced to present her stern, or poop,
to the oncoming seas. If the sea actually broke over the poop, bearing the stern down into the
sea, and possibly onto the bottom, the vessel was said to be "pooped". A sailor would also feel
"pooped" if he were run-down and exhausted.
GUNNELS (GUNWALES) UNDER:
When a ship is sailing under a full spread of canvas in a strong wind, especially when overloaded
with cargo, she would occasionally roll to one side or another, allowing the seas to wash over
the rail, putting one of the "gunwales under". When a shipmate was assigned jobs too numerous,
time-consuming, or strenuous, and he was obviously overwhelmed, he was said to be "gunnels under".
OVER THE BAR:
At the mouth of most rivers would be found a sand bar, where the river would deposit it's load of
silt from upstream. This bar formed the boundary between the rough sea and the safe shelter of the
calm waters of the river. This became symbolic of the transition from this "mortal coil" of a sailor's
life and the promise of paradise to come. Thus a sailor who died was said to have "passed over the bar"
to a better place.
When salt beef or pork was boiled down by the cook, a layer of lard, or slush, remained on
the surface of the pot. This would be skimmed off and saved for greasing the mast hoops, and
other uses. Any left upon return to port would be sold off to merchants ashore, to provide
funds for crew goodies and such; the "Slush Fund". The term now applies to any unofficial
monetary fund intended for non-accountable purchases.
CUT YOUR CABLE/SLIP YOUR CABLE, CUT AND RUN:
In the days of fighting sail, ships would anchor, not with lengths of chain, but with
hawsers, or thick heavy rope cables, leading over the side and down to the anchors. Hauling up
the anchor was a laborious process that sometimes took hours and a large part of the crew to
accomplish, leaving the ship vulnerable to nature or attack. If immediate danger threatened,
such as a sudden squall or an enemy ship arriving to attack, the captain might sacrifice the
anchor and it's cable by ordering a sailor to hack the cable in two at the gunwale with an axe,
or by untie (slip) it from the deck, and "running" or sailing away downwind, thus saving
To make a hasty departure from danger, such as from a press gang, creditor or a jealous
husband (especially when one leaves some personal effects or gear behind), a sailor would be said to
have, "Cut (or slipped) his cable and run."
In the day of fighting sail, the guns were arranged in two rows, along
both sides facing outward. Each gun would be secured to the inside of the ship's side with
blocks and tackles hooked on to either side of the carriage; they would help to absorb the recoil
when firing and were used to pull the gun back into position for the next shot. When not in
action, the gun's muzzle would be pulled tight against the bulkhead above the gunport and the
lines tied off. This would keep the extremely heavy gun secure in foul weather. A cannon that
broke loose would roll about the deck at random, in whatever directions the ship's pitching and rolling would
send it, colliding with and smashing equipment and crewmen. A crewmember who lost his self-control
and became unpredictably violent was referred to as a "loose cannon".
TAKE A ROUND TURN:
When handling lines, simply holding on isnít always enough. If too much strain is put on, or if the
boat, fish, or whale youíre trying to stop really takes off, the line could be pulled out of your hands,
possibly causing rope burns if you donít let go quick enough. A quick and easy way to increase your
holding power is to loop the line, or, "take a round turn", around an upright pole, bitt, belaying pin,
etc. If you experiment with this trick you will be surprised at how much more control you have, and
how much less you have to exert yourself.
The same idea applies to self-control. A common admonishment to a shipmate getting too rowdy,
angry, or carried away would be, "Take a round turn, there, lad!" meaning in more modern terrms,
"Hey, get a grip!" or, "Get a hold of yourself!"
If youíve ever seen racing sailboats, then youíve probably seen one sail too close to the wind and,
if the skipper was not paying attention, the boat would suffer an accidental tack; the wind gets behind
the sails and the boat rocks violently, flaps and bangs around until the crew can get the boat back on
course. A sailor who makes careless derogatory comments about seniors, (especially the captain!) or engages
carelessly in risky business aboard ship, is considered to be, "sailing a bit close to the wind", or
"pretty close hauled".
The SHIP'S HEAD:
In the days of fighting sail, there were no restrooms with toilets aboard ship for the crew. At
the bow, or HEAD of the ship, a grating platform formed a wedge-shaped bridge between the bow and
the bowsprit. This platform allowed a place, usually downwind from the rest of the ship, for
the crew to relieve themselves. The action of the ship pitching up and down washed the refuse
away, keeping the platform clean. In the Napoleonic era, plank benches would be positioned along
the port and starboard sides of the grating deck with holes appropriately located for the crew's
The FORECASTLE (Fo'c's'le), the QUARTERDECK and the POOP DECK:
In the early days of sailing, Viking longships were modified to give archers protected, raised
platforms fore and aft to fire from, and to shield helmsmen from flying arrows. Since castles
were the normal fortification of the time, the platforms were designed to look like castle walls
with crenellated (notched) tops, and called FORECASTLES and aftercastles. As ship design
progressed, the platforms were blended into the shape of the hull, but the name stuck.
The aftercastle would be usually half the length of the hull, and that deck became known as the
Half Deck. Later, two additional decks were added aft, each one half the length of the one below.
The "QUARTER DECK" was reserved for ship's ceremonies, and though ship design absorbed the
afterdecks into one smooth form, that name stuck, too as the place for the gangway to attach to
the ship's side, and for the Officer of the Deck inport to stand his watch.
The aftermost and highest deck,"POOP DECK", derived it's name from the "Pupae", or idol, carried
at the stern of Roman vessels to watch over and protect the ship in it's journeys.
THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND:
The term relates to the "sheet", the line controlling the lower aft corner of a fore-and-aft sail.
To make the boat go you would draw in the sheet, or "sheet in the sail", causing the sail to
catch the wind, and off you go. To slow to a stop, you would release the sheet, causing the sail
to flap loudly, or "luff". So if the "sheet" were left "to the wind", it would be untended and
completely slack. On a two-masted schooner, with three sails (jib, fore and main), "Three sheets
to the wind" would mean the boat would be "dead in the water" (DIW), with the sails and the
sheets flapping loudly, or luffing, similar to a boisterous or, conversely, immobile drunk.
FREEZE THE BALLS OFF OF A BRASS MONKEY:
This one had to included here not because it is true, but because it is false. The actual device
for storage of roundshot on deck is a "Shot Garland", a wooden plank pierced at intervals for shot
to be placed in, usually attached to the edges of hatchways or, below decks, to the ship's bulwarks.
There actually is no mention of a brass device in any period references.
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