To "Hand, Reef, Steer and Cast the Lead"


by Allen Mordica, TMLHA

Many of our shipmates out there focus on carrying weapons as the measure of success, accuracy and enjoyment in reenacting. In an infantry, cavalry, or artillery unit, this would be correct. But portraying a sailor involves oh, so much more, that carrying and displaying a weapon is of trifling importance by comparison.

One important thing to keep in the forefront of your thoughts when portraying a sailor is that during your typical day, every day whether on patrol, on blockade or most times in port or ashore, you would not be carrying a weapon of any sort larger than a modest sheath knife or folder. Just examine a number of photos of crew on deck of just about any ship, no matter how heavily armed it is. You will not find a one carrying small arms about during their daily routine work.

This brings up the subject of this article. Your typical infantryman of the 1860's had to be able to march where told, fire his musket three times a minute, and stick the bad guy with his bayonet; that's about it. A typical sailor's skill set, even for an ordinary seaman (OS),encompasses far more that his army counterpart. The sailor has to know a little about basic marching, manual of arms, loading and shooting the rifle, and other generic soldier stuff, but a huge amount of absolutely essential information for carrying out his shipboard duties.
The phrase I used as the title of this article is the old-time seaman's equivalent of the "three R's" (Readin', wRiting and aRithmatic) and is just as basic and essential to the sailor. Let's look at the each part of the phrase and translate it into landsman's terms:

HAND- This encompasses any operation that involves handling lines; including Marlinespike Seamanship (knots, splices, seizings, types of line, etc.) and Linehandling (heaving, belaying, mooring, making up and stowing lines, boat lowering, raising and dropping anchor). Already a handful of information, but wait... there's more!

REEF- This one deals with handling sails, including reefing up, clewing, shaking out, sheeting and bracing 'round the sail or sails on the ship (oh yes, don't forget going aloft and out on a yard to do so, not something for the faint of heart).

STEER- You have to know how to steer with either a wheel or a tiller (if you get the two confused, you can end up putting the ship aground, suffering a dismasting or worse). You also have to be able to steer by and "box the compass" (recite the 32 points of a magnetic compass rose). You have to be able to communicate with others about different points of sailing (close, beam, or broad reach, running, in irons, by the lee, hove-to, etc.).

CAST THE LEAD- Not only do you have to be able to actually throw the sounding lead (or leadline) and be able to retrieve it, you also have to understand the marks on the line and what depths they stand for. You also have to know how to run out a speed log, read the speed, and retrieve it as well.

There is also other basic, general knowledge that falls outside the other categories, such as:

- How to communicate directions, locations and features of a ship (fore/aft, athwartships,
aloft/alow, forecastle, the hold, quarterdeck, masts yards and spars, sail names)
- How to tell and communicate time aboard ship without benefit of a pocket watch (bells and watch names).
- Which watch section you were assigned to, and the division organization aboard ship
- How to row one of the ship's boats, and how to respond to commands (tossing, boating, trailing, or backing oars, giving way, etc.)
- Which mess you ate with, and your duties as a mess cook when you were assigned
- On a navy ship, your battle station as a boarder, or a loader, sponger, powder monkey, or block-and-tackle man.

Aboard warships and some merchantmen there would be posted in a central location a Watch, Quarter and Station Bill (today called the WQSB) that would list every crewman and his station for all organized evolutions, like Battle Stations, Fire at sea, anchoring, mooring, boat lowering, rescue and assistance, and others. Every crewmember had to memorize his assignments; failure to go to his correct station on time was an offence punishable by extra watches, extra work assignments or possibly a flogging, depending on the Captain's inclination.

Now, here's an eye-opener: all this and more is required knowledge for a NON-RATED, Ordinary or Able-Bodied SEAMAN. Add to all that the specialty knowledge to serve as a gunner's mate, quartermanter, bo's'un's mate, carpenter's mate, purser's mate, sailmaker's mate, armorer's mate, or other rating, and the knowledge level is truly impressive. And all of that is WITHOUT beginning to talk about carrying and use of small arms.

Remember that the typical sailor of the 1800's, whether he be a whalerman, merchant seaman, navy bluejacket, or fisherman, lived a life far more dangerous that most of those on land, doing and seeing things and visiting places the boys back home could only read about. A sailor took risks every day, every watch, like going aloft in a storm, harpooning whales in a small whaleboat, or pulling full nets in a running sea, that would strike fear into most land lubbers. Portraying a sailor, you are entitled to give an attitude of arrogance to shore-huggers. But to be credible doing so you must have some knowledge to draw from to make the presentation real to the public. 'Tators can smell a fake a mile away, and will sometimes call you out on something you say or do, if it doesn't seem right. Your success as an interpreter lies in your ability to back up your impression with either experience or acquired knowledge.

If you haven't actually been to sea, go grab a book (or several) and learn the terms, not just to recite them, actually pick items and really LEARN what they mean. If you get the chance, make a pilgrimage to a tall ship in your area (not just naval vessels) like the Charles W. Morgan in Mystic CT, the Californian in San Diego, the Lettie Howard at South Street Seaport in Manhattan, USS Constellation in Baltimore, the Balclutha in Frisco or the Niagara in Erie PA, or the mother of them all, USS Constitution in Boston.

Spend a day aboard, take a book on the details of sailing ships and terminology. More than likely if you look serious about what you're doing and explain why you're there, a crewman will spend time to explain things to you that you can use in your impressions. That's where to put the emphasis, less on carrying a rifle, cutlass or pistol. Because THAT's what the people would rather walk away with. The weapons thing they can get from any infantryman.

The point to all this is that you can carry on a presentation full of good solid nautical information at great enough length to put just about anyone into a coma. I'm not talking about non-essential trivial stuff here; I'm talking about the Real Deal. This is what being a sailor is REALLY about, without even mentioning or carrying a small arm. And THAT is what is so neat about "doing Navy". So we're not just "dismounted boat cavalry" running around like seagoing Zouaves at non-naval events like Chancellorsville or Gettysburg. Not if we do our homework, present ourselves and the sailor's knowledge we all should have, and stay true to only appearing at events that actually had a naval presence, like Sayler's Creek, Bentonville, Fort Fisher, etc.

This is about the most crucial issue that will make or break the "naval side" of the hobby from a credibility standpoint, and each of us can make a big difference by taking a little extra effort ahead of time.

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