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Old sea superstitions and nautical terms

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The winter and spring season is over, and summer is here (depending on your hemisphere). The shipyard refits are nearing an end, the owner’s plans are finalized, and charters are booked.


In the course of our daily work, the surveyors of International Yacht Bureau have the fortune to interact with dozens of people from all walks of life and nationalities. One of the few characteristics that bind us all together is our chosen profession for working on or near the water.


Each year our surveyors revisit many yachts and freshen our relationships with experienced captains, seasoned crew, and identify plenty of new faces. In the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, it is regretful to see that a large number of people who put to sea for their livelihood are unaware of the traditions that a seafaring career brings with it.


Years ago, when I was a doe-eyed midshipman with illusions of unlimited adventure, I was subjected to an excruciatingly painful class on the intricacies of cargo stowage and stability. My professor, according to his own statements, had been to sea for centuries. His most famous quote, “Boy, I’ve rung more water out of my socks then you’ll sail upon in your lifetime.” That gives you an idea of his personality.


However painful the two-hour class was for that day, the highlight of the session was always the last 5 minutes. This salty old sea captain would entice us with a classic tale centered on the origin of a particular nautical phrase or superstition. Here are some that you may or may not know.


As the Crow Flies

In the days before GPS and electronic communication, when ships were lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, they would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight toward the nearest land, thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be known as the crow’s nest.


Bananas are Evil

Bananas are a mainstay of most cultures and are the world’s most popular fruit. However, these deliciously yellow treats have no place at sea. Since the 1700s, it has been widely believed that having a banana on board was an omen of disaster.


In the early 1700s, during the height of the Spanish Empire’s South Atlantic and Caribbean trading domain, it was observed that nearly every ship that disappeared at sea and did not make its destination was carrying a cargo of bananas. This gave rise to the belief that hauling bananas was a dangerous prospect.


Another explanation for the banana superstition is that the fastest sailing ships used to carry bananas from the tropics to U.S. ports along the East Coast in order to land them before they could spoil.  These ships were often suspect to shipwrecks or lost at sea due to demanding schedules and nontraditional voyage routes.


Another theory is that bananas carried aboard slave ships fermented and gave off methane gas, which would be trapped below deck. Anyone in the hold, including the human cargo, would succumb to the poisoned air, and anyone trying to climb down into the hold to help them would fall prey to the dangerous gas.


And finally, one of the better known dangers of bananas at sea, is that a species of spider with a lethal bite likes to hide in bunches of bananas. Crew members suddenly dying of spider bites after bananas are brought aboard certainly would be considered a bad omen resulting in the cargo being tossed into the sea.


Down the Hatch

Here is a drinking expression that has its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. “Over the rail and on the deck, 1, 2, 3, down the hatch.”


Footloose

No, this doesn’t refer to the 1980’s dance movie. The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and dances randomly in the wind.


Head

On sailing ships, the toilet was typically placed at the head of the ship near the base of the bowsprit. Splashing water served to naturally clean the toilet area. Contrary to some beliefs, it was not placed on the poopdeck.


Groggy

This term comes from grog, the name sailors in the British Royal Navy disdainfully used for their daily ration of a half-pint of rum and an equal amount of water. The unpopular order was issued by Vice Admiral Sir Edward Vernon, nicknamed “Old Grog” because of the impressive grogram cloak he wore on deck.


Keel Hauling

A punishment on board ships said to have originated with the Dutch, but adopted by other navies during the 15th and 16th centuries. A rope was rigged from yardarm to yardarm, passing under the bottom of the ship. The unfortunate delinquent was secured to it, sometimes with lead or iron weights attached to his legs. He was hoisted up to one yardarm and then dropped suddenly into the sea, hauled underneath the ship, and hoisted up to the opposite yardarm. The punishment was repeated after he had had time to recover his breath.


Mayday

This is the distress call for voice radio when vessels and people are in serious trouble at sea. The term was made official by an international telecommunications conference in 1948. It is an anglicization of the French “m’aidez” (help me).


Pipe Down

This term means to stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun’s pipe each day, which meant “lights out” and “silence.”


Poop Deck

The name originates from the French word for stern, la poupe, from Latin puppis. Thus the poop deck is technically called a stern deck, which in sailing ships was usually elevated as the roof of the stern or “after” cabin, also known as the “poop cabin.” In sailing ships, with the helmsman at the stern, an elevated position was ideal for both navigation and observation of the crew and sails.

Pooped Out

This term described the condition of seamen caught on the poop or aft deck after a wave from heavy seas crashed down upon it.


Port and Starboard

Port and starboard are shipboard terms for left and right, respectively. In Old England, the starboard was the steering paddle or rudder, and ships were always steered from the right side on the back of the vessel. Larboard referred to the left side, the side on which the ship was loaded. So how did larboard become port? Shouted over the noise of the wind and the waves, larboard and starboard sounded too much alike. The word port means the opening in the “left” side of the ship from which cargo was unloaded. Sailors eventually started using the term to refer to that side of the ship.


Rummage Sale

This phrase stems from the French word arrimage, meaning “the loading of a cargo ship.” Damaged cargo was occasionally sold at special warehouse sales.


Skyscraper

Traditionally, this term referred to the topsail of a ship and only more recently has come to mean a tall building.


Slush Funds

This was once the personal fund of ship cooks. They were earned by skimming off the fat, or slush, from cooking and selling it when the ship came into port.


Scuttlebutt

A butt was a wooden cask, which held water or other liquids.To scuttle is to drill a hole, as for tapping a cask. The cask of drinking water on ships was called a scuttlebutt and since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became slang for gossip or rumors.


Son of a Gun

When the crew was restricted to the ship for any extended period, wives and women of easy virtue were often allowed to live aboard with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard. A convenient place for this was between the guns on the gun deck. If the child’s father was unknown, they were entered into the ship’s log as “son of a gun.”


Three Sheets to the Wind

This is a popular drinking expression. A sheet is a rope line, which controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a three-masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be “in the wind.” A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind. When someone is “three sheets to the wind,” they are seen to act in a similar manner.


Toe the Line

The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with packing material called “oakum” and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, was a series of parallel lines a half-foot or so apart, running the length of the deck. Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a ship’s crew was ordered to fall in at quarters — that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.


Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship’s boys or midshipmen, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time. Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment.


To Know the Ropes

There were miles and miles of cordage in the rigging of a square-rigged ship. The only way of keeping track of and knowing the function of all of these lines was to know where they were located. It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.


Under the Weather

If a crew member is standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray. He will be under the weather.


Unlucky Friday

It is believed that Friday is the worst possible day to start a journey on a boat and no enterprise can succeed that commences on that day. The most well known reason for the dislike of Friday is that it is believed that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Therefore, this day must be observed and respected and will be unlucky for anyone who attempts to go about business as usual.


Many sailors state that various ships lost at sea disembarked on a Friday. In contrast, Sunday is the best possible day to begin a voyage. It has led to the adage, “Sunday sail, never fail.”


Women on Board are Bad Luck

It is probably best to start with the most popular superstition. Almost any professional mariner will tell you that having a woman on board the ship makes the seas angry and is an omen of bad luck for everyone aboard. It was traditionally believed that women were not as physically or emotionally capable as men. Therefore, they had no place at sea.


It was also observed that when women were aboard, men were prone to distraction or other vices that may take away from their duties. This, among other things, would anger the seas and doom the ship.


Interestingly enough, there is a way to counter this effect. While having a woman on board would anger the sea, having a naked woman on board would calm the sea. Imagine that. This is why many vessels have a figure of a woman on the bow of the ship, this figure almost always being bare-breasted. It was believed that a woman’s bare breasts would “shame” the stormy seas into calm. Alas, the ancient power of female nudity.


Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or www.yachtbureau.org. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.


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