Learning to Talk Like a Sailor

While waiting for warm weather, I pass the time reading first person accounts of seafaring adventure. I prefer the classics—tales from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century. This was an age of wooden boats and ready adventure, when sailors left port without depth finders, GPS, satellite Internet, iPhones, and God knows what else can be found on today’s yachts. They were written by men—and all were men—who knew that they were masters of a dying art.

They are marvelous stories. I had already read Joshua Slocum’s account of the first ever solo circumnavigation of the globe in Sailing Alone Around the World. Despite being pursued by pirates off Gibraltar and nearly drowned while making the passage through Tierra del Fuego, he made the whole trip sound like a relaxing lark around a pond. A retired sea captain, he is the one who once “sailed home in a canoe” after being shipwrecked in Brazil. After such adventures, I guess you learn to take storms and dangerous shoals in stride.

But since I wasn’t planning to follow his route, I next selected The Boy, Me, and the Cat, which recounts an eight month trip in 1910 from Massachusetts to Palm Beach in a twenty-four foot sailboat through the newly created Intracoastal Waterway. With self deprecating humor, the author, a retired insurance salesman, described the challenge of taking a small sailboat through a shallow, mosquito infested, and poorly marked canal with a son who liked to sleep late and a cat that would jump overboard whenever startled.

After that I headed out to the open seas again with The Saga of Cimba by Richard Maury, which recounted a journey from Nova Scotia to the South Pacific in a 35-foot schooner. The boat and its two man crew seemed to spend most of its time climbing up and dropping down waves the size of mountains. Within the first fifty pages, the author is describing how they capsized in open seas. For a few harrowing moments they sat on the roof of the cabin—the sail straight down in the water—while waiting for the heavy iron keel to flip them back over. It did—but not before hot coals dropped out to the stove, nearly started a fire, and left them chocking in a smoky, submerged cabin. Note to self: don’t sail in a hurricane.

I’m recounting the parts I understood. What I am not describing are the many pages that were entirely incomprehensible. All of these authors, out of true love of their craft or a perverse desire to confuse the uninitiated, make full and liberal use of nautical vocabulary, often to the point of writing whole paragraphs in a foreign language. Here’s Richard Maury talking about a typical moment at the helm of Cimba: “All through the day the Cimba raced before a West Indian chocolate gale, baring her red-and-black boot-topping, climbing and planing with intense effort, her sails curved and gripping the wind as the cotton raked stiff-bunted under the glowing sky.”

I form a fuzzy image of a little schooner in heavy seas, but I know that I am missing ninety percent of the nuance and might not, in fact, understand what is really happening. It reminds of my high school encounter with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I know it’s about a bunch of people on a pilgrimage, but I get lost after “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote…”

My real concern is not with the literature per se, but with the practical application of this vocabulary. Will I need to know these terms and to be a “real” sailor? If so, I’m in trouble, because, let’s be honest, I’m starting out in Sailor Talk 101. If converted into, say, Spanish, my conversational skill is on par with “Hola! Como esta usted?” I am familiar with a few valuable terms—bow and stern, port and starboard, for example, which puts me ahead to some landlubbers. My experience with the Sunfish as a boy put me in contact with words like tiller, centerboard, and tack. My first days of boatbuilding gave me a working knowledge of keel and stem. But after that, I’m forced to rely on words picked up from Mutiny on the Bounty and Pirates of the Caribbean (spoken with a British or pirate accent, depending).

I have no ability to “pass” as a sailor. I once paid money to visit a replica of a sixteenth century sailing ship in Virginia, only to be publicly berated by a costumed interpreter for calling it a “boat.”Being told off by a guy in pantaloons and stockings was, possibly, a low point in my as yet unrealized sailing career.

This leaves me in a constant state of confusion, both as a reader or sailing literature, and as a boat builder. I can’t even confidently identify the various types of sailboats. I know there are “schooners,” “cat boats,” and “ketches,” among others, but I’m fuzzy on the fine points of each and not even sure what to call my boat. Apparently, it has gaff rigging and I once heard it called (critically) a “scow” by someone writing in the Wooden Boat forum, so I’ve taken to calling it a “gaff rigged scow,” which is not correct, I know, but amuses me because it sounds like a something you might hear a drunken sailor say when he’s picking a fight in bar (“Argh, she ‘taint nothin’ but a gaff rigged scow!”)

As I work through the construction process, I’ll encounter many more unfamiliar terms and will, I assume, learn the meaning of each. This ability to establish an intimate knowledge of boats by actually building a boat is one reason why it makes sense for novice sailors to build their own craft. That mysterious “thing” attached to the mast cannot be ignored when you are the builder; it’s purpose must be confronted and understood during the construction process, long before it is actually put in the water.

Still, it’s a hard row to hoe. My knowledge of sailing is limited and my familiarity with nautical terms is rudimentary, which makes me feel like an Eskimo who is suddenly expected to build a timber frame house by reading directions in Latin. At least three new skills are being developed at once. But even when I hit the water, there will be a hundred and one terms and phrases to learn about navigation, the water, and sailing in general that I doubt I will ever fully master. I suspect that it will remain a foreign language and that I’ll always feel self conscious when talking about racing before a “West Indian chocolate gale”–even if I use my best pirate voice.

3 Responses to Learning to Talk Like a Sailor

  1. Take heart, you’ll get it. I am a licensed Captain, taught the licensing course and taught wooden boat building for 15 years but, I started out just like you. Knowning nothing about boats or sailing I built a 50 ft Ketch (gaff rigged too). If you don’t have a copy of The Arts of the Sailor by Hervey Garrett Smith get it. Tristin Jones wrote great sea stories, look for his books and short stroies, a must read is Wanderer by Sterling Hayden. You have a lot to learn but a life time to learn it.
    That’s what will keep you sailing, you’ll never know it all.

  2. Ed Hollett says:

    I just wanted to take a moment and thank for posting this site. I have never built a boat – but always wanted to. I really enjoy reading your comments. It seems like there is plenty of material for a book here. Have you thought of doing that? Thanks again for sharing. I plan to read every word.

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