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Speak Nautical? Bet you do!


by Terry Sovil

Make WayDo you make way? This means the ship is moving. Making headway means forward movement and sternway means backing up. So if you are making headway you are making forward progress on that big project. You are also probably full steam ahead or perhaps even experiencing smooth sailing.

My mother used to say "there is always something to take the joy out of life". So if you see problems ahead you may have to weather a storm. If it's really rough you will look for safe harbor where you can anchor so you don't end up on the rocks. Sometimes you are simply at the end of your rope (no more anchor line).

While in that safe harbor you hope that no other boats get to close or drag their anchor. If they do you could well end up running afoul of them meaning your anchor lines have tangled and you may possibly collide. If that happens you may have run afoul of the law and hopefully have insurance.

High and DryIf you can't get your anchors and anchor line untangled and the tide starts to go out you could well be left high and dry on the mud flats or perhaps a reef. If your stress level is high enough or you work too hard you may need to see your doctor and hopefully get a clean bill of health. During the age of sail this certified that the crew and their previous port were free from plague, cholera and epidemics.

One of my favorite expressions is that the "between the dream and deed lie the doldrums" which are stretches of ocean infamous for light winds so you can't sail. You could lie for days or even weeks waiting for the wind to pick up. If you had a good supply of rum aboard the Captain may provide an extra ration and some of the crew could end up three sheets to the wind. A sheet is a nautical term for the lines that control tension on the big square sails on old sailing ships. On a 3-masted ship if all the sheets are loose the sails flap uselessly in the wind. The ship drifts out of control until it is under control again.

Being three sheets to the wind could also mean you quietly saved several days ration of rum and drank them all at once leaving you feeling groggy. You weren't supposed to do this so it was insubordination. British Admiral Edward Vernon had daily rum rations diluted with water to help avoid drunken sailors. He was called "Old Grog" because of a coat he always wore made of grogram. Sailors ended up drinking grog and if they drank too much they felt groggy. Today, overly tired or lightheaded like you just woke up.

Fouled AnchorIf you wake up feeling more than groggy it could be that you hadn't had too much rum but were sincerely under the weather or ill and feeling sick. A sailor assigned to keep watch on the windward bow (the front of the ship facing into the wind) would be subjected to all the wind and the waves crashing over the bow. This unpleasant duty was called being under the weather as sometimes sailors would fall ill and die from this duty.

If you were to die on duty your family and fellow crewmembers could be taken aback. Today this means surprised in a bad way. During the days of sail you expected the wind to be at an angle that kept the boat moving forward. If you got headed too much in the direction of the wind it could strike the front of the sails instead of the rear. If the wind were strong enough it could STOP your ship like good brakes but it could also break the entire mast that the sail was on. This was dangerous and startling. You don't want to be taken aback.

Nor do you want to be in a cold climate where it's cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. This is NOT what you imagine it is. During the age of sail cannon balls were stacked in a brass tray. If cold enough the brass tray would contract and the balls would roll free.

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