October 13, 2009

Still searching for words

WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG and still learning the language of sailors, I was invited to crew on 38-foot wooden racing sloop with a bucking jib. To this day, I don’t know how a bucking jib differs from an ordinary jib. The skipper was a crusty old salt who could get rather excited on occasion, so I never found the courage to ask him. Not that I would have known what to ask, in any case.

But I did know that it wasn’t just an ordinary jib, because every time we came charging up to the stone jetty at the yacht club after a day on the water, he would jump up and down in the cockpit and shout: “Don’t just stand there, boy! Get that bucking jib down.” Which I did, every time, with great promptitude, fearful of his wrath.

Thinking about this yesterday made we wonder about the language other sailors use to get their sails down. I mean, you can lower the jib or you can strike it. You can douse it, drop it, take (or haul) it down (or in), and furl it.

A phrase such as “Strike the mainsail!” has a fine ring about it, but I fear not many present-day sailors use it. According to my trusty dictionary, to strike sail meant “to lower one or more sails suddenly, as in a sharp maneuver, approach of a squall, or in token of surrender; also as a salute to a superior ship, a sovereign, etc.”

On my boat we just drop the sail, but I have heard other skippers use the word “douse.” The dictionary describes douse as: “To suddenly let go, strike, haul down, lower, or take in, as a sail ...”

You’ll notice that once again there is a hurriedness about it, a sense of urgency. There simply doesn’t seem to be a sailor’s word for those occasions when you don’t care how long it takes your wife to get the main down, those nice gentle days when you’re just slipping along quietly with everything under control, and no squalls, sovereigns, or superior ships causing you anxiety.

You need a sailorly word or short phrase that indicates to her that she can just ease the sail down slowly, gently flake it on top of the boom, tie the gaskets nicely (taking all the time in the world to get the reef knots with their little ends sticking out right) and put the mainsail cover on over everything, laced up and smoothed down, before she rushes down below to pour your gin-and-tonic, start the stove, and get supper ready.

You’d think we’d have a phrase for it by now, wouldn’t you? But no, I can’t think of one. “Ease the main” is already taken and means something else in any case. There’s something unsuitably suggestive about “Gentle the main,” while “Take down the mainsail at your leisure, darling, and fold it gently” is too long and sissy-like.

I’m stumped. If you can think of a good phrase, let me know.

Today’s Thought
I am under the spell of language, which has ruled me since I was 10.
— V. S. Pritchett

“And how would you like your hair cut, sir?”
“Yes, sir, but what style?”
“What are your prices?”
“Haircut $15, shave $10.”
“So, okay, shave it to a short back and sides.”


Aaron Headly said...

Let's see, "put the main to bed" maybe? I'm stumped, I guess.

My all-time favorite, though, is 'scandalize'. My ketch's mizzen might go loose-footed next year just so I can scandalize it. Gosh, now I can barely stand the wait.

Jennifer Moran said...

Fold or bind both come from books and are like storing the day's stories. Gather the main? Put the main to bed seems a bit tame for the end of an adventure, but 'Bed the main!'...

Tom said...

I would suggest a simple "drop the sails". "Flake the sails " would be fine too, if i does not sound too...flaky.