October 28, 2010

Message from the foredeck

SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS is a wonderful thing. We now have small radio headsets that send and receive voice messages over short distances, presumably to save people the trouble of raising their voices.

I first became aware of them in a quiet anchorage on the west side of Vancouver Island a few years back. They were on the heads of an elderly couple who were preparing to raise the anchor of their chunky 35-foot, full-keel sloop. He was on the foredeck managing the ground tackle, a balding man in blue jeans. She was in the cockpit, behind the wheel, managing the engine controls, a large lady in pink shorts.

I don’t know why they needed headsets. I could hear every word.

“Come to port, Martha,” he said.


“Port, Martha, port. Left, dammit. Ring finger, Martha, ring finger.”

“Okay. Don’t shout.”

“I’m NOT shouting . . . MARTHA! You’re going RIGHT. Come LEFT.”

“I AM coming left.”

“MARTHA, for chrissake face FORWARD when you want to come left. Left, dammit, quickly, LEFT!”

To avoid that kind of debacle, my wife and I worked out a simple system of hand signals for anchor raising. For example, when I wanted her to turn to port, I simply held out my port hand. It worked fine for us but it occurred to me recently that we always overlook one of the most ancient and effective methods of conveying messages on board ship, one that cuts through raging storms, engine din, and even cannons blasting. I’m talking about the bosun’s pipe.

Furnished with a pipe up there on the foredeck, old baldy could have whistled up a storm of explicit instructions. In the old days, the bosun and his mates used to issue about 50 different commands from this shrill whistle with its two basic notes and its three distinctive tones (straight whistle, warble, and trill).

For the man on the foredeck, the advantages are many; perhaps the greatest of which is that the person in the cockpit can’t answer back. Then, also, there’s the fact that nobody else in the anchorage will understand what you’re talking about. As long as the person at the wheel knows that phweet-phwip-phwip means “You’re a congenital idiot,” that’s all that matters.

And, of course, a pipe needs no batteries. You don’t have to memorize an instruction manual. It’s cheap. It’s practically indestructible, and it has a romantic connection to the history of the sea stretching back centuries.

If you’d like to hear a couple of traditional commands and learn more about the bosun’s pipe, or bosun's call as it's also known, just click here:


Today’s Thought
Evil communications corrupt good character.
— Menander, Thais: Fragment

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #113
Strain on jib sheet. To find the force applied to the sheet by a jib or forestaysail, multiply the sail area in square feet by the wind speed in knots squared. Then divide the answer by 232. This will give you the approximate pull on the sheet in pounds.

President Obama is punting his new family budget plan. It makes sure you can pay as you go — as long as you don’t go anywhere.

No comments: