April 3, 2011

Sun’s over the yardarm

LOOKING AROUND TOWN the other evening, I noticed an awful lot of places where people could buy and consume liquor. It occurred to me that for a country that technically discourages the consumption of alcohol -- and in fact once prohibited it altogether -- there is a some hypocrisy at work here, for we do not make it exactly difficult for those seeking to slake their thirst. And although our young men can vote, and fight and die for their country in wartime at the age of 18 years, they cannot legally touch an alcoholic drink until they are 21.

There has long been a tussle between the Puritans and the libertarians regarding drinking, of course, and the winners of this tussle have varied from age to age. It was not always shameful to be drunk. For instance, in the 17th century the crews of sailing ships were served a half-pint of rum each per day.

Now half a pint is an awful lot of rum. I don’t think those men would be allowed to drive cars, had there been cars, after downing a half-pint of rum. And yet they managed, mainly, to scamper up the ratlines to the foretopsails, and out along the yards to set, reef, or hand the canvas in all kinds of wind, wave, and weather, without killing themselves.

Their rum ration was divided into two servings. The first came when the sun was over the yardarm – about 11 a.m. – and the second at the end of the working day. The officers took their rum straight, but the crew’s was diluted with water.

It was known as grog then, of course, named for “Old Grog,” Admiral Edward Vernon (1684 – 1757) who first ordered the rum to be diluted with water about 1740. His nickname appears to have been derived from his favorite grogram foul-weather cloak.

Grogram, you say? Why yes, grogram – what the Concise Oxford Dictionary describes as a “coarse fabric of silk, mohair, and wool, or these mixed, often stiffened with gum.”

So why did Old Grog order the rum to be diluted? Well, Wikipedia says:

“Following Britain's conquest of Jamaica in 1655, a half pint or ‘2 gills’ of rum gradually replaced beer and brandy as the drink of choice. Given to the sailor straight, this caused additional problems, as some sailors would save up the rum rations for several days, then drink them all at once. Due to the subsequent illness and disciplinary problems, the rum was mixed with water. This both diluted its effects and accelerated its spoilage, preventing hoarding of the allowance.”

This went on in the British Royal Navy with elaborate ceremony, until 1970, if you can believe it, and to this day their ships are not dry, as are U.S. Navy vessels.

There was a suggestion recently that the skippers of American yachts should be tested for sobriety even while their vessels lay safely at anchor, because they were still technically in charge and might need to get under way at short notice. It’s an argument that’s difficult to refute, but if it ever became law it would certainly be honored more in the breach than the observance.

No more dark-’n-stormies in the cockpit after a long day’s sail? Who could be so cruel?

Today’s Thought
I know folks all have a tizzy about it, but I like a little bourbon of an evening. It helps me sleep. I don’t care much what they say about it.
-- Lillian Carter, NY Times, 20 Dec 76

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #180
Every underwater hole through a boat’s hull should be fitted with a reliable seacock, either the tapered-plug type or the nylon ball-valve type. On no account use the gate-valve type because you can’t tell at a glance whether they’re open or shut or partially clamped down on a piece of debris.

“Why so gloomy?”
“I got married three days ago.”
“So why is that making you gloomy?”
“Well, I gave all my life savings to my new husband.”
“And where is he now?”
“Dunno. I’m still waiting for him to come back from his honeymoon.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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