July 24, 2012

Whistling for the wind

WE ARE FAST APPROACHING the calm season around here, the dog days of summer when the wind disappears and the tidal streams snatch you and fling you in exactly the wrong direction. Some of us talented whistlers come into our own on these days. Whistling for the wind is something sailors have done since the very earliest days of sail.

According to The Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge (Cornell Maritime Press) the ritual was one of “plaintively entreating the winds for a breeze by whistling with the lips in a variety of soft continuous notes while facing the direction from which it was desired that the wind would increase or spring up. Earlier custom required that a group of men occupy a more prominent position, such as the poop, when thus engaged, especially during a lengthy spell of light airs and calms.”

Now that you know how to whistle for the wind correctly, there’s something else you should know. You should do it only in calms. If you whistle when you’re on watch, and the wind is already blowing, you invite bad weather.

Old-timers believed that you could whistle with impunity during your off-watch, but if you whistled during your working hours it showed that you didn’t have enough to do. The gods therefore found something for you to do. They sent stormy weather, which meant extra work for all hands.

The only crew member who could whistle while he worked was the bosun’s mate, the man who wielded the cat-o’-nine-tails when punishment was meted out. His whistling wouldn’t bring gales because the gods of the wind and sea ignored him, judging him to be an agent of the devil — which is exactly what the rest of the crew thought, too, of course.

Today’s Thought
Nothing is so aggravating as calmness.
— Oscar Wilde.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(17) “Don’t be alarmed, sir — that sort isn’t poisonous.”

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

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