March 10, 2013

Some nautical daffynitions

THOSE OF YOU who acquired your knowledge of sailing from Patrick O’Brian’s splendid Aubrey-Maturin series of historical nautical novels may sometimes wonder what all those technical terms mean.  It is possible, of course, to read O’Brian without knowing the difference between a binnacle and a barnacle, but you will find it makes much more sense and brings much more pleasure if you actually know what he’s talking about.

Toward this end, I have burgled some helpful definitions from a used book I bought for 20 cents in 1953. It’s called Sailing in a Nutshell. It was written by Patrick Boyle and first published by Methuen, London, in 1938. has now copied it and is selling it for $26.45, which, I think, amply demonstrates the financial advantages of buying your books before Amazon gets its grubby mitts on them.

Anyway, here are a few more or less helpful definitions for you to be going on with:

Capstan — An apparatus for getting up the anchor. It is a round drum with spokes and a man sitting on top playing a fiddle.

Deck— A floor. But in a small boat the deck of the cabin is called the floor and the deck is the roof.*

Barometer — An apparatus for saving you the trouble of going up on deck to see what sort of day it is. A refinement is provided by the barograph, which writes down the weather as soon as it occurs and so saves you the trouble of getting up to look at the barometer.

Truck — A small platform at the top of a mast for the convenience of gulls. Some owners refuse to have them, saying they are not going to have any truck with gulls.

Helmsman — The worried-looking man. Do not speak to him.

Sheets — This is one of the most baffling things about sailing. Sheets are ropes. Sails or not sheets; neither are they made of rope. You will find useful and handy ropes attached to the corners of your sails. These are sheets and the fact should be committed very carefully to memory.

Drawing — What boats do to water. A boat is said to “draw” so many feet of water, meaning that it extends that distance below the surface. Hence the term “draughtsman,” meaning a drawer of water.

Gooseneck — A universal-jointed swivel. The boom is attached to the mast by means of a gooseneck; so is the spinnaker, which also has a boom. It is so called by reason of its resemblance to the neck of the goose that lays the galvanized iron eggs.

Bowsprit — A large wooden shock absorber sticking out over the bows.

Bows — The sharp end. A device for parting the water so that the boat may go through.

Right ascension of the mean sun — The angle, measured eastward in hours and minutes, between an imaginary body traveling at the average velocity of the Sun and the First Point of Aries (i.e. point at which a line drawn from the center of the earth through that of the sun at the vernal equinox intersects the equinoctial, or celestial equator). (Read a second time if necessary.)

* I regret to have to point out that Patrick Boyle got this wrong.  (Well, what do you expect for 20 cents?) What we walk on in the cabin is the deck. What we walk on on the cabintop, side decks, foredeck, and afterdeck is also the deck.  The inside of the cabin roof is the overhead and the sides of the cabin are the ceiling. The floors are what join the timbers in a wooden boat to the keelson.

Today’s Thought
Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.
— Kingman Brewster, former U.S. Ambassador to Britain

A word of comfort for those of you having a bleak Monday: The sooner you fall behind, the longer you’ll have to catch up.

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


David said...

We have always called the part of the cabin that you walk on the "sole."

John Vigor said...

David you are absolutely right. But let me quote the prestigious Encyclopedia of Knowledge (Cornell Maritime Press):
"Sole: An old name for the deck or 'floor' of a cabin."

John V.

John Vigor said...

Erm ... that should be Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge.

John V.

Aaron Headly said...

The difference between 'cabin floor' and 'sole' is measured in hours spent on one's hands and knees with sandpaper and a varnish brush.

Our ketch still has a cabin floor.

Also an upstairs and a downstairs. It's an odd boat.