September 22, 2015

At a loss for words

WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG and still learning the language of sailors, I was shanghaied to crew on 38-foot wooden racing sloop, a 30-Square Meter, 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 over-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, out of control as usual, he would jump up and down in the cockpit and shout fiercely: “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 recently 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 any boat I’ve owned we just dropped 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.

What  is needed is a sailorly word or short phrase that indicates to your crew 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 sweet 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 simply can’t imagine why no-one has come up with a suitable verb or phrase in all the years that have passed since women were allowed to crew on boats. It’s high time somebody did.

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."


Alden Smith said...

On my 30 foot yacht 'Mariner' where all the halyard controls etc lead back to the cockpit I usually say, "Ok I'll DROP the main". My crew who by then have already 'bagged' the jib after it has also been 'Dropped' (I don't have a self furler) then tend to letting go the anchor while I stand on top of the cabin trunk and furl and tie the mainsail. That's my sail dropping routine : > )

Mike K said...

You just love living dangerously John

Don P said...

I think the word you need is "Stow".

verb (used with object)
Nautical. put (cargo, provisions, etc.) in the places intended for them. put (sails, spars, gear, etc.) in the proper place or condition when not in use.

I often "strike" the main as I prepare to enter port then "stow" it (flaked on the boom, sail ties deployed and sail cover applied) after my lines are made fast, engine is off and the first G&T is in hand.

Don P.

Unknown said...

'Striking' the sails is where we get 'striking' as in a labor stoppage. Sailors, always a contentious lot, were the first skilled laborers to walk off the job for higher pay or better working conditions. And as they walked off the ship they would strike the sails, yards, and top masts down onto the deck to immobilized the vessel until their demands were met.

John Vigor said...

Mike K., It's all in jest, good-hearted jest. No disrespect intended. Honest. Cross my heart and die. Heh-heh.

Unknown said...

Take your example from Captain Aubrey: Miss Vigor, strike the main sail, if you please.

We tried this during the a long-distance regatta and although sounding funny, it spread a sense of serenity.

Greg said...

How about "Lower"?

Eric said...

How about reef the main to the boom?