Nautical Trivia by the Yeoman of Signals

Toe the line

When called to line up at attention, the ship’s crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking. Accept the authority, principles, or policies of a particular group, especially under pressure.

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To be Pooped

We might use the word “pooped” to mean the same thing, but its seagoing origin is quite different. The rearmost, highest deck of a sailing ship was called the poop deck, from the Latin word “puppis.” If a ship were unlucky enough to be overtaken by a massive, breaking sea which drenched her from astern, […]

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Footloose

The foot is the bottom of a sail, whether triangular or square, that is attached to the boom to keep it stretched. A sail that is not attached to the boom is said to be footloose and is very difficult to control as it moves with the wind The term ‘footloose and fancy free’ refers […]

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Flying Colours

To come through a battle with flying colours means a ship has come through relatively unscathed and with her colours (flag) flying. Today it means to come through an ordeal having done very well.

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Keel Hauling

A severe naval punishment during the 15th and 16th centuries. The victim, presumably a delinquent sailor, was dragged from one side of the boat to the other, under the bottom of the boat (keel). Tossed over one side and pulled up on the other, he was usually allowed to catch his breath before suddenly being […]

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Chip log

Chip log(navigational instrument) A chip log, also called common log, ship log, or just log, is a navigation tool mariners use to estimate the speed of a vessel through water. The word knot, to mean nautical mile per hour, derives from this measurement method. History All nautical instruments that measure the speed of a ship […]

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Knot

KNOT (unit) The knot is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile (1.852 km) per hour, approximately 1.151 mph. The ISO Standard symbol for the knot is kn. The same symbol is preferred by the IEEE; kt is also common. The knot is a non-SI unit that is “accepted for use with the SI”. Worldwide, […]

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Nipper

Nipper The anchor cable was a nine-stranded cable-laid rope which came through the hawse-pipe, ran alongside the two capstans (on the main-deck), and was stowed down in the cable tier beneath the main deck. Nippers were short pieces of rope (stoppers) one end of which would be fastened to the ‘messenger’, the other end to […]

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Hooker

Hooker British sailors got in the habit of referring to a particular prostitute as a “hooker”, indicating that although she had been around a while, she was still serviceable.   Origin: a “Hooker” was tubby little fishing boat favoured by the Dutch in the 18th century. Because they had long lifespans and were no-nonsense working […]

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Hard Up

Hard Up Hard is another often used nautical term. To put the helm hard over is to put it as far as it will go in that direction. Hard and fast describes a vessel firmly aground and unable to make progress and has come ashore to mean rigid. ‘Hard up in a clinch and no […]

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In The Offing

In The Offing Said of a ship visible at sea off the land. Such a ship is often approaching port, hence the phrase is used figuratively to mean ‘about to happen’… Comes from the days of the tall ships, the offing was the sea just off shore. Wives, girlfriends, and other interested parties would scan […]

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Hard and Fast

Hard and Fast Being “hard and fast” meant that one was aground: hard and fast (fastened, caught) on the rocks and unable to get clear. Today it means to be Inflexible

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Garbled

Garbled Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the cargo. Today a distorted, mixed up message was said to be garbled.

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Stern Lecture

Stern Lecture The quarterdeck at the stern of the ship was officer’s country.  A sailor didn’t go there unless he had work to do or if he was being disciplined.  A sailor caught in some infraction might be called aft for a Stern Lecture – being balled out by an officer.

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Grog!

Grog! Grog – This most traditional of all rum drinks is a rich part of the early history of Naval Rum. There was an Admiral by the name of Vernon who was the hero of the Battle of Porto Bello and the Commander-in-Chief, West Indies Station, the prime area for Spanish trade in the Caribbean. […]

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“Splice the Mainbrace”

“Splice the Mainbrace” (AD28) Is an order given aboard naval vessels to issue the crew with a drink. Originally an order for one of the most difficult emergency repair jobs aboard a sailing ship, it became a euphemism for authorized celebratory drinking afterward, and then the name of an order to grant the crew an […]

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Balls Up

Balls Up In current usage, any disastrous situation. The balls referred to are NOT testicles. The term dates from the days of wooden sailing ships when the existence of a shipboard disaster, such as plague, lack of food or water, mutiny, etc. was communicated to the outside world by hoisting large, brightly painted wooden balls […]

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Fly-by-Night –

Fly-by-Night An easily set extra sail used temporarily when running before the wind (wind coming from behind). A large sail used only for sailing downwind and requiring rather little attention. Has come to mean ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, or a less-than-stellar reputation.

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Beaufort Wind Scale

Beaufort Wind Scale Quaffters Version: Force 0: Sails hanging limp. Tiller tends itself. Force 1: Beginning pressure on sails. If sheet is eased out, the tiller still tends itself. Force 2: Sails flapping in the breeze, and boat drifting to leeward. Sheets must be tightened and one hand put on the tiller. As the wind […]

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Keep an Eye Out

The other day, while having few beers on rather a windy day, one of my fellow quaffters asked how the Beaufort wind scale came about. This is the official version courtesy of Wikipedia. Keep an eye out in 2 weeks for “Coarse Sailing Version” Keep an Eye Out To watch for something or someone, often […]

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Dressing Down

Dressing Down Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. This was called “dressing down”.   An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.

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Slush Fund

Slush Fund Originally nautical slang denoting money collected to buy luxuries, from the sale of watery food known as slush. From the “slush” saved (and eventually sold) by the ship’s cook. A reserve of money used for illicit purposes, especially political bribery.

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Listless

Listless When a ship was listless, she was sitting still and upright in the water, with no wind to make her lean over (list) and drive ahead. Ashore it means “Lacking Energy”

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Fits the Bill

Fits the Bill A Bill of Lading was signed by the ship’s master acknowledging receipt of specified goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in the same condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the bill to see if all was in order. If so, they fit the bill. Today it […]

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