Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sailing language

by John Riise, Latitude 38

It's not like it's ever going to happen, but I've long felt the world - at least the sailing world - would be a better place without all the salty lingo of days gone by... especially when it comes to drawing new people into the sport. On top of wind angles, heeling, sail trim and everything else that newbies have to soak up, why further confuse them with a blizzard of outdated words to explain what can much more easily be passed on with 'regular' English?

Doesn't 'downstairs' convey the idea more accurately than 'down below' (which is redundant anyway)? And 'port' can mean either a direction - or that glass thing in the side of the cabin that you look through. So how about 'left' and 'window'? Is it 'anchors aweigh' (up) or 'anchors away' (down)? And 'knots' . . . would that be a measurement of speed, or do you want me to attach a rope to something? And WHY knots? Why not miles per hour? Easy to understand for both terrestrial or maritime drivers (not helmsmen).

Front, back, middle, right, left, - all in common usage and readily understandable. Forward, aft, athwartships, starboard, port - a bit ambiguous, open to interpretation (how FAR forward? Athwart-what?) or requiring some little ditty to remember (lessee, 'port' has four letters and 'left' has four, so...) You don't have to learn a whole new language to drive a car or learn to swim, so why do it with sailing? Sure, every sport requires that you learn a few new words, so we'd have to keep 'mast', 'rudder', 'keel' and a few others. But otherwise, let's put pointless nautical lingo out to pasture with Latin and use it only when necessary for historical purposes or pirate movies.

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]


At 1:56 PM, Anonymous Mark Chew said...

Even though I sail a fifty two year old yacht, I am fully in favour of the language of sailing progressing as the years pass but only if the new language enriches rather than dumbs-down the intricacies and charm of our sport. "Driving" is what I do down High St on my way to work in the traffic. "Helming" is what I do when I hold the 5ft length of mahogany and feel whether the old lady is happy working through the chop on Port Phillip. How much poorer would our sailing language be replacing bow with front, galley with kitchen and starboard with right? Don't confuse change and improvement.

At 8:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can completly undertand John Riise's point. I taught sailing for a couple of years on the SF Bay and one of the biggest challenges for newcomers to the sport was understanding what we meant when we called out things like "fall off, ease sheets, harden up, etc."

Not only that, sailing nomenclature changes from country to country! I'd sailed for twenty years before I hopped on a race boat in Auckland NZ. I was ordered to "run the brace." When I looked back at the skipper with a blank stare, the order was repeated to me, louder of course. I was completely embarassed as I was shoved out of the way so he could ease the foreguy. I never made that mistake again, but certainly many others. After ten years I am bilingual, speaking both American and Kiwi sailing English.

Of course it would make sense to simplify the languge of sailing. Will it happen? I suggest not any time soon. Does anyone remember Esperanto, the international language??

While I certainly am not opposed to simplifying sailing terminology, I think that old habits die hard. Having sailed for more than 30 years, I suppose I might be considered an "old salt" by now, and it would be difficult for me to totaly change the way I communicate on board.

That said, I regularly sail with novices. It is important for those of us who know the language to be sensitive and patient to those who don't. When you get a blank stare don't yell the order again. Take the time to explain in lay person's terms what you mean. This is a skill in itself. You will be rewarded with the appreciation and friendship of the novice, and greatly improve their chance of progressing to comptetent crew. It is up to us to keep the language from becoming a barrier to entry.

George Backhus

At 8:14 PM, Anonymous John Kimmerle said...

Helming is such an awkward word, why not skippering? We don't have a drivers meeting or a helmspersons meeting. Skipper is also unisex. I'm a carpenter; we have fascias, soffits, friezes, etc. Should we also change. The names of boat parts are very specific and should stay that way.

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How boring to "modernise" or should it be "dumb down" nautical language. One of the pleasures of being a sailor is having terms available that non-sailors do not understand. Most sports have similar "words". If you are a "petrol head" you have a whole different set of words most of which I do not understand. So what - if I want to follow motor sport I will pick up the lingo! Let's keep our nautical terms.

Derek Paterson

At 10:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dumb really dumb, this is the mystique of sailing that attracts people to the sport. Each Sport has their own terminology, changing sailing terms will rip the heart out of sailing.
People will get terrible confused on Struan

At 1:07 AM, Blogger Jimmy said...

i love the ould sailin terms, it keeps us in touch with where our sport came from and many sailing terms have found there way into the english language and are used by non sailing civies. I never liked learning shakespeare but the english wouldn't be the same without it, should we forget latin ever existed?. A quote i heard once , "it only takes a few hours to learn how to sail but it takes years to learn the ....."
we should revive the ould language even more.....

At 2:15 AM, Anonymous Gary said...

Sans all the arcane jargon, all you'd have is an intriguing, oft exciting sport in which anyone could participate.


Well, if we wanted that, we'd call it powerboating or something. Sniff.

Just what we need. The masses sailing. Egads! How would we ever show that we're special?

At 4:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see it now...Ease the left runner...oh wait, is that my left? your left? the boat's left? It nice to have terms which are unambigious. A bit of patience in explaining them is all that's required here.

At 4:51 AM, Anonymous Zane Murdoch said...

The great leveller - 'simplifying' sailing terms is like McDonalds restaurants and international style architecture - an attempt to bulldoze the texture of life and culture to an easily digestible lowest common denominator. Part of the excitement of sailing is the differences from the day job, just as part of the excitement in travelling is in the differences in food and buildings.

At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Jose M Rodriguez said...

Sailing has developed over centuries and has it's own culture and timeless traditions, and thus it's own language. It's typical of the modern american mass consumer culture mindset to dumb everything down and strip cultural significance from everything, so as to make it more marketable. I learning the language of sailing is too tough, go play vidoe games dude. Ever benn around the equestrian world, I grew up around horse and sailing, they also have their own language. If we followed this moron's suggestions, what uniqueness is left. I've taught sailing to, youstart with the basics and work up, and what pride do beginners show when they can start to speak the language, they're part of the "club" How many of you were stoked to notice that the movie "Master& Commander" w/ Russel Crowe, was probably one of the most nautically correct movies ever made, and took pride in knowing what he meant when he told the helmsman in the one chase to scene to "luff up" once in a while, to make them look like easy targets to the French and then "fall off" as they closed, and your non-sailing friends said Huh? and looked to you to explain? I learned to sail from my uncle who learned from my grandfather, who learned from his father in turn, all the way back to the Vikings, and the other side of my family were fishermen and merchant mariners. I'm proud of my nautical heritage, and language is how cultural traditions are passed on. If you want to dumb it down, you don't deserve to take the helm or even crew for that matter, just sit on the rail, drink your beer and move when I tell ya to.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger BloggingBob said...

While on RC for a large youth sailing event, the pin master yelled at the driver (helmslady) of the pin boat "back up!". She jammed the RIB in reverse, knocking the fool down. This caused more yelling "No, back up wind!".

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous Guy Nowell said...

no no no don't mess with nautical language. Otherwise the 'port genoa halyard' becomes the "red rope with black spots on the left hand side that holds up the sail at the front of the boat". A line is a line (but never a rope unless it is a bell rope of course) but there is a world of difference between a halyard and a sheet. Keep it that way.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Needham's Ghost said...

Why don't you start with your name? What kind of outdated language has two eyes next to each other? How do YOU pronounce it?

At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Bob Cox said...

Sometimes I think sailing is my FIRST language, but that might be a function of my age.

When someone talks about left and right, he is talking relative to his own body. In theater they use the term 'stage left' to indicate that it is relative to an actor's view from the stage toward the audience. On a boat 'port' unambiguously indicates the left side of the boat.

Likewise in other nautical terms, you are specifying the language of the boat, which to me narrows the meaning, rather than expand it

At 9:05 AM, Blogger mikehmc said...

When I first read John's bit, I laughed. I could hear the sucking sound of intake of breath to blast him. I remember once inviting a large group to dinner at a new cafe that served only endangered species for lunch. There were a few that didnt take it seriously. But they were no fun at all. Cheers to you John for hanging it out there for our entertainment.

At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Amy Smith Linton said...

Has anyone else read Patrick O'Brian lately? The two nautical phrases I am just as happy not to hear during the excitement of an actual race: "the weather gauge" and "larboard." Oh, and "two points," which has something to do with direction and always gives me pause.

Fact is Language tends to grow more specific over time as required by the folks who use the language. It evolves, dropping some words and adding more. Is there a difference between a "head" and "toilet" or "the little boy's room" and "the bogs"? Sure, and since English has a open-door policy to vocabulary, we can give you a half-dozen synonyms for anything. Is one better than another? No, just more precise and perhaps more reflective of the history or situation.

I am happy to trade out "helmsfolk" for drivers. And "cunninghams" (aka smartpigs) can be the various sails' downhauls for all I care. Likewise, I'd like a re-do on the whole eagle-birdie-bogie thing, and on the Love-15 debacle. Plus, "rushing the quarterback" makes sense, but "Tight end"?

The French, bless them, have a national obsession with the purity of their language. Okay, fair's fair, they have a national authority that makes pronouncements and sets rules about keeping foreign words out of their vernacular. Does it keep Jean-Luc from saying "Le Weekend"? Nope.

If you prefer "driver" then go ahead and use it. That's the way to make the language what you want it to be.

At 10:11 AM, Anonymous Doug Mills said...

Sorry to be a curmudgeon, but John Riise's commentary distresses me. We live in a world where everything around us is increasingly dumbed down, such as classes in all levels of schools which set intellectual challenge aside to make learning fun, fun, fun, and news media that feature light hearted commentaries rather than serious analysis of the day's events, to name just two. Tradition in many areas of our life is being tossed aside as irrelevant to today's moment, with its emphasis on sound bites and flashy schematic images that scamper across our screens in seconds. Sailing terminology, most of which an interested person may learn in minutes of modest effort, is a delightful and charming part of our language. Part of the fun and intrigue of entering the sailing community is learning these terms and incorporating them into one's thoughts and language. Isn't their any area of our life free from attacks from those who want to reduce everything around us to bland pablum? I know many young people who delight in learning about interesting traditions, despite the deluge of banal trivia we are immersed in these days.

At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every line on a boat has a title sheet halyard, outhaul, downhaul, reefline, anchor rode, etc,etc.
Let's simplify and call them all ROPES! Nautical nomenclature has meaning, and purpose. When someone is standing forward and looking aft tell them to look on their right (not starboard) side and see where they turn. Huh? maybe there is something to this new language. If we are not specific when we refer to the things on deck (not the floor) how far can one expect to go in this sport?

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr John Riise needs to get a job or at least do something worthwhile.

At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Dan Knox said...

Loved the article. Made me smile. The first word that has to go is PFD. Really how bad is "Life Jacket"?

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Needham's Ghost said...

Dan Knox, haha, you're right on. However, that term is not a nautical term, but a bureaucratic invention from Washington,where some dogooder saw it as her right to re-invent the wheel, er helm, er, steering position.

At 11:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nautical terminology does evolve, generally in the direction of clarity, because ambiguity can have bad consequences at sea. That's why "larboard" got kicked out in favour of "port"

Different number of syllables, different vowels, from "starboard".

You need, and so we (now)have, words which can be differentiated from 20m upwind in 50 knots, when hurled by people with different accents.

The first rule of throwing out conventional wisdom is first to understand it.

Suggesting that left and right would be suitable replacements for port and starboard is so bankrupt of merit, with many different failings I won't waste space elaborating (some pointed out hereabove by others)

Perhaps you, the original poster, should confine your suggestions for "improvements" to watercraft which can truly be said to have drivers, such as jetskis.

The similarities between adjusting the helm of a boat and driving a vehicle are minor and misleading.

Be careful what you wish for, or we'll accelerate the tendency to try to constrain and legislate sailing into a model it does not fit.

Andrew Troup

At 12:50 AM, Anonymous Tom Hart said...

In addition to history and tradition ... there are many valid, rational and safety reasons for our nautical vocabulary.

Port and starboard are absolute on a boat, regardless of which way one is facing ... as are forward and aft. The helm is the steering station, regardless of whether one is steering with a tiller, wheel or sweep oar. Points and degrees are units of relative and true direction and motion that relate to a vessel and/or wind's heading ... as are true and magnetic. A nautical mile and statute mile are as unique and different to each other as a meter is to a yard ... as are knots and MPH ... with the nautical mile having a direct navigational relationship to latitude.

There are good, clear and rational reasons for nautical vocabulary ... all of which is something that one would assume someone writing for "Latitude 38" would know.

Its bad enough that we have ignorant, untrained 'drivers' jumping from their GPS controlled cars into GPS controlled powerboats ... but let's not carry that same level of ignorance and danger into sailing and onto the race course.

This nautical 'dumbing down' is exactly why many of us have been upset about the reduction of big boat, offshore experience in the Naval Academy's sailing program.

At 1:59 PM, Anonymous James Gallacher said...

The whole point of jargon Is that you can quickly describe a complex thing with a high level of precision. Some of the terms may seem silly or outmoded to you, but they offer us a unique language that anyone who sails can understand if they put a little time in and learn them. God forbid someone falls off the boat and your crew is wondering 'whose left' you are referring to.

At 2:00 AM, Anonymous Robbie Wallace said...

I'm taken aback. How difficult can it be for crying out loud!

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The next thing that would follow such a change would be the way commands on the boat are delivered. Everyone knows when the skipper asks for something and gets a slow response he repeats it louder. If he yells it, you move at top speed. If we accepted a changed vocabulary, next they'll ask us to stop yelling! I can hear it now, we'll be saying things like "Could you please pull in that rope....yes, that's the one. Thank you..Oh, could you do it a little faster now as the boat coming at us from the left side is about to hit us in the middle, that might be bad. I think I heard him say something like...coming at you from the right...don't want to hit you!"

Instead of "SHEET IN, SHEET IN!!!" and from the other boat "STARBOARD!!!"

Leave it alone...it works as is. What's that saying "if it ain't broke, don't F with it!"

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a literary aside, but it seems that there is a long tradition of conflict between the use of every day words in place of 'proper' nautical terminology. This is what Herman Melville had to say about the practice in the pages of White-Jacket, published in 1892:

"It is often observable, that, in vessels of all kinds, the men
who talk the most sailor lingo are the least sailor-like in
reality. You may sometimes hear even marines jerk out more salt
phrases than the Captain of the Forecastle himself."

And Mr. Melville does not stop there - he goes on to tar and feather the 'nautical dandy':

"On the other hand, when not actively engaged in his vocation, you would take
the best specimen of a seaman for a landsman. When you see a
fellow yawning about the docks like a homeward-bound Indiaman, a
long Commodore's pennant of black ribbon flying from his mast-
head, and fetching up at a grog-shop with a slew of his hull, as
if an Admiral were coming alongside a three-decker in his barge;
you may put that man down for what man-of-war's-men call a _damn-
my-eyes-tar_, that is, a humbug. And many damn-my-eyes hum-bugs
there are in this man-of-war world of ours."

White-Jacket: a recommended read.

C. Ruppert

At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Jason Bright said...

Is John Riise serious? Abandon "Port" and "Starboard" and "Knots"? This to me shows a lack of understanding of the words - which doesn't mean that we should eliminate them; it means that someone needs to provide better understanding. Port is different than left, because port is always the left side while facing forward, whereas left could be the Starboard side, if you're facing aft (aft is a much easier/quicker way of saying, "towards the back end of the vessel, BTW). Knots are different than Miles/Hour, because they're using Nautical Miles, not Statute Miles. You can navigate in either, but I'll always think in NM/knots while on a boat because a Nautical Mile relates to one minute of arc along any meridian of longitude, and is roughly 2000 yards long, which is easier, and more useful in navigation.

Isn't it easier in a situation where understanding and timeliness is critical to say something like, "tie the main halyard off to the after port cleat", rather than "tie a knot in the rope that pulls the big triangular sail in the back to the top of the mast around the h-shaped thingy in the back end of the boat on the left side as you face forward, please?" Sure, it takes some time to understand the terminology, but ultimately it's more effective, and part of the fun.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home