In the navy

Age of Sail

Age of Sail (Photo credit: Mark Faviell Photos)

Have you ever been taken aback? Do you know where the phrase comes from? Has anyone ever told you to get cracking? Have you ever struggled to make head nor tail of something?

English is one of the most pervasively spoken languages in the world. As a dialect developed in an island nation, it’s no great surprise that much of the phraseology comes from a life on the ocean waves. I managed to pick up a lexicon of nautical slang during our recent visit to Portsmouth and I’ve chuckled ever since!

The phrase “taken aback” comes from the age of sail where the wind fills your sails in completely the wrong direction. The phrase “get cracking” refers to the noise made when a sailing ship hoists more sails and the wind fills them making that characteristic “crack”. Naval signallers would typically respond with “can’t make head nor tail of it” when they received a garbled transmission.

The origin of some phrases is fairly obvious when you think about it. If something “takes the wind out of your sails”, you’re not going to make much progress. If you are expecting trouble, it makes sense to “batten down the hatches”. It certainly did if you were on a sailing ship heading into a storm.

Sometimes it takes a while to “get up to speed” on something – again, an expression from the age of sail. Often it takes a while until you “know the ropes”. Once you do, you can “fathom” things out. A fathom is a nautical measure of 6 feet of depth which quite literally referred to the amount a man could grasp.

In nautical terms, everything above decks is commonly referred to as “all above board”. This has come to mean that everything’s open and nothing’s hidden. If it weren’t, you could be forgiven for not “touching it with a bargepole”. But if it had a “clean bill of health”, you would be happy. A bill of health was the report filed by the medical officer on the physical condition of a sailor.

You might think this is a load of “codswallop”. Wallop was a name for beer. In 1875, Hiram Codd came up with a process for bottling carbonated water. Before long, sailors came up for the derogatory term of codswallop as a description of this very poor substitute for the beer they were used to.

I think my favourite nautical term has to be to “get your own back” which refers to the lavatory arrangements on submarines. Essentially, there is a tank into which whatever a sailor produces is deposited. Once the sailor has finished, the contents are flushed out to sea with air pressure.

Unfortunately, there is a top valve on the tank which can, either through incompetence of the sailor or through sabotage, can result in the tank contents coming inboard onto the poor sailor – hence the expression!


What’s in a name?

Boat shoes boat shoes boat shoes.

So why “”?

Anyone who sets up a personal blog under a domain name wants something that is relevant and obviously available to buy. Availability of good domain names has diminished as the web has grown, so it’s always a struggle to fine something that you like. I have always had a fascination for all things nautical, and this is reflected in the clothes I choose to wear. It is rare to see me out of a blazer and a pair of blue deck shoes, so I was delighted when I found the domain available.

I don’t know what it is about boats, but my fascination began at an early age. As children, we were ferried across to Ireland at least once a year in order to see the family. I found the whole journey totally absorbing. There is nothing quite like the feeling of standing on deck watching the dock workers untether the various mooring lines and see the ship ease away from the dock.

I remember the crossings were always very rough. My mum would start to be sick the second the ship passed the harbour wall at Holyhead, and she wouldn’t stop until the ship passed the harbour wall at the other end. She wasn’t alone. One thing you learnt on these crossings was to make sure that you used the toilets early in the voyage, because at the end, you would be paddling in the unmentionable.

I used to like standing on deck during the rough weather. I loved to watch the big waves as they crashed over the ship. The sheer power on the sea was awesome as massive peaks and crests appeared in the sea. The way you needed to lean as you stood in order to remain upright made me smile every time.

I carried this love on into my adult life. My wife and I have been lucky enough to have travelled on a number of cruises all over the world. We even owned a small boat on the Thames for about 4 years. At one point in my life, I very nearly joined the Navy. What a different life it might have been!

So when you look down at my feet and you see a pair of blue deck shoes – that’s the reason why!