Z is for Zulu

a to z - p4903_Nautical Alphabet_LRG
This post is a little more modern than a lot of the other posts, but to cut to the chase, Zulu is the phonetic spelling for the letter ‘z’ in marine radio communications. For years, how folks spoke over marine radios was a mystery to me. They’d use these key words and tricky phrases that didn’t seem to be written down any place. When I’d try to spell something out over the phone for some computer guy from Berzerkistan, my phonetic spelling was completely ad-hoc. My name, for example, was ‘B as in Boy, O as in Orangutan, B as in … Bathtub’ but the whole alphabet was beyond me, so this addresses that in a small way. But before I delve too deeply into that, a little background is required.

Even since the advent of sailing craft, communication between vessels has been vital. In earlier days flag and speaking trumpets were the standard but now it’s mainly radio. Marine radios are important especially if you’re going any distance from land, particularly if you’re going out of sight of land. The most common type for recreational boaters is VHF-FM. You can call for help, arrange for a berth at a marina, get weather information, call home or talk with other boaters. This all sounds wonderful but there are a few caveats. FCC regulations state that marine radios are to send and receive information about safety, operations and commerce only. No other type of message is permissible. So, no chit-chat. And a little side note, das ist verboten to use your marine radio whilst you are on land, even whilst your boat is on the trailer. I don’t know what ze punishment vould be, other than fines and/or ostracism, but still it’s against the rules. Now onto a few details of how to use a marine radio.

When you use that radio, there are certain words called Procedure words or PROWORDS that are used in a particular way if you want to be readily understood. Certain PROWORDS and what they mean to the person on the other end are as follows:

OUT-this is the end of my transmission to you, no answer is expected or required.

OVER-this is the end of my transmission and a response is expected, go ahead and transmit.

ROGER-I got your last transmission ok.

WILCO-Your last message was received, understood and will be complied with.

THIS IS-this transmission is from the station whose name and call sign follows immediately.

FIGURES-figures or numbers to follow. For example, if you’re telling the Coast Guard how long your vessel is so that they know what size of boat to look for, you might say in your transmission ‘Vessel length is FIGURES two three feet’, meaning your boat is twenty three feet long.

SPEAK SLOWER-your transmission was difficult to understand, speak more slowly


WORDS TWICE-it is difficult to understand you, give each phrase twice.

I SPELL-I shall spell the next word phonetically (this is where the ‘z’ for zulu comes in). This is used when a proper name is important in the message. For example, “Boat name is Dora, I SPELL-Delta, Oscar, Romeo, Alpha.”

WAIT-I must pause for a few seconds

WAIT OUT-I must pause for longer than a few seconds, I will call you back.

AFFIRMATIVE-You are correct, what you have transmitted is correct


There is one more PROWORD that I must mention and that is MAYDAY. It is the distress signal that precedes a distress message about a grave and imminent danger and a request for immediate help. MAYDAY comes from the French expression ‘M’aidez’, meaning ‘help me’. It is to be used when your boat is on fire and is getting too big for you to fight, or if you are taking on water and are in imminent danger of sinking. It is not to be used when you run out of beer and/or gasoline within sight of land. A better way to deal with those things is to contact a marine tow service via your marine radio or even cell phone. MAYDAY is for when serious stuff is hitting the fan.

Here’s where ‘zulu’ comes in. Regarding the I SPELL and the subject of this post, the phonetic alphabet is used when signals are weak and/or reception is poor. The phonetic alphabet is as follows, at least for the US. The first meaning is the letter designation, the second is the meaning the flag carries when it is flown as a single signal flag:

A-ALPHA – unable to maneuver, keep clear (also used as diver down flag)

B-BRAVO – dangerous cargo


D-DELTA – keep clear

E-ECHO – altering course to starboard (that’s to the right)

F-FOXTROT – disabled

G-GOLF – want a pilot

H-HOTEL – pilot on board

I-INDIA – altering course to port

J-JULIETT – on fire, keep clear

K-KILO – desire to communicate

L-LIMA – stop instantly

M-MIKE – I am stopped


O-OSCAR – man overboard

P-PAPA – about to sail

Q-QUEBEC – request pratique (clearance granted to proceed into port after compliance with health regulations or quarantine)

R-ROMEO – (no message associated with Romeo at this time)

S-SIERRA – engines going astern

T-TANGO – keep clear

U-UNIFORM – standing into danger

V-VICTOR – require assistance

W-WHISKEY – require medical assistance (I’ve always wondered if they mean ‘need whiskey’)

X-XRAY – stop your intention

Y-YANKEE – am dragging anchor

Z-ZULU – require a tug

There are, of course, a plethora of other signals. There is an entire Corps of the military dedicated to communication and the making of signals, called, strangely enough, the Signal Corps. They are in charge of waving flags around to communicate between ships. Signal flags corresponding to the letters of the alphabet and combinations of those flags signal orders or intentions, especially in military ships. These are all listed in H.O. 102, The International Code of Signals and like we used to read in high school math books, more is left for the ‘serious’ student. Which I’m not.

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The most famous signal that I know of is Nelson’s last message at Trafalgar, ‘England Expects Every Man to Do His Duty’ (which conceptually seems a lot like ‘just close your eyes and think of England’ in a way) and just for grins I give it to you here.

I would like to thank all of you who have kept up reading my little scribblings through this month. It’s been a lot of fun and I appreciate everyone giving their time to read. Take care, and just remember like the old charts used to show at the edge of the world, beyond this point there be dragons.

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Y is for Yard, or Yardarm

a to z - SquareRig

Yard: a main horizontal member timber in the rigging of sailing ships to which a squaresail, lateensail or lugsail is bent. (the word ‘bent’ in this sailor’s jargon means ‘attached to’)

Yardarm: The main horizontal timber in the rigging of square rigged ships to which the sail is bent (i.e. a squaresail). It is a long piece of timber tapering toward the ends that is mounted on the mast at its middle.

Yes, we’re talking square-riggers here. Clipper ships, ships of the line, the Mary Rose, and even the Black Pearl of Captain Jack Sparrow. Heck, with regard to this we’re also talking the dragon ships of the Vikings, the Bremen Cog, the Bounty, Nelson’s Victory, and the most ancient shipwrecks of the Greeks and Phoenicians excavated in the Mediterranean etc., all square riggers with yards. One of the most magnificent of square rigged vessels was Preussen, a 5 masted clipper ship built of steel right at the end of the clipper ship age. Sadly, she met her end being rammed by a steamship in the fog, an oddly symbolic tragic end to the era.

a to z - Fuenfmastvollschiff-Preussen

Square-riggers are a bit more complicated to sail than a fore and aft rig. There were so many lines to memorize, that learning what the lines were and what they did was an integral part of a sailor’s training. That’s where the phrase ‘learning the ropes’ originated.

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If I might detour for just a moment, for those who are new to sailing, the lines used to do various things on a boat are named for their function. For example, the main sheet is the line that controls the main sail (because the sail looks a little like a bedsheet, I suppose, but that’s pure conjecture). The line that controls the jib sail is called the jib sheet and so on. It’s not completely consistent, as the anchor line is called the anchor line and dock lines are called dock lines, but lines controlling the sails truncate the ‘line’ at the end of the term. The reason is probably that over time commands were just made simpler that way. Now back to your regularly scheduled post.


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A square rigger is a bit different than a fore and aft rig. You have a mast, a crosspiece that is the yard and a sail that hangs down from that. Attached to either end of the yard are lines called ‘braces’. The braces control the angle of the yard relative to the ship so the sail can be oriented to best advantage to the direction of the wind. Remember Errol Flynn in ‘Captain Blood’ shouting out ‘Man the braces!’? Whether the movie writers realized it or not, those are the lines that Blood was talking about. Rigging the yard is also a bit different. First thing is you have to get it up the mast. It’s supported in the middle, of course, but how do you get it up there? You do it with a line similar to the line used to haul any sail up the mast, a halyard. Yes, you haul the yard up the mast using the halyard. You guessed it, that’s where the name of that line came from, a shortening of ‘hauling yard.’

Other nautical terms or phrases come from the yard or yardarm. The phrase ‘sun is over the yardarm’ is suggested to have come from the custom aboard ship that once the sun had suck low enough over horizon and no longer struck the yardarm, the officers could retire below for their first tot of spirits for the day. Now the expression means around 5:00 pm or the end of the working day. I’ve also heard it used for lunchtime for the sun to be literally over the yardarm so it’s time to eat. The phrase ‘yardarm to yardarm’ means very close together, as when the braces are manned and the yardarms are pulled almost fore and aft to where the tips are touching. And of course, ‘hung from the yardarm’ is self-explanatory as the punishment for mutineers. Don’t you love sail talk?

Now that I’ve bungled my way through ‘y’, I think I’ll splice the main brace (have a drink), scratch my head and see what I can come up with for ‘z’ before I’m three sheets to the wind (the line let loose so the sails are flapping and the ship is out of control). Arrrrh.







X is for ‘X marks the spot’

a to z - penelope cruz pirates of the caribbean johnny depp geoffrey rush captain jack sparrow ian mcshane

Arrrrrghhhh! It’s a pirate post fer shur, there mateys, after yer diamonds and doubloons and treasures of all sorts, arrrrrghhhh!

a to z - Robert louis stevensona to z - Treasure_Island-Scribner's-1911a to z - treasure-island-map

What can I say, I was really stuck for an ‘x’. When ‘X marks the spot’ was suggested to me I started thinking (which for me can be a really dangerous thing for a plethora of reasons) ‘where did the phrase come from and when was the first time it was used?’ In general, it would seem that the use of x to mark a spot on a map would have been in use since time immemorial, as a body doesn’t need to be able to read or write. It was, of course Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island who made it popular. Treasure Island had a tremendous influence on our popular concept of pirates. His narrative turned them from the truly despicable creatures they were (modern pirates are not so entertaining when they attack merchant vessels nowadays) into quaint cartoon characters, using such elements as one-legged seamen bearing parrots on their shoulders, tropical islands laden with gold and treasure maps marked with ‘x’. These images have been copied and played with over the years in entertainment to great effect, anything from swashbuckling Errol Flynn to Peter Sellers with his inflatable parrot (‘Thar she bloowwws!’) to Johnny Depp’s Captain Sparrow (‘They’re more like guidelines, really’), not to mention the plethora of movies made of Treasure Island. There have been no fewer than eighteen films made of it since 1918 and countless TV adaptations and parodies including Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam’s (check out ‘Buccaneer Bunny’ on Youtube).

No discussion of the warm and fuzzy version of pirates would be complete, of course, without mentioning ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’, which is September 19th. It all started when two friends were playing racquetball and started talking to each other that way. ‘That be a fine cannonade’ or ‘Now watch as I fire a broadside…’, this according to their website. I’ll let you read it from their own lips, as it were here: http://talklikeapirate.com/piratehome.html.

Stolen shamelessly from their website (it’s a pirate thing, after all) are the top ten pirate pick-up lines to be used only on TLAPD:

10 . Avast, me proud beauty! Wanna know why my Roger is so Jolly?

9. Have ya ever met a man with a real yardarm?

8. Come on up and see me urchins.

7. Yes, that is a hornpipe in my pocket and I am happy to see you.

6. I’d love to drop anchor in your lagoon.

5. Pardon me, but would ya mind if I fired me cannon through your porthole?

4. How’d you like to scrape the barnacles off of me rudder?

3. Ya know, darlin’, I’m 97 percent chum free.

2. Well blow me down?

And the number one pickup line for use on International Talk Like a Pirate Day is …

  1. Prepare to be boarded.

Now those pickup lines were for guys. Some of the best pirates there every be were ladies, so the top ten pickup lines for ladies be:

10. What are YOU doing here?

9. Is that a belayin’ pin in yer britches, or are ye … (this one is never completed)

8. Come show me how ye bury yer treasure, lad!

7. So, tell me, why do they call ye, “Cap’n Feathersword?”

6. That’s quite a cutlass ye got thar, what ye need is a good scabbard!

5. Aye, I guarantee ye, I’ve had a twenty percent decrease in me “lice ratio!”

4. I’ve crushed seventeen men’s skulls between me thighs!

3. C’mon, lad, shiver me timbers!


…and the number one Female Pirate Pick-up Line:

  1. You. Pants Off. Now!


And just for a little more fun:

What’s a pirate’s favorite socks? Arrrrgyle.

What’s a pirate’s favorite pet? An arrrrrdvarrrrrk.

What does a pirate think happens at the end of time? Arrrrmageddon.

What’s a pirate’s favorite food? Arrrrrtichokes.

What’s a pirate’s philosophy? I think therefore I arrrrrrrr.

Why does a pirate fear getting older? He could have arrrrthritus.

What’s a pirate’s favorite state? Arrrrkansas

It occurrrrrs to be I’m now being entirrrrrrely too silly now that I’ve got me belaying pin between my teeth, so I’ll just wish you all a good day and walk the plank.


W is for Wanderlust

This post is a bit more mystic, in that it covers a singular aspect of why people sail. This is not so much for power boats. I’ve heard it said (and it rings true for me) that folks who go on powerboats go with the intent of going somewhere or doing something in particular, whether it’s fishing or trawling or skiing. Sailors go with the intent of enjoying the going, not the getting somewhere. I believe that feeling is the edge of wanderlust, the simple desire to move.

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The first time I can remember feeling wanderlust was as a five year old child, watching the television show ‘Adventures in Paradise.’ The waving palm trees, the schooner Tiki, and the adventures of Captain Troy were all I needed to light the spark.

The term ‘wanderlust’ has its origins from the German words wander (to hike) and Lust (desire). According to Wikipedia, in modern German the use of the word Wanderlust is less common, having been replaced by Fernweh (literally ‘farsickness’), coined as an antonym to Heimweh (homesickness). I rather like that as a definition for wanderlust. ‘Farsickness’, for to me the longing feels like a sickness of sorts, similar to the ripped heart of lovesickness, but a longing for what is beyond the horizon literal and figurative.

Wanderlust is universal, it seems. Many people, disillusioned with the greed sickness of the modern commercial world, have taken off to parts unknown, many of them single-handed. There is a book by Richard Henderson, ‘Singlehanded Sailing’, that covers the techniques of handling a sailboat on your own. How to set up self-steering, various rigs, anchoring, etc are but a few of the subjects, but the opening chapters cover the huge number of people who have faced the sea alone. The reasons for singlehanding are various. From Henderson’s book, actual answers are “I proved to myself I could do it alone”, “I simply had to”, “Restlessness was nagging me”, “The best way to find peace” and my personal favorite, “Because I bloody well wanted to.”

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A man named Howard Blackburn is one of the most remarkable of all singlehanders, because the man had no fingers. He lost them to the sea when fishing in a dory as a young man from a Glouscester schooner in a blinding snow storm. He lost his mittens and his fingers were frozen stiff, but before he lost all feeling, he formed them into cupped sockets so he could still row. He could not reach the mother vessel, so he struck out for Newfoundland. He was 5 days at sea in that dory, lost all his fingers, many toes and half of each thumb. After all that, he still went to sea as a singlehander and went transatlantic twice. There had to be more in his soul than just ‘Oh I’ll see if I can make it’. Wanderlust had to be part of the very fiber of his being. And speaking of transatlantic, I’m reminded of Helen Tew, an 88-year old grandmother who sailed eight thousand miles in a 26 foot gaff cutter (not alone, her sons were with her), proof positive that wanderlust is not limited to the young. Sir Francis Chichester and Sir Alex Rose were 66 and 60, respectively, when they completed their circumnavigations. I take heart from them, knowing from that that it’s never too late to start an adventure. But for me, the one to take the cake for pure wanderlust is Harry Pigeon.


1986.0034 pidgeon islander

Harry Pigeon was a landsman until relatively late in life. He was 48 when he yielded to his yearning to visit the South Seas so he built his own boat, the Islander, and studied navigation in the local public library. His first circumnavigation took four years, his second took five years. The thing is, he didn’t do it as a test of bravery, or a publicity stunt. He did it because he wanted to see more of the world. At the end of his book, he wrote: “My voyage was not undertaken for the joy of sailing alone. It was my way of seeing some interesting part of the world … any landsman who builds his own vessel and sails it alone around the world will certainly meet with some adventures, so I shall offer no apology for my own voyage. Those days were the freest and the happiest of my life.”

So perhaps that’s what wanderlust is really about, freedom. When Bernard Moitessier abandoned the around the world race when he had the thing won, his communique to his Sunday Times contact read: “Dear Robert: The Horn was rounded February 5, and today is March 18. I am continuing non-stop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.”

The literal, physical act of going is freedom, of ever seeing new things, meeting new people, breathing deep of what the world has to give, up to the last moment when we shuffle off this mortal coil, the absolute refusal to die before our time.


“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

(Dylan Thomas)


So wanderlust, distilled to its core, is lust for freedom and the deeply branded belief that it’s never too late for wonders. May we all, in our own way, be thoroughly infected by it.


V is for Varnish


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We’ve all seen them, the insanely pristine beautiful yachts with deeply gleaming varnished finishes that appear impervious to all that Mother Nature can throw its way. It’s pretty, no doubt about it, but before you let your heart make your boat finishing decisions for you, just remember, varnish takes a great deal of work to apply and upkeep must be done seasonally to maintain that gloss finish.

First, let’s look at a couple of definitions. Varnish is a transparent, hard, protective finish or film used in wood finishing. Classic traditional varnish has three basic components: drying oil, resin and a solvent. Drying oils are vegetable oils that dry in the air to form a solid film. Examples of drying oils are tung oil, linseed oil or walnut oil. Examples of Resins are amber (though it’s a little expensive, I would think), rosin (pine resin), or shellac.

(As a small interesting factoid, pure Shellac is a completely natural product that is scraped from the bark of trees where the female lac bug secretes it to form a tunnel-like tube as it traverses the branches of the tree. The number of lac bugs required to produce a single kilo (2.2 lbs) of shellac has been estimated at up to 300,000. This means huge numbers of insects on the host trees, up to 150 per square inch. Ick.)

The third component, solvent, is traditionally turpentine, but in more modern formulas solvents are more often mineral spirits like paint thinners.

To get back to the nautical applications, marine varnish, or ‘spar’ varnishes are formulated not necessarily for appearance (or UV resistance for that matter) but for flexibility. When sails are attached to spars, the spars flex under the cyclic loads, so if the protective finish is too hard it will crack and water will get in and there goes the protective qualities. Less severe but still important, decks flex as well (hell, let’s face it, the whole boat flexes as it goes through the water) so it’s not just for spars.

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Varnish works much better applied in a number of thin coats rather than one or two heavy coats. According to John Vigor, the minimum number of coats of varnish required to get that deep gleaming professional look is 8 to 10. No that is not a misprint, 8 to 10 coats. Now bear in mind that before the varnish is applied, the surface on which it’s applied has to be completely dry, sanded, smoothed with bronze wool (as opposed to steel wool, which puts a gray tint to the wood), grain filled if necessary, and sealed. Only then can you apply your 10 coats of varnish. Between coats some people wet sand with insanely fine sandpaper. Before each varnish application, wipe the surface clean with a tack cloth dampened with a compatible thinner. Don’t work outside if it’s too hot, too cold or too damp, as that will cause the varnish to cloud. Don’t stir the varnish in the can or you’ll introduce bubbles. Swirl it gently in the can to mix it if you really feel it’s necessary. According to Vigor, mostly it isn’t, but for me the habit of stirring something before I dip my brush in it is just so strongly ingrained I don’t know if I could avoid it. One small bit of advice here, and this goes for paint as well as varnish, when a bug lands on your freshly applied surface (and they will, in spite of faith) do not knock them off immediately. I know that sounds weird, but stay with me. Let the finish dry and then knock them off, leaving the tiny tidbits of their teensy toes behind. If you try to get them off whilst the finish is still wet you’ll just end up buggering up the finish.

The previous paragraph illustrates why I’m not a great proponent of varnish. I don’t consider boats as furniture, because if they are actually used on the water the finish will inevitably get a little banged up, whether from coming into the dock, errant tools dropping on them or simply a clumsy misstep (and I tend to be clumsy at the worst times). But if you love making things pretty rather than spending time on the water, by all means, go for it.

U is for U-boat

a to z - u-boat-cutaway

U-boat is, of course, the German term for submarine, usually associated with World War II. The true German term is Unterseeboot, or literally ‘undersea boat’. If we go back further, the father of the modern submarine was a Irishman named John Philip Holland (in the photo below), who designed the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy in 1900.

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And on Saturday Aug. 26, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt became the first president (and to my knowledge the only sitting president) to submerge in a submarine. His wife Edith was (similar to her reaction to him going up in an aeroplane) apoplectic. But Holland’s designs, of a boat that ran on internal combustion engine on the surface and batteries below, were the first practical designs of modern underwater craft.

Parallel to this, the Germans developed their own submarines. Their first one sank in 1850 on its first dive in Kiel harbor. After that they got better, of course, and by the time WWI started had a fleet of 28. Overall, in WWI and WWII, the undersea boat was very effective, but ultimately not decisive in the outcome of the war.

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The operational principles are pretty simple. I guess I should have posted this little tidbit under ‘B is for Buoyancy’. All you have to do is remember the basic principle of buoyancy (in water). If something is lighter than its volume of water, it will float. If it’s heavier than its volume of water, it will sink. There are actually woods (such as lignum vitae) that are sufficiently dense (like yours truly) that they sink in water. So the basic theory of the operational submarine is that you start with a pressure hull (that’s the tank with the people inside that resists water pressure) and attach ‘ballast tanks’ to that. When the ballast tanks are full of air the boat floats, when the ballast tanks are full of water the boat sinks. Generally speaking, WWII U-boat ballast tanks were shaped a little like parakeet cuttlefish on the ends (stay with me here, it’s just a rough shape comparison) that were welded alongside the pressure hull (which was usually cylindrical in shape to resist pressure more easily).

The main weapon of the U-boat during WWII was the torpedo, though some ships were sunk using deck guns. They were pretty effective during the war, especially off the coast of North Carolina around Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras. Historically ships take advantage of the Gulf Stream flow on their way south and either sail closer to the Outer Banks on the way north or further out to avoid the flow. In any case it’s an area of much ship traffic and the U-boats took advantage of it knowing where ships were going to be. There were so many sinkings in that area it came to be known as ‘Torpedo Alley’. All through the war, oil spills, wreckage and bodies were not uncommon along those beaches, especially during 1942, a period the German submariners called ‘The Happy Time’, when they sank almost 400 vessels and over 5000 people lost their lives. There were three submarines sunk by the allies during this period and two of them still lie in about 115 feet of water off Cape Hatteras and south of Beaufort Inlet. One U-boat that survived the war (barely) was U-505, which is now located in her own hall in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The photo below shows it as it was being captured. She was the first warship captured on the high seas since the War of 1812. The display in Chicago is a beautiful exhibit and I heartily recommend you see it if you’re in the area. Walking through it shows just how cold, cramped and dirty life was aboard the U-boats.

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The Achilles heel of the U-boat was the fact it had to surface to replenish air and recharge batteries at least once a day for a few hours. The advent of airborne radar took advantage of this and even the development of the snorkel for U-boats did not help them very much. Added to that was the Enigma code machine that was captured on the U-505 that was instrumental in breaking the German’s radio communication code. That code breaking nulified the wolf pack tactics. 28,000 of the 40,000 German U-boat sailors were killed outright during the war. That’s a 70% casualty rate.

Two small points that writers may find interesting: Submarines, no matter the size, are always called ‘boats’ not ‘ships.’ Second, the word ‘submariners’ is pronounced sub-ma-REEN-ers, not sub-MAH-rin-ers. That might seems like a small thing, but when I mispronounced the word when I worked on them at the shipyard, the sailors very quickly disabused me of my initial notion. Something to keep in mind if you ever talk with one.

Next time ‘V’. Gotta think about that one, may have worked myself into a corner here.

T is for Tallow



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Tallow. The name is arhh-matey-arrhh and salty as can be. But what is it? Tallow is waxy fat from mutton (though you can make it from venison and other animal fats) used as lubricant on board ship. If there’s any sort of leather on board (oar leathers, protective edges on sail attachment points, the places where wooden spars rest against the mast, etc), tallow is the greatest thing for lubricant. It’s great for protection of things steel like handsaws. I also lubricate my oarlocks with it and anything else that just needs a little-dab-will-do-yah. The stuff never seems to go rancid, either, once the impurities have been removed. I’ve had one can of tallow since the mid-1980s and it has never gone bad. Historically it’s been used for lubrication of firearms and for frying food, sorta like Crisco. Presently it’s used commercially in a lot of products from leather conditioners to moisturizers to soap.

And better yet, it’s easy to make.

First you obtain the fat. A local butcher is great, but I have saved fat from when I get leg of lamb, trimming it before cooking and freezing it until I have enough to make it worth the process. Once you have a good sized chunk of it saved, you render it in a frying pan, slowly. Think of cooking bacon without any smoke at all, it’s that slow and low temperature. When it’s all liquid grease, pour it into an old coffee can or other metal can that is disposable. Let it cool. Then pour water into the can and put that into a pot of simmering water. You can put the can directly on the heat if you can control the heat on a very low setting. The idea is that you simmer the water in the can at a very low heat for a long time. The rendered fat will melt, become liquid. As it simmers right along with the water, all the impurities will drop down to the bottom of the can, leaving pure tallow at the top. After you’ve done this for a while (I let mine go for a couple of hours at least) you turn off the heat and let it cool. When it’s cool the solidified fat on top of the water is tallow. Dip it out, put it in a can and you’re golden.

The stuff is amazing. When you’ve been applying it to your oar leathers, etc, it soaks into your hands and turns them baby soft. Great stuff. I’ve thought of putting lanolin in it for hand cream, but that’s another project I’ll probably never get to.

In days of old, of course, candles were made of tallow. You can do that too. The easiest way to do it is to make a jar candle because pure tallow can be used for that. If you want to make a dip candle or pour one in a form it’s a good idea to add something like beeswax, or alum or even resin (not certain what kind) to make it hard enough to stand up to warmer temperatures. There are all sorts of recipes for that online, but I’ve personally never done it so you’re on your own.