Y is for Yard, or Yardarm

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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.

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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.







U is for U-boat

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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.

I is for Inox

I confess that initially I was stuck for something to write on a nautical theme that started with ‘I’. ‘Island’ was just too easy and not necessarily nautical, so I settled on Inox. Inox, from the French acier inoxydable, is the term used in Europe for stainless steel. ‘Stainless steel’, by the way, is bit of a misnomer. Steel is purified and heat treated iron with a bit of carbon added to it to harden it. Inox, or stainless, is a true alloy with up to 20% chrome and 37% nickel. Like Bronze is a combination of copper and tin or brass is a combination of copper and zinc, stainless steels are a true amalgam, not simply a treated form of iron. Most Inox alloys are not even magnetic. Inox is of course, widely used in the marine industry because of its resistance to rusting and corrosion. But this is not a perfect world, and neither is Inox. Pardon my delving into engineering here, but Inox, paradoxically, depends upon oxygen to maintain its stainless quality. It’s the chromium that does it, because when the chromium in Inox is exposed to oxygen it forms an inert layer of oxidation that protects the underlying metal. So on deck or underwater where there is a good supply of oxygen, there is no problem. However, if it’s a propeller shaft enclosed in a stern tube, a keel bolt surrounded by wood or other part simply covered with marine growth, thus deprived of oxygen and in sea water, the oxidized layer of chromium breaks down, leaving it to rust and corrode like ordinary steel. That’s one reason your propeller shaft gland (on inboard engines) should drip a bit, to feed oxygen to the propeller shaft.

swiss army knife first knife_2020046a Swiss Army Knife lo

One little tidbit that’s’ not really really nautical, but the name Victorinox, the company that makes Swiss Army Knives, comes from the two words Victoria and Inox shoved together. The founder of the company Karl Elsener was supported greatly by his mother Victoria in his business endeavours, so when she passed away he named the company after her and the name of the material he used for his famous knives. This was in 1891 that he first started supplying knives to the Swiss army, that’s the one on the left above. Thanks, Mom.

All right, enough engineering. Tomorrow will be simpler, I swear.

G is for Grog

Arrrhhhh, Matey, arrrrrrrh! Grog is a traditional drink of nautical folk. The standard recipe today, if and when it’s served, according to Pusser’s British Navy Rum website, is 2 parts water, 1 part rum, lime juice to taste and dark cane sugar to taste. You can also sprinkle a little cinnamon (ahh, sweet cinnamon) or nutmeg on top for that final taste of the dandy. That’s the modern version.

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The traditional/original version is a little different and the origins are a little fuzzy, but basically it came to be in this way. On old sailing ships distilling fresh water was not practical, so enough water was taken on board in barrels to last for the length of the passage or cruise. After a time at sea, without methods of preservation like the addition of chlorine to keep it fresh, stored water became distinctly slimy, algae being ubiquitous stuff. To make the water more palatable, it was mixed with beer. As longer voyages came about, the sheer volume of stowage of the beer in addition to the water became a problem, so the beer was replaced with rum in 1655 after the conquest of Jamaica. At first they gave this to the sailor straight, but this caused disciplinary problems, especially since some sailors would hoard their ration and drink it all at once. Finally (change being difficult in all the Navy’s of the world) the rum was mixed with water and served at specified times during the day to curb the excesses of drunkeness. Lime juice was added to improve the taste, also having the effect of fighting scurvy. The sailors were served grog twice a day in the ration of a half a pint of rum to a quart of water (a 4:1 ratio of water to rum). The practice was carried over into the American Navy, except we made a change to rye whiskey as the American sailor preferred it. That is until the teetotalers barged in (wouldn’t you know they would put an end to a sailor’s fun) and ended the practice in 1862. The ration continued in the Royal Navy until July 31, 1970, now known as ‘Black Tot Day’ when the last pipe of “Up Spirits” was heard.

The name ‘grog’ most probably came from ‘Old Grog’, the nickname of Admiral Vernon because he wore a grogham cloak. Americans actually called their alcoholic ration ‘Bob Smith’, after Robert Smith who was Secretary of the Navy when the rye ration was instituted.

Traditional toasts of the Royal Navy were/are as follows:

Sunday – To absent friends

Monday – To our ships at sea

Tuesday – to our men

Wednesday – to ourselves (as no one else is likely concerned for us)

Thursday – to a bloody war (and a quick promotion)

Friday – to a willing foe and sea room

Saturday – to sweetheart and wives (may they never meet)


So in conclusion for today, let’s raise our mugs of sweet libation to the ambrosia of the seas.