Ten Days Before the Mast

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“…[T]here is such an infinite number of totally new names of new things to learn, that at first it seemed impossible for me to master them all. If you have ever seen a ship, you must have remarked what a thicket of ropes there are, and how they all seemed mixed an entangled together…
–Herman Melville, Redburn

For the past ten days, my classmates and I have been involved in a total-immersion maritime language program, sailing up and down the East Coast. We were divided into three groups (“watches,” lettered A, B, and C), and assigned to work the ship through various four- and six-hour periods, day and night.

“Heather,” I said to A-Watch’s immediate supervisor, “I’m going to go downstairs.”

“Going where?” she asked.

“Belowdecks, I mean. To use the restroom.”

“The what?”

“The head.”

Thus came my first practical lesson in maritime terminology. It may seem trivial and arbitrary, this renaming of everyday objects–bulkhead for wall, sole for floor, companionway for hallway, etc. but nautical terminology takes on a new significance when the more integral parts of the vessel are involved.

“All hands to set the fore staysail!” said Heather.

This utterance is simple, once one can locate the fore staysail among the eight sails of the SSV Corwith Cramer (a brigatine, or hermaphrodite brig). Having found the correct sail, however, we deck hands must decipher and complete a number of operations involved in “setting the fore staysail”: make ready on the fore staysail halyard, cast off fore staysail downhaul, make ready on fore staysail sheet, make ready on the fore staysail traveler outhauls, haul away on the fore staysail halyard, take up slack fore staysail sheet, make fast fore staysail halyard, take up slack fore staysail downhaul, make fast, coil and hang.

Imagine that series of commands, uttered, say, in the dark of the middle watch (2300-0300 hours), or as the ship pitches in ten foot swells. Imagine a reverse series of commands (to strike, or lower, the sail). Imagine striking three sails at once, and then, before the ropes have been coiled and hung, setting them all again. The greenhands (inexperienced sailors) of the Williams-Mystic class of Fall 2008 did it all. As the ship’s mates reminded us “You’re part of this crew, too. We can’t run the ship alone.”

This was at once affirming and terrifying. If the mate on watch (in my case, Heather, who, as Chief Mate, was also the boat’s second-ranking officer) was feeling benevolent, she would call out the “set the fore staysail” and proceed to call out the various commands in order. Or, she might say “Greg, you’re calling this one,” relying on a student to manage the whole operation.

Once we could cast off and haul on the appropriate lines, this was an orderly process, even with a student calling. But at least as often as not, I would find myself staring into the rigging, trying to trace one of the scores of lines from its appropriate sail, up the mast, and back down to its lashing point on the deck. I would uncoil and let slack on the wrong line, or make fast lines that were meant to be cast off, leaving my shipmates putting their backs into a line that was secured to the rail. I flat coiled when I was supposed to flop flake, and I had to think long and hard before I was able to tie a bowline. I called “belowdecks” “downstairs” more times than I’d like to remember.

I wondered, with Herman Melville’s hero in Redburn “…whether mankind could not get along without all these names, which keep increasing every day, and hour, and moment, till at last the very air will be full of them; and even in a great plain, men will be breathing each other’s breath, owing to the vast multitude of words they use that consume all the air…”

But nautical terminology, literature professor Rich King reminded us in one our daily classes on the quarterdeck, serves more of a purpose than to consume the air. It is a language of separation, marking the boat as a separate space, one in which land behaviors and land words are often inappropriate and sometimes dangerous. The deck, despite serving a similar function as the ground, is not the ground, and if one forgets the distinction (namely, the deck moves), one’s time onboard may be short and painful.

Like all languages, the language of the sea can best be learned in daily use. We of A-Watch slowly learned to go “belowdecks to the head,” and to take accurate navigational readings. We steered the Cramer through some of the swells and rain from Tropical Storm Hanna, and we threaded the needles between Maine’s islands in a thick fog to bring her to a safe harbor to wait out the rest of the storm. By the end of the voyage, we had successfully learned our lines, and, being now qualified to handle to boat, we went back to shore to relearn our land legs and our land language.