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Dog Watch: A nautical etymology

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #124 September/October 2002

From Ocean Navigator #124 September/October 2002

Every sailor worth his or her salt knows the four cardinal points of their vessel: bow, stern, port and starboard. Thankfully, these terms have survived the modern era, with its introduction of fiberglass, diesel engines and electric navigation lights. Unfortunately, there now lies dormant a seaman's lexicon, which brims with rich, colorful language.

I was once advised by an editor several years ago to not use "so much of that nautical language. It makes readers feel uncomfortable when they don't know what it means." She suggested that I substitute wall for bulkhead and use off the side rather than abeam. My response was unequivocal: "They should feel uncomfortable if they don't know the proper terms; they're sailors after all!"

While I have nothing against anchor tattoos or scrimshaw, those seamanlike traits pale in comparison to the importance of knowing the proper names for the most common parts and components of your own vessel. Being able to describe the location of a problem or necessary repair using the right verbiage may save some embarrassment, time and money.

I once had a customer ask me to closely inspect all of the floors in his 46-foot wooden sloop for possible rot. Of course, I suspected and later confirmed that what he actually meant was the sole rather than the floors. Had I followed his directions explicitly, he would have incurred the expense of a survey that would require many hours to do something other than what he meant.

The floors are actually the lower portions of athwartship frames, spanning the width of a vessel's hull, just above the keelson or inner keel. Floors are usually horizontal and lie directly beneath the cabin sole. The purpose of the floor is to tie together the port and starboard frames, as well as the keel, creating a rigid monocoque structure.

Floors are not peculiar to wooden vessels. Most fiberglass and nearly all aluminum and steel boats still have some type of floor network.

The word floor stems from the Old Norse flor, which describes exactly this component on Viking-type ships of that era. Viking ships before this era did not have proper floors in this description's sense — they were of monocoque construction. The connection to the modern and land-bound word floor is obvious; the sea-going floors were walked upon, albeit with a section of sole between the crew's feet and the top of the floor itself.

Adding more strength and stiffness to any vessel, be it yacht or super tanker, are bulkheads. These are vertical sections, often placed athwartships, that are typically structural but sometimes only provide cosmetic separation, and are, regrettably, often referred to as walls. The bulkheads found on modern fiberglass vessels usually are made of plywood and, if designed to add strength, are bonded in place by substantial glass fiber and resin tabbing.

Another frequently misused term, when referencing joinerwork within the cabin, is ceiling. The area above your head when standing within the cabin is not the ceiling but the overhead. This shows uncharacteristic logic, at least where shipboard terminology is concerned; the description is literal. The ceiling, however, is what many would refer to as walls, another dreaded landsman's term for, incorrectly, the hull interior. The word ceiling in this instance actually originates from the 15th century Middle English celen, meaning screen or lining; a ceiling acts as a barrier between the crew and the real hull interior. This is, no doubt, a vestige of the days of leaky wooden hulls. Traditionally, it was made up of fore-and-aft planks secured to the inside surface of the frames. A well-installed ceiling allowed air to circulate and condensation and leakage to drain to the bilges, from which it could be pumped.

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