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Landlubber’s Sailing Terms

in America's Cup, Maritime

From above board and the bitter end to under the weather and a wide berth … these terms will make you sound like you know what you’re talking about on land or at sea.

  • Above board: On or above the deck, in plain view, not hiding anything.
  • Anchor’s aweigh: Said of an anchor when just clear of the bottom.
  • Aye, aye: Reply to an order or command to indicate that it, firstly, is heard; and, secondly, is understood and will be carried out.
  • Avast: Stop, cease or desist from whatever is being done. From the Dutch hou’ vast (“hold fast”), from houd (“hold”) + vast (“fast”).
  • Batten down the hatches: To prepare for inclement weather by securing the closed hatch covers with wooden battens so as to prevent water from entering from any angle.
  • Bitter end: The last part or loose end of a rope or cable. The anchor cable is tied to the bitts; when the cable is fully paid out, the bitter end has been reached.
  • Brass monkey: Used in the expression “it is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” A brass monkey was a brass frame used to hold fast the bottom layer of a pyramid stack of cannon balls; when it was so cold (how cold?) the frame would shrink sufficiently to allow the cannon balls to collapse.
  • By and large: By means into the wind, while large means with the wind. “By and large” is used to indicate all possible situations “the ship handles well both by and large.”
  • Cat o’ nine tails: A short nine-tailed whip kept by the bosun’s mate to flog sailors. When not in use, the cat was kept in a baize bag, hence the term “cat out of the bag.”  “Not enough room to swing a cat” also derives from this.
  • Chock: Hole or ring attached to the hull to guide a line via that point.
  • Chock-a-block: Rigging blocks that are so tight against one another that they cannot be further tightened.
  • The Doldrums or equatorial calms: The equatorial trough, with special reference to the light and variable nature of the winds.
  • Fathom: A unit of length equal to 6 feet, particularly used to measure depth.
  • Fly by night: A large sail used only for sailing downwind, requiring little attention.
  • Footloose: If the foot of a sail is not secured properly, it is footloose, blowing around in the wind.
  • Full and by: Sailing into the wind (by), but not as close-hauled as might be possible, so as to make sure the sails are kept full. Figuratively it implies getting on with the job but in a steady, relaxed way, without undue urgency or strain.
  • Groggy: Drunk from having consumed a lot of grog.
  • In the offing: In the water visible from on board a ship, now used to mean something imminent.
  • Jury rig: Both the act of rigging a temporary mast and sails and the name of the resulting rig. A jury rig would be built at sea when the original rig was damaged, then it would be used to sail to a harbor or other safe place for permanent repairs.
  • Knot: A unit of speed: 1 nautical mile (1.8520 km; 1.1508 mile) per hour. Originally speed was measured by paying out a line from the stern of a moving boat. The line had a knot every 47 feet 3 inches, and the number of knots passed out in 30 seconds gave the speed through the water in nautical miles per hour.
  • Know the ropes: A sailor who “knows the ropes” is familiar with the miles of cordage and ropes involved in running a ship.
  • League: A unit of length, normally equal to three nautical miles.
  • Leeway: The amount that a ship is blown leeward (in the direction the wind is blowing).
  • Loose cannon: An irresponsible and reckless individual whose behavior (either intended or unintended) endangers the group he or she belongs to. A loose cannon, weighing thousands of pounds, would crush anything and anyone in its path, and possibly even break a hole in the hull, thus endangering the seaworthiness of the whole ship.
  • Pipe down: A signal on the bosun’s pipe to signal the end of the day, requiring lights (and smoking pipes) to be extinguished and silence from the crew.
  • Slush: Greasy substance obtained by boiling or scraping the fat from empty salted meat storage barrels, or the floating fat residue after boiling the crew’s meal. In the Royal Navy the perquisite of the cook who could sell it or exchange it (usually for alcohol) with other members of the crew. Used for greasing parts of the running rigging of the ship.
  • Slush fund: The money obtained by the cook selling slush ashore. Used for the benefit of the crew (or the cook).
  • Taking the wind out of his sails: To sail in a way that steals the wind from another ship.
  • Three sheets to the wind: On a three-masted ship, having the sheets (ropes used to control the setting of a sail) of the three lower sails loose will result in the ship meandering aimlessly downwind. Also, a sailor who has drunk strong spirits beyond his capacity.
  • Toe the line: At parade, sailors and soldiers were required to stand in line, their toes in line with a seam of the deck.
  • Under the weather: Serving a watch on the weather side of the ship, exposed to wind and spray.
  • Wide berth: To leave room between two ships moored (berthed) to allow space for maneuver.

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