I've always been fond of words. I'm a writer, after all, and an editor. Words are my stock in trade. I'd rather play Scrabble than just about any board game. Yet while I'm very fond of my native English, I'm not so good at learning new languages, whether foreign tongues or elaborate sets of jargon. As a professional editor, I've had to learn the trade jargon of various industries, but it's not always easy. My latest challenge has been absorbing the language of boats, boaters, and boating -- nautical jargon.
I'm just fine with basic terms like fore (toward the front of the boat) and aft (toward the back of the boat). Oops, that's "bow," not "front," and "stern," not back. I even know my "port" (left side of the boat as you look forward) from my "starboard" (right side of the boat as you look forward), though in a panic situation the captain might want to stick with "left" and "right" if he or she expected swift help from moi.
I realized shortly after purchasing our new boat that I needed a primer, so I downloaded a guide to boating terms and began working my way through the ABCs. For example, I learned that, in boating terms, "ahead" simply means moving forward, whereas "a head" is something different entirely. But necessary.
"Aground" isn't something I want to learn about. "Adrift" is fine as long as you have "a motor" or at least "a paddle" when your vessel moves too close to another vessel or object, such as the shore.
Now I figured that "beam" was the butt of the boat -- you know, the rear, the fanny, the hind end (OK, the stern)-- like "wide in the beam." But no, it's actually the part of the boat that's widest, which may be the stern, but may be some point forward of there.
A "bilge," as it turns out, is the interior of the boat, below the floorboards. I thought it was the sound you made when you got seasick and found yourself hanging over the gunwales (those are the sides of the boat, also spelled -- and pronounced --"gunnels"). That's a retch, not to be confused with a winch (which can help load your boat onto its trailer), which is not to be confused with a wench (which pirates probably kept on board for entertainment in days of old).
I know that maps are "charts" when you're on a boat.
So far, my favorite "C" word is "cleat," because the only thing I know how to do (besides work the CD player -- ooh, there's another "C" word) is tie off the boat to various cleats when we dock. This maneuver requires no advanced "Popeye the Sailor Man" knot-tying techniques, a simple series of figure-8s seems to suffice. So it's easy, but it makes me feel important. Look! I'm protecting our ungodly expensive investment so it won't float away!
As I explored the world of nautical words, I realized there were many other things I need to learn about. I need to understand the difference between the boat's inboard and its outboard engine. I know that each serves a purpose beyond mere propulsion. Shifting the angle of the outboard can affect the pitch of the bow (that's the boat's "nose," remember?), for example. And you darn well better know how to raise that puppy when you get into shallow water.
Which brings me to the depthfinder, far and away MY favorite gauge. I was spellbound watching the numbers flicker on that sucker and wondering how the captain would ever slow down or stop fast enough if the reading went from "35 ft" to "2 ft" all of a sudden. I guess that's where the charts come in handy. You can bet I'll be studying those carefully before I take my turn at the helm. (That's the steering wheel.)
Don't Go Overboard
Of course, puttering around my local lakes and rivers on a 21-foot boat with laypeople, I realize I won't have to speak like Barnacle Bill to make a point. In fact, one can take this nautical jargon too far. When my brother-in-law said he had dropped a screw off the stern and lost it the day before, I was genuinely shocked. Propellers, also known as "screws," run over a hundred dollars -- even the relatively cheap aluminum ones. I thought he had lost our spare propeller! Turns out it was an actual screw, the threaded kind with a Phillips head, and he lost it in favor of NOT losing our portable drill when he was making a repair!
So I've mastered most of the A's and B's on the list and picked up enough of the rest to fake my way through casual dock chat. I guess I'll worry about cuddies and coamings and the difference between draft and displacement later on. I thought a draft was what you kept in the ice chest, but turns out I'm wrong. It's enough to confuse a wench.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a travel writer, university editor, and one-quarter owner of a SeaRay 210 open-bow runabout. She hikes, bicycles, camps, and now boats in southeastern Washington State.