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Sailor's Glossary


The Vessels of the Port of New York: Descriptions and Identifications

Aground: Touching the bottom
Aloft: Above the deck of a vessel
Anchorage: An area where a ship may dock comfortably, due to its agreeable winds, the state of the seas, and the proximity to the sea’s bottom.
Beam: The widest point of a vessel.
Below: Beneath the deck of a vessel.
Bow: The front part of a vessel.
Brig: Sailor’s jail on a vessel.
Bridge: The control station of a vessel; The vessel is steered and its speed is controlled from this point.
Cabin: The equivalent of a room. Used to house passengers and crew.
Course: The direction in which a vessel is steered.
Deck: A permanent covering over the hull.
Displacement: The weight of a boat; literally, the weight of the water that the boat displaces.
Fathom: Six feet (Measurement of the depth of water).
Forward: Toward the bow of the vessel.
Galley: A vessel’s kitchen.
Gangway: The area of a vessel where boarding and disembarking occurs.
Helm: The wheel that controls the rudder.
Hull: The main body of the vessel.
Keel: The central line of a vessel; anatomically speaking, the backbone of the vessel.
Knot: A nautical measurement of speed. One knot is equivalent to 6076 feet per hour.
Line: Rope used aboard a vessel.
Mast: A vertical beam from which sails are suspended.
Midship: The center of the vessel; ideally, equally distant from the bow and the stern.
Port: The left side of a vessel, looking towards the bow.
Rudder: The device that physically steers the vessel.
Seaworthy: A vessel’s ability to meet or exceed expected sea conditions.
Starboard: The right side of a vessel, looking towards the bow.
Stem: The point of the vessel that is furthest forward.
Stern: The point of the vessel that is furthest behind.
Yard: A cylinder lashed horizontally to the mast, from which the sails hung.
Yardarm: The furthermost point of the yard.

Heard Around the Port of New York: Sailors’ Slang

Before the Mast: Somebody who served as a sailor and not an officer. Literally, it meant that the seaman’s cabin was before the foremast, towards the stem.
Cape Horn Fever: An illness a sailor might pretend to have to avoid service at sea.
Down the Hatch: Drinking. Comes from the nautical expression of lowering cargo into the hull of a vessel, specifically, the hatch.
Flying Dutchman: A nautical legend about a ship that tried to round first the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) and then Cape Horn, failing both times. It is doomed to wander the seas forever. The legend was that if a sailor saw the Flying Dutchman, he would die within the day.
Grog: Term used to refer to an alcoholic drink made of rum diluted with water. Served as a ration.
Jack Tar (Or simply Tar): A slang term used to refer to a sailor. Originated from the tarpaulin hats that sailors often wore.
Keel Hauling: A punishment for unruly sailors, akin to water torture. Never practiced by the United States Navy, but one can imagine a temperamental captain on a merchant vessel using it. The miscreant would be tied to one yardarm, lowered into the water on one side, and then lifted out of the water on the other side, from the other yardarm. While he was underwater, a cannon was sometimes fired, mostly to shock the victim with the noise.
Kiss the Wooden Lady: A punishment that involved tying a sailor to the mast, facing towards the wood. Considered a minor punishment. The other sailors would be encouraged to kick the victim in the rear.
Rosewater Sailor: An incompetent seaman, usually because of foppish behavior and affectations.
Skin/Snake: A tube worn concealed on the body, usually around the ankles, used to smuggle alcohol onboard.
Suit: Referring to the sails that a vessel uses.
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