THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND:
In nautical terms, a ‘sheet’ is not a sail but a rope or chain by which sails were attached to the mast. If three sheets were untied the boat would be difficult to control and its progress erratic. Like that of a ‘drunken’ sailor.
FREEZE THE BALLS OFF A BRASS MONKEY:
Cannonballs would traditionally be stowed between the guns on a metal lipped tray, made of brass, called a ‘monkey’. In cold weather the brass ‘monkey’ would contract faster than the iron cannonballs causing the balls to spill out and roll around the deck.
In the mid 1700’s naval vessels often had the lower part of their hulls covered with copper plating to stop wood boring insects and barnacles eroding the wood. These vessels therefore became much more reliable and less likely to spring a leak.
To scuttle something means to cut a hole in it, (Hence the round ‘Scuttles’ on a ship) and a butt was another word for a barrel. The ‘Scuttlebutt’ was a barrel of water where the crew would congregate to get a drink of water and exchange gossip and tales.
CUT OF YOUR/THEIR JIB:
A jib is a triangular sail at the bow between the boom or the forepeak, and the head of the foremost mast. Different countries would have different styles of jib sail. An experienced Captain could identify the nationality of a vessel from distance by the style of jib and if it were an enemy or suspicious vessel he would exclaim ‘I don’t like the cut of their jib'
The French for a ship's cargo is ’Arrimage’. If a cargo was damaged during a voyage it would be sold off cheaply at ‘A Rummage’ sale.
SHIVER ME TIMBERS:
An early, and nowadays rarely used, meaning of ‘shiver’ is to ‘break into pieces’. Shiver me timbers was often part of an oath inferring that if anything happened to them, a person's boat should be broken apart.
On a ship, orders were often given by means of a whistle (pipe) since the sound would travel further than shouted orders and could be heard across the ship. Pipe down was the last call of the day from the Bosun’s Pipe, meaning lights out and silence. The Bosun (or Boatswain) was responsible for the crew whilst on board.
SPLICE THE MAINBRACE:
The ‘mainbrace’ is the thickest part of the rigging holding the ‘Yardarms’ in place. During a battle an enemy would endeavour to disable the mainbrace as the ship is difficult to manoeuvre if it is damaged and therefore unable to easily escape from the enemy. Under the stress of battle, skilled crew members would be expected to repair this difficult part of the ships rigging. As a reward they got an extra tot of ‘Grog’ (Rum). Nowadays the reward is given to all the crew and is used to celebrate special occasions such as the Queen’s Birthday or birth of an heir to the throne.
After the conquest of Jamaica in 1687, rum was introduced into the Royal Navy in place of brandy. In 1740, Admiral Vernon issued an order that the daily ration of one pint of neat rum to men and half a pint for boys should be diluted with a quart of water in an attempt to reduce drunkenness in his fleet – hence sailors feeling ‘groggy’. It was called ‘grog’ because Old Vernon always wore a cloak made of material called grogram.
The practice was totally discontinued in 1970.
LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG:
In the old days the punishment for a serious crime on board a ship, a crewman might be ‘flogged’ or whipped. It would be the job of the Bosun’s mate to administer the punishment using a ‘cat o’ nine tails’. This was a whip fashioned from a piece of rope with thin strips of leather fastened to it. The leather strips were often knotted or had sharp objects tied into them to inflict more pain. The cat o’ nine tails was kept in a bag, so it was bad news if the cat was left out of the bag.
This is an acronym for ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ and refers to wealthy passengers travelling to overseas destinations who could afford to switch cabins during the voyage to ensure they were always on the side opposite the sun, the cool side.
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA :
Wooden ships had to be sealed with hot tar between the planks to stop the ship from leaking. The ‘Devil’ seam was the longest on the ship at the top of the hull and was next to the ‘scuppers’ (or gutters) which allow water to run off the decks. If a large wave knocked a crew member overboard he was said to have been ‘scuppered’ between the devil and the deep blue sea. Also, sealing the deck and devil board with tar was often used as a punishment hence ‘having the devil to pay’.
Towards the end of the 1700’s it became law that lime juice had to be part of the crew’s provisions to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. This shortfall in vitamin C resulted in spongy or bleeding gums leading to the loss of teeth. British ships are still required to carry lime juice.
An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated it was used to seal pitch in deck seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarrelling crewmen.
A sailor who will drink lots of beer or rum with his fellow shipmates, but will refuse to buy a round for them.
SHAKE A LEG:
In some ports, like Portsmouth and Plymouth, women were allowed to come on board the ships to boost the morale of the crew. The men were often forbidden shore leave for fear that those who had been forced into service (Press Ganged) would run away. Every morning the duty Petty Officer would order the occupants of the hammocks to ‘shake a leg’, or show a leg. If the leg was smooth and shapely the woman was allowed to sleep in, if the leg was hairy the occupant was ordered up on deck to assist with the swabbing of the deck.
AS THE CROW FLIES:
British vessels often carried a cage of crows. If the weather was foggy, and the crew unsure where the coast was, they would release a crow, crows detest open stretches of water and will head in a straight line for the nearest shore. The cage of crows was kept in the lookout perch at the top of the mast, which came to be known as the ‘crows-nest’.
SHIPSHAPE AND BRISTOL FASHION:
From the late eighteenth century, Bristol was the main British West coast port where all the shipping activities were carried out in a business-like and efficient manner.
SON OF A GUN:
Because space on board a ship was very limited, particularly if carrying a large cargo, the only available space for a woman to give birth on board was between the cannons.
Until advanced measuring equipment was invented, tracking a ships progress was very difficult. It was managed by means of casting a wooden board, or log, attached to a rope with knots tied in it at equal distances, over the stern of the ship. The log would remain stationary and the speed of the ship calculated by how long it the rope between the knots to be pulled out. Hence the ships speed is measured in knots. These calculations were recorded in a log book. This book is now used to record all events on board a ship as they happen.
Unless of course you know different.