Maritime Trivia by Dean Calin

What is the Bounding Main?

In the 1500’s Spain claimed most of Central and South America. When referring to the Caribbean it was called The Spanish Mainland since ships coming to and from Europe caught the trade winds there, accessing Spain’s New World territories. It was eventually shortened to The Spanish Main.  It was well understood that the Caribbean was subject to frequent hurricanes producing very bad sailing conditions.

Godfrey Marks wrote “Sailing, Sailing Over the Bounding Main” in 1880 but he did not coin the phrase.   John Ogilvie used bounding main in his “The Day of Judgement” in 1753 and Lord Byron’s “Lara” crossed the bounding main in 1814.  Tennyson used “bounding main” just after 1833 in his “In Memoriam for Arthur Henry Hallam.

The phrase Spanish Main likely evolved into bounding main because of the summer weather in the Caribbean.  Eventually bounding main became synonymous with all open waters.


Yum-yum!  Tinned Meat!

Everyone loves SPAM®, right? Maritime aficionados should know that in 1806 a French candy maker, Nicolas Appert, at the behest of none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, stumbled upon a way to preserve food in bottles and jars. The goal, of course, was to find a way for the Empire’s soldiers and sailors to be fed safely and economically. Appert didn’t understand why what he was doing worked and those that followed in his footsteps made the mistake of using too large of containers and not boiling the meat long enough to kill the germs (Appert suspected it was oxygen that spoiled the meat, Pasteur’s work being decades away). Finally in 1813 a Brit named Bryan Donkin was given a royal patent to supply canned food to the Royal Navy, supplying preserved food across the world.

While mistakes were made early on, a testimonial of how good the canning process became is in the story about Admiral William Parry who sailed to the Arctic Circle in 1824. Among the provisions for this voyage was a four-pound tin of roast veal. Perhaps lacking the means to open the can (instructions were to “cut round on the top near to the outer edge with a chisel and hammer) the can went unused. After knocking around for a length of time after the voyage ended the can reappeared 114 years later in a military museum. Museum scientists opened the tin and cautiously served some up to lab rats and someone’s cat! (None of those cowards tried it themselves.) Happily, the animals survived.

I have often commented that from renaissance times forward it was tantamount to suicide to go to sea. As navigation tools improved ships were able to leave sight of the coasts and were able to extend their voyages longer than their food would remain edible. More sailors died of malnutrition and disease than they ever did from battle.

Today about 50 billion cans are produced in the US and Europe alone. Most have not sat on the shelf for 114 years.


The story of how the tin can nearly wasn’t, By Tom Geoghegan; BBC News Magazine.
Stories Behind Everyday Things, editors of Reader’s Digest.

The ubiquitous toilet question!

Hi, my daughter is in high school and one of her teachers will give them extra credit if they can find out how sailors/pirates used to go to the bathroom before there were bathrooms and also what they used to wipe with. I found your site and I thought you might could help! Thanks very much!

Ah, we revisit the ubiquitous toilet question!

First of all, remember this: all pirates were sailors, but not all sailors were pirates. Pirates have made maritime awareness very popular, but those innocent to much history forget that pirates were a mere fraction of all sailors around the world.

Now, as to the poopie problem: anyone you meet who has served in the Navy or Marine Corps will refer to the bathroom as “the head.” This dates back to when sailors went to the front (the head) of the ship to relieve themselves. Now, you’d think that since they were moving forward their product would make a mess on the ship, but remember that these ships are not internally driven by engines, but externally driven by wind. If the ship is positioned before the wind that means that the wind will push the waste away – forward of the ship. There is some maritime scholarly argument about the placement of tubes about the bow of the ship – kind of a primitive port-a-potty that kept the wind away from the mess until it was well toward the water, lessening the chance of random splatter. The book on the subject, published by Texas A&M University is called, “Those Vulgar Tubes,” by Joe J. Simmons III.

As to wiping: you’ve got me there. Toilet paper, in its modern form, wasn’t invented or in common use until 1890 or later. I have read that sailing crews from Spain and Portugal used the frayed end of old anchor cable, and indeed worn rope was often used aboard ship to manufacture baggywrinkles with which to wrap lines to prevent them from chafing (and therefore wearing); it is not too much of a stretch to imagine this use of unwound rope. When such materials were unavailable I believe the ancient use of the left hand was the only available solution. In most circumstances the hand was washed, but given the ridiculously high number of deaths due to disease aboard ship, one can imagine that a bucket kept at the head for this purpose was not changed often enough!

Skipping at the Top!

Hi, In The Mermaid my daughter and I are wondering what “skipping at the top” means. We are part of Kidsplay and can’t wait for April to get here when you come perform at our Pirate Fest. She really likes the song “Blow the Wind Southerly” and sings it all the time unless she is in rehearsal for our current show.

Well, Ahoy Joe! Thank you for the really great question. While I have not found the confirmation in print, what this is referring to, I believe, is the sailors moving along the yards on the footropes in order to bunt (or set and stow) the sails. Having to scramble sideways rapidly on a hanging rope while other sailors were attempting to do the same must have lent the appearance of a bouncing gait, if not skipping.

Here’s a great reference page from Wikipedia that has a good illustration, plus a lot of good terms to know:

Flemish horse also this: Yard (sailing)

Drink Time!

When is the sun over the yardarm?

One day my wife asked me if I would like a glass of wine. I said, “As long as the sun is over the yardarm.” She said, “All right, what is the story behind that nautical phrase?” I thought about it and realized that I didn’t know the “real” story behind the tale, and told her so. She was delighted to have stumped me, and dashed to her computer to look up the derivation of the phrase. From the World Wide Words page we get this explanation: “In summer in the north Atlantic, where the phrase seems to have originated, this would have been at about 11am. This was by custom and rule the time of the first rum issue of the day to officers and men (the officers had their tots neat, the men’s diluted). It seems that officers in sailing ships adopted a custom, even when on shore, of waiting until this time before taking their first alcoholic drink of the day.” Well, it was, and I did, and another fine day’s end.

What did Paul do?

Why are you “heaving a Paul?”

Well, despite my willingness to toss about any idlers, we’re not heaving a fellow at all. The homonym is “pawl,” as in ‘heave a pawl.” The capstan is a cylinder on the deck at the front of a ship. Poles are inserted all around it at which crew members push around in circles, winding up the anchor chain (via a guide rope). When the capstan bars were being pushed (“heaved”) around the cylindrical capstan, the pawls were stops that kept it from unwinding or moving in reverse. They make a distinctive “clink-clink” as it rotated around.

What the what?

What the hell is “Splice the Main Brace?”

Maritime scholars scratch their heads at this all the time. They keep seeking a factual origin or derivation of these terms. It is folly, for the phrase was folderol invented to fool non-crew members. It is a code that means, “Let’s go have a drink.” Akin to sending a Airman Third Class to get a bucket of prop wash, it is an inside joke for mariners.

Where do you put it?

Anchors Away? You mean putting it “away?”

Almost. The phrase is “anchors a-weigh” The use of the word weigh derives from an old Viking word for “lift” or “carry.” The end result is the anchor, which was holding the ship in place by it’s chain or cable, was brought back up in preparation for the ship to move forward.

Get a …

“Get a clue” is a nautical phrase?

I wonder about when this phrase evolved into how we use it today. It must have been around the 1940’s or so when most sailing ships were replaced by steam-driven ships and people started forgetting the origins of words and phrases. The original expression was “Get a clew.” A “clew,” my landlubber friend, is the lower, aft corner of a fore-and-aft sail; or with a square sail, the two lower corners. Attached to these corners are ropes (sailors call them “sheets” to further confuse things) which hold the sails in place. To tell someone to “Get a clew” is to say that their sails are flapping uselessly, and by derivation to say they are either ignorant or foolish. In any case, the phrase “get a clue” is a reasonable evolution for a society more familiar with detective television shows than the rigging of tall ships.

Food at Sea

My nephew is in the navy and he says the food is good and there is plenty of it.  Did sailors always eat this well?

“Food was always a problem, and drink even more so. The victuallers needed to be watched like hawks to ensure that they provided full measure, and did not recycle old stock. Ships like the Mary Rose, which rarely left home waters and were seldom at sea for more than two or three weeks at a time, had nothing like the difficulties suffered by the longer voyagers of later in the century, but it was tough enough. It was hard to find supplies until the system was reorganized after 1550, and harder still to get the supplies to where they were needed. the standard diet was simple, and reasonably nutritious, but it was dull and lacked certain vital ingredients. The main provisions were bread, or biscuit, cheese, butter, bacon, salted beef, dried or salted fish and beer. The rations allowed were ample, but the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables encouraged diseases such as scurvy, and both the biscuit and the beer tended to deteriorate rapidly, even if they were shipped in god condition. The pursers of individual ships made their own supplementary purchases, and the officers and their servants bought their provisions to suit themselves. Consequently, the presence of fruit stones and chicken bones among the detritus of the wreck does not prove that such superior rations were on general offer. Food was prepared in a galley, and cooked in a massive brick oven housed in the bowels of the ship, where the almost permanent fire not only guaranteed hot meals (a very important consideration), but also enabled wet clothes to be dried when there was no sun on deck. These ovens were a feature of all large ships, and needed very careful and skilled management if disaster were to be avoided.”

Letters From the Mary Rose,” C.S. Knighton & David Loades.

Sailors really sang on their ships?

I just saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – did sailors really sing on ships like this?

Well, not like THAT they didn’t!  However, it is well documented that sailors either took songs from their homes and fit them to the rhythms required for their work (hauling lines to raise sails, pumping the bilge, walking the capstan, etc.) or wrote songs just for such purposes. They sang of their work, their ships, their fellow crew, their loves at home or the dangers they faced.  There are many maritime music festivals all over the world that still celebrate this music and Bounding Main considers themselves to be very fortunate to be counted among the performers of this kind of music.


Why did pirates wear gold earrings?

Is is popularly thought that many sailors (pirates are merely sailors who have taken up poorly regarded missions) wore a gold earring to pay for a Christian burial if their bodies washed up on shore. Personally I feel that Wreckers and scavengers would not be inclined toward very “Christian” behavior; I suspect the earrings, like the tattoos, were part of the ritual of group identification.

Poop deck!

Was it called the “poop deck” because that’s where they went to the bathroom?

One would think so, but no. Let’s imagine an Elizabethan-era sailing ship. The “poop deck” is the exposed partial deck on the stern superstructure (the high part at the back). Now, one would think that if a ship were moving forward the place to sit would be at the back of the ship, so their waste would fall behind them and keep the back of the ship clean. So wrong. Remember, ships relied on external power: the wind. If the ship is moving forward it is not because they’re throwing water behind them with a propeller, they are riding the air currents. If an inexperienced sailor (“landsman”) does his business on the Poop Deck the wind will make a mess and his ship mates will be pretty sore at the work he made for them. Sailors go to the front of the ship for their business. Some scholars feel that there were some manner of “vile tubes” placed up there to guide the waste, but the evidence is sketchy. Incidentally, this is where we get the term “head” for bathroom. The fore part of the ship is sometimes referred to as the head. The stern of the ship being called “the poop” actually is a holdover from a Latin term:

The name comes from the after deck section on Roman ships, (puppim – pronounced “poo-pim”) where small statues or sacred images (puppis – meaning dool or statue) of gods were kept.

They did not!  

Okay, while we’re on the subject, why did sailors drink their urine?

Despite Blackadder’s Captain Redbeard Rum’s proclivity for “self-indulgence” it was only under dire circumstances that this was done. Like cannibalism, a desperate measure for survival, but for early sailors, always a very real possibility. Dropping back to two-hundred years before canning was remotely seen as a neat idea, stores of food and beverages for the Elizabethan sailor were very difficult to keep edible on board ships. Water went brackish in weeks, even beer and wine turned bad in short order. Rum, less inclined to spoil, would not be invented for another one-hundred and forty-odd years. This is why maps of voyages often show ships bouncing off the continental coasts –
they had to continually refresh their stores against spoilage. In times that provisions ran out or turned bad, sailors could either drink their own urine or die. Being surrounded by oceans must have made them quite frustrated; salt water makes the body produce 25% more liquid than is taken in. Sailors tempted to drink it would die of dehydration faster than if they’d drunk nothing.


Why are sailors called “Limeys?”

Not ALL sailors were called “Limeys!”  It is documented that James Lancaster, an English ship’s captain of the Elizabethan era issued an order for his crew to drink a spoonful of lemon juice daily upon the pain of death. While the crews of other ships became feeble, gums bleeding, old wounds reopening, this fellow’s crew remained healthy. This showed that as early as 1601 it was known that citrus juice would ward off a disease that would cripple sailing crews.

Incomprehensibly , the English navy waited until 1789 to make the drinking of lime juice a standard requirement in their fleet. There are connections between the popularity and availability of sugar (again with the rum!) and the increased occurrences of scurvy on land as people switched from citrus-as-sweeteners (vitamin C was an unknown benefit) to cane sugar (with no dietary benefits whatsoever). This social change may be what triggered an official rule being required to enforce that crews drank their juice. Incidentally, German ships’ crews never got scurvy. A diet of sauerkraut, rich in vitamin C, kept them relatively healthy.

Jack Tar?

There are no streets on the ocean, why are sailors called “Jack Tar?”

On wooden ships in the days of sail, tar was boiled into a liquid state, into which twists of rope were dipped. This sticky object was called oakum, and it was hammered between wooden planks and deck boards to keep them watertight. This was a constant activity, so sailors generally were covered with, and stank of, tar.

No spare parts.

What’s with the eye-patches, peg-legs, hooks and all that?

What Robert Louis Stevenson in “Treasure Island” was trying to convey is that only sailors grievously wounded and unable to find work as regular sailors turned to piracy. Yeah, and pirates all went “Arrr, and “Yo-ho-ho . . .” First of all, naval warfare was a very dangerous, very messy business. Medical skills were primitive, at best (how spoiled we are in this modern age where elective cosmetic surgery is actually sought after!) and a few years at sea were likely to take their toll on limb as well as life. The fact is that many who were considered to be “pirates” (Drake by Spain, for instance) were quite whole and hearty, for the main. Likewise, one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes, Lord Horatio Nelson, led his most famous actions without one eye and one arm!


“Three bells and all is well?”

Ship’s bell strike is based on “watches” onboard ship of 4 hours each. A new watch starts at noon, 4 p.m., 8 p.m., midnight, 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. The end of a “watch” and start of a new watch is marked by the bell being struck 8 times. A half hour later, the bell is struck once, with an additional strike each half hour until the end of the watch. Then the cycle starts again. The bells are struck in pairs, that is, the first two bells are struck close together followed by a pause, then the next two, etc. The table below shows the pattern of the bells from 4 o’clock to 8 o’clock:

Time Bells Struck
4:00 XX XX XX XX
4:30 X
5:00 XX
5:30 XX X
6:00 XX XX
6:30 XX XX X
7:00 XX XX XX
7:30 XX XX XX X
8:00 XX XX XX XX

[A tip o’ the hat to Bill’s Clockworks for this explanation!]


Okay, watches – how does that work?

They were the work shifts on naval vessels. Here is how they break down by name and time.

Watches Times Sunday Monday Tuesday
First Watch 8:00 pm to Midnight Starboard Watch Larboard Watch Starboard Watch
Middle Watch Midnight to
4:00 am
Larboard Watch Starboard Watch Larboard Watch
Morning Watch 4:00 am to
8:00 am
Starboard Watch Larboard Watch Starboard Watch
Forenoon Watch 8:00 am to
Larboard Watch Starboard Watch Larboard Watch
Afternoon Watch Noon to
4:00 pm
Starboard Watch Larboard Watch Starboard Watch
First Dog Watch 4:00 pm to
6:00 pm
Larboard Watch Starboard Watch Larboard Watch
Last Dog Watch 6:00 pm to
8:00 pm
Starboard Watch Larboard Watch Starboard Watch

As you can see, if there are two watches on a vessel (the names of the watches were at the discretion of each vessel; starboard/larboard, red/blue, etc.) the dog watch allows them to rotate their shifts. It was thought this kept the crew fresh and alert.

Merchant vessels did not necessarily operate on the same watch system.

“Shiver me timbers!”

What does “Shiver me timbers” mean?

I actually read on a web site dedicated to pirates that the expression referred to the ship’s own cannons’ vibration shaking the deck. Not so much. While the word also means “to shake,” in this case to “shiver” is an archaic meaning:  to break up into splinters. This term is used frequently in Malory’s tale of King Arthur, the knights lances going “all a-shiver.” When a cannon ball smashes into any part of a tall ship the wood explodes in a dangerous spray of splinters. This was a mild oath back in the day, and there is an equivalent one today, but the contemporary two word phrase contains a verb considered obscene by modern standards, so I can’t share it here. Its figurative translation would be something akin to “I am in a very bad way!”

Sea Legs

How do you get your sea legs back?

Go out to sea again. A landsman on board ship for the first time must have given great amusement to the experienced sailors. While the newbie lost his balance and stumbled into everything around him, the fellow whose muscle memory and inner ear had become accustomed to a pitching and rolling deck could move with some manner of grace in all but the worst conditions. The reverse is true when the sailor hits the land: the lack of movement underfoot no long feels “right” and it takes some time to assume a normal countenance again.

St. Elmo’s Fire?  I loved that old movie!

Is plasma really the Fifth Element?  I loved that movie, too!

Sailors, being a superstitious lot, took the appearance of a tangible glow on the masts of a ship to be the visitation of St. Erasmus, their patron saint. The “fire” is a glowing and sometimes audible plasma generated by ionization of the air, most often during a thunderstorm or the weather preceding one. The tall masts that reach high above the deck act like collectors and while infrequent, the sailors were sometimes blessed by their patron saint. This glow can be seen in other locations as well, most notably aboard aircraft.