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How to Swear Like a Sailor

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Do you have a rag boat or a stink pot? Are you a dirt dweller or a sea gypsy? A landlubber or a swabbie?

Recently there has been some controversy about the term ‘dirt dweller.’ Some landed gentry are offended. It means a person who is land bound and by extension one who is trapped in a never-ending round of work to pay never-ending bills. It is used by a sailor who has managed to find freedom by acquiring a boat and is now ‘free’ of the constraints of land bound life – free of credit card payments, loan repayments, bills, taxes and restrictions of movement etc. 

Of course, boaters are not really ‘free.’ They now become a slave to their boats and perhaps to a partner who may never really get used to the discomforts of liveaboard life. But the term ‘dirt dweller’ is intended to demean home owners and to denote superiority. It can upset those without a sense of humor.

Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre
Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre

There are other terms that can be contentious. Sailors will deride powerboaters as ‘stink potters’ as their boats emit noxious fumes polluting the atmosphere and require few skills to operate compared to sailboats. As a retort, stink potters refer to sailboats as ‘rag boats,’ it’s the best they can come up with. A real sailor may reply that his boat can sail around the world on a single tank… The response may well be, ‘My all-powerful 6 x 350hp chick magnet can get from A to B in 4.6 minutes.’ Sigh…  ‘A cruise under sail is like life, the pleasure is in the journey not only the destination.’ The banter can continue through many Painkillers at the beach bar.   

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Of course, it’s all very well having the desire to be a cruising yachtsman but how will you support your dream lifestyle? That, however, is never uppermost on the mind of the dreamer. Getting the boat and preparing it for sea are most important. The rest will take care of itself…  Hollywood film star, Sterling Hayden, had some wise words to say on this matter, ‘Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change.’ A little disingenuous perhaps since he was a rich film star. ‘I’ve always wanted to sail to the South Seas but I can’t afford it. What these men can’t afford is not to go.’ This, another quote from this enlightened man with salt water in his veins holds undoubted truth.  

In the days of yore when a minimum of men was required to man a clipper ship or man of war and recruits were not forthcoming, shanghaiing was used. By skullduggery, coercion, or outright kidnapping, (likely at the pub at closing time), a complement of men was finally achieved. New recruits were known as swabbies because men with no nautical skills were initially kept busy by swabbing (washing and scrubbing) the decks. Soon they were required to furl and unfurl sails by scampering up the ratlines and onto slippery yardarms during a storm in rolling seas. A swabbie would then become either a flat swabbie, a drowned swabbie or a seaman. Today, to be called a swabbie is insulting and means worthless. So, to dirt dwellers, you now have a retort. 

In the end swabbies need dirt dwellers more than the other way round. How is the swabbie going to feed himself, keep his boat afloat or provide a few luxuries for his moll without all the necessities provided by the dirt dweller. But we wouldn’t be without the swabbies today – they provide the yarns that spice up the lives of dirt dwellers, to inspire the imagination and provide hope in an ever-changing world. 

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Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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