Sailing with Charlie: Misunderstanding

Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre
Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre

A slightly deaf ear, a breaking wave at just the wrong moment or perhaps an interruption by a shipmate can cause confusion in a word, phrase or sentence to create an unintentional change in meaning. The other day I was describing one of my publications to a shipmate …

“And another of my publications, a cartoon book of tongue in cheek nautical expressions is, The A to Zed of the Sea.”

“What!’ he exclaimed, An Aid to Celibacy?”

Perhaps I mumbled a bit but really! Sailors are usually red blooded lusty folk who not only relish adventure but like to ‘kiss life smack on the lips’, as Cap’n Fatty would say. Is it likely I would write a book whose target audience might be limited to Tibetan monks or Indian ascetics? Indulging in the sensual pleasures of life goes with the sailing lifestyle.

My old Mum, a bit deaf in her latter years, roared out laughing at the following brief exchange by a couple of old geezers, themselves somewhat hard of hearing …

“C’mon, let’s go for a sail.”

“Isn’t it Windy?”

“No, it’s Thursday.”

“Me too, let’s go for a drink.”

If there was anything more inviting of misunderstanding it’s the old nautical terms for left and right.  Larboard was left and starboard was (and still is) right. Now, just imagine the lookout on the bow or in the foretop of a square-rigged vessel shouting to the helmsman ‘Hard to XXXboard! His instruction starboard or larboard might depend on how many teeth he had, whether he was chewing a bit of hard tack or whether he’d got at the rum ration. How many fatal errors were there until it was changed to port and starboard.

As if navigation wasn’t difficult enough without the larboard, starboard confusion. In 1705 the longitude problem had still not been solved. Ever heard of Sir Cloudesley Shovell? No, not a celestial laborer but a celebrated Admiral in the Royal Navy in the early 18th Century. He was commanding a fleet of ships homeward bound from a Mediterranean action when, in difficult conditions, four of his ships of the line grounded on rocks near Britain’s Scilly Isles and sank. Between 1400 and 2000 seamen lost their lives (record keeping was a bit slack in those days – like the treasuries in many Caribbean Islands). Apparently, Sir Cloudesley himself was still breathing when his battered body hit the beach. It seems that the large emerald ring on his finger disappeared simultaneously with his last breath. The culprit explained the skullduggery on her deathbed, hoping the truth would ease her way through the golden gates – or so legend would have us believe.

The incident prompted the government to do something about it.  A Board of Longitude was set up and a prize was advertised to encourage all the great minds of the day to arrive at a solution. There were two schools of thought to come up with an answer – the movement of celestial bodies or time based on an accurate clock to compare it to high noon at a predetermined place. The place turned out to be Greenwich, England and a clockmaker named John Harrison created the first accurate shipboard ‘chronometer’. Captain James Cook, the great navigator and cartographer gave it the green light. The tight-fisted Board of Longitude held on firm to the prize money until Harrison, after 45 years of effort, got the final payment – he was 80 years old.


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

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