We all know what a dock is, don’t we? It’s that long thing made out of worm-eaten wood that allows you to walk out over the lake/bayou/ocean/sea, sit down and fish. Or maybe jump off and go for a swim. Or just tie up the family dory. That is the experience that most of us have had. For me, a dock is a welcoming place of solitude and communion with the water. Or it’s a place of so much bustle and energy that the air fairly crackles.
In the great age of sail, and to men who went to sea in ships, it was more often the latter. A dock proper is a receptacle for ships where they can quite literally park to take in cargo or to refit. A dry dock, where ships could be built and/or repaired, was usually a deep trench with strong flood gates at one end. The ship, depending on size and the capacity of the dry dock, could be towed in, the water let out, the flood gates closed and work begun. By the end of the 18th century most blue water navies had large dockyards to support their fleets. Some of the most famous are Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans and San Francisco in the U.S., Deptford, Sheerness, Chatham and of course Plymouth or Pompey (from whose wonderful website the above picture of HMS Warrior comes) in the U.K. France had Dunkirk, Brest and Marseilles while Spain had Gibraltar and Malaga and Cartagena. Algiers, Tripoli and Sale kept things up on the Barbary Coast.
An entire language and culture sprang up in and around dockyards that was separate from but cousin to the culture of the sea. Dock dues were monies paid to the commissioner of a dock for use. Dockers were the inhabitants of a dockyard’s wider area. This term sprang up in England around the town of Plymouth in particular with a docker being anyone who had a residence between the dockyards proper and the town. Baltimore and New York also had “dockers”. In France they were known as diminuers – “diminishers”.
This derogatory sounding epithet may have stemmed from the distrust and sometimes outright hatred sailors felt toward dock workers. Dockyard duty was almost always the purview of a ship’s lieutenant or midshipman who commanded a gang of his mates ashore. They would be stationed at dry dock with their ship to keep an eye on the men working on her, frequently called “dockyard maties”. The artisans in particular – wood and metal workers – were considered dishonest and prone to steeling. Fights sometimes broke out between ship’s men and dockyard “artificers” that could end in serious injury or even death.
A ship is said to dock herself up when she has eased onto an underwater bed making her temporarily stationary. Docking a ship can occur elsewhere than a dock yard. A good example would be careening where in a ship is literally hauled up onto a beach or other shoreline and laid on her side for “breaming”. This is the process of getting the muck off her bottom by melting the tar and paint on her keel with fire which in turn removes seaweed, grass, lipids and worms from her bottom.
Though helpful for his ship the dockyard was generally no friend to a sailor, who felt he had to keep his guard up and an eye on his beloved ship at all times. The only exception being, it perhaps goes without saying, the taverns and the ladies. There at least, a seaman could find welcome and a good time.