"We shall beat to quarters!” was a not unfamiliar call aboard any man-of-war in the great age of sail. A man was expected to head to his station at that point. In some ships, this meant readying for battle. In others, the term for that kind of muster was “beat to arms”. Much like any modern emergency drill, these calls could mean battle was imminent or they could mean every hand was expected to act like it was. Each man to his station and ready the guns. Anyone found lacking would be dealt a start by the bosun’s rope or cane.
Beat was also frequently used at sea to indicate what the ship was doing, usually in relationship to the wind. A ship could be beaten back, in which case she was forced to return to port due to foul weather. A beating wind was one that came headlong into the ship, forcing her to tack larboard to starboard in order to make headway. These types of winds were sometimes called battling or contrary as well.
Along those lines the act of tacking back and forth in an effort to go forward against the wind was called beating, or sometimes turning to windward. The ship would basically move slowing in a zig-zag pattern in order to take advantage of what wind it could. The more wind a ship could catch – the more weatherly she was – the wider the zig-zag and therefore the faster she could go in a contrary wind. This was the reason sloops and brigs were so favored by freebooters. They frequently shipped fore and aft sails on at least one mast which could take full advantage of a breeze and allow them to outpace square rigged frigates consistently.
In the Royal Navy, a man was said to be “beating the booby” when he clapped his hands together or against his arms or body to stay warm in cold weather. Not a very flattering turn of phrase but certainly very British. One can easily imagine Jack Aubrey speaking of “beating the booby” with Stephen Maturin throwing in some sarcastic double entendre. I’m pretty sure that happened somewhere in O’Brian’s novels.
Finally it is from the language of the sea that we get one of our most common usages of the word beat: the verb meaning to surpass, overcome or exceed in endeavor. “The Saints beat the Colts in Super Bowl 44”. True dat.
Header: A sailing ship at sunset (I honestly forgot from whence I retrieved this image so, if it is yours, please leave me a comment so that I might credit you here or take it down at your request)