Anyone who stops by Triple P regularly knows I have a fondness for dogs, the more mastiff the better. Dog is a word with many uses at sea, and not just when speaking of the companionable animal that keeps the rodents down.
Dog in general refers to any number of iron hooks or bars with a sharp “fang” at one end. The fang is driven into a piece of wood and then a rope for pulling can be attached to the other end of the dog. In this way a large block or plank can be moved by a number of men. They can be used in pairs for yet more leverage.
The hammer of a firelock pistol, the portion which holds the flint, was at one time called a dog or dog head, probably because its shape is vaguely similar to the head of a hound.
A dog bolt and a dog-bitch thimble are used in a ship’s running rigging, usually to prevent the half-turn or “cant” of the clue line which can take the wind out of a sail.
There are at least a dozen fish known as dogs, most of them from the shark family. In the Caribbean of the Golden Age a dogg was a silver coin that could be broken up into six pieces, each of which amounted to a bitt. And yes, the average cost for a glass of rum was two bitts, thus the modern inference that one might purchase a beer for same.
Dogs are the last supports knocked away when a ship is launched. Dog’s body is a dish like duff but made with peas boiled in cloth. Dog stoppers are put on before men bitt the cable, a process by which a rope is turned around a bitt in order to slacken it gradually. Dog stoppers can also be used when fleeting the messenger (as we discussed in the SMS post about fleet). A dog vane is a handy tool for telling the direction of the wind. A thread holding cork, feathers and/or bunting is tied to the top of a pike and secured at the gunnel, usually near the bow, where the blowing of the light objects can be easily seen. In navy parlance, a cockade might be referred to as a dog vane.
The dog’s tail is a name for Ursa Minor, the Little Bear constellation. Dog might also be a reference to the lower part of a rainbow seen near the horizon. This is said to indicate a squall in that direction. On the great Newfoundland banks, fisherman say they foretell clear weather, however, and there they are known as fog dogs.
Dog sleep is usually just the opposite. It speaks to the lack of rest that amounts to little more than a nap and which occurs when officers and men are stressed over weather, the enemy or some other worrisome occurrence. Common to all sailing ships are watches, of which two are termed dog. The dog watches occur from 4 to 6 and 6 to 8 in the evening. All other watches lasting four hours, these two hour watches provide that men will not have the same watch each day thereby easing monotony and the imbalance of night vs. day watches. As those who read O’Brian may recall, Stephen Maturin opined that they were called dog watches because they were “cur-tailed”, sending Jack Aubrey into a fit of hysterical laughter. This observation was in fact originally made by one Theodore Hook according to The Sailor’s Word Book. Regardless, it is amusing.
And of course, dogs were a welcome addition to many a ship’s company, sailors believing they brought luck and filial feelings aboard. Just as they do at home.
Go pet your dog if you have one, Brethren. Never forget that, for our own advancement as primitive hunters, we humans made them what they are and therefore owe them a decent living in return.
Header: Pierrepont Lacey and Gun by Milton Hopkins c 1805