Our sever’d navy too; Have knit again and fleet, threatening most sea like ~ Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
Generally, modern people think of a fleet as a group of ships sailing together. Simple enough. But in fact fleet originally had a different, if similar, meaning and evolved to mean more than one thing at sea.
Fleet comes from the Teutonic flieffen, meaning to float. Thus ships floating in a group or, by association, a bay or tidewater filled with sea water where ships can stay afloat. Also of Teutonic origin is fleet dyke, from vliet; an earthen or other dam which prevents the sea from overtaking the land. Fleet water, in turn, is the very water which inundates.
The word fleet became the general name for any blue water navy. A person referring to “the fleet” was understood to mean the Royal Navy when speaking in a British port, for instance. By extension, any number of ships sailing in company could be called a fleet be they merchant, navy or even pirate. Henry Morgan took large fleets on his raids of Porto Bello and Panama. In navies, squadrons and subdivisions would be designated for ease of command.
Fleeting became the act of tending to rope, tackle and shrouds so as to set them to the ship’s best advantage in any given wind. This was also indicated to keep rigging from looking unseamanlike for inspection or in the event of visitors to the ship. As the Brethren know, even the down-at-heel boatman is proud of his craft.
To fleet the messenger sounds rather like punishing someone for bringing bad news, but is all together about inanimate objects. The messenger is a large cable – sometimes astoundingly large depending on the size of the ship – used to haul up the ship’s anchor. Fleeting is done just before the final heave of the capstan which positions the anchor for catting. At that point, the eyes (spliced ends used to lash up the anchor) of the messenger must be shifted past the capstan for the heavy heave.
And, as we all know, a ship can be fleet; very fleet indeed if she’s well handled. Handle your ship well, mates. Far winds, following seas and all happiness in 2011. I look forward to sailing with you in this New Year.
Header: The Battle of Cape Passaro via Wikimedia Commons