Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Duck

The beauty of white canvas pregnant with wind high above a well proportioned vessel cannot be denied even by the most seasick lubber. As the painting above, by my talented friend Munin, shows, there is nothing prettier than a sailing ship sailing. The canvas has many names though, and that is but one of the places where today’s word finds a home at sea.

Duck is, erroneously as it turns out, a word for Number 8 canvas from which smaller sails are sometimes made. It is not, in fact, cotton duck but simple a finer grade of old reliable canvas.

Cotton duck was used in the making of what sailors called ducks. These were the shirts and trousers worn in tropical and equatorial areas not only by sailors but by marines as well when not required to wear full uniform. The coats and breeches of late 18th and early 19th century uniforms were usual woolen, making them unbearably uncomfortable in many parts of the world. C.S. Forester has his hero in Lieutenant Hornblower stoically bearing the persistent trickle of sweat down his back as he stands before his captain in full uniform while Renown is anchored off Haiti. No such problems ever arose for our beloved freebooters, who virtually lived in the comfort of ducks when not in port.

Ducks, interestingly, is also part of the name routinely given to the poultry man aboard both Royal Navy and U.S. men-of-war in the 18th and 19th century. This sailor lost his given name when he took up the role of poulterer and became known as Jemmy Ducks even if there were no such waterfowl aboard.

Duck up is a call from either pilot, steersman or gunner to haul a sail or sails out of said gentleman’s sightline. This would have been accomplished quickly as no one wanted to run her aground or waste ball or shot.

Ducking took two forms, one playful and a mild form of hazing, the other potentially deadly. In the former, men who had never passed the equator (or, on some ships, not only the equator but either of the tropics as well) were “ducked” into the scuttlebutt head first and then had more water poured over them. On many ships, the hazing included a haircut and shave performed by one’s drunken mates. This could become a rollicking good time, but it could also lead to some discomfort for the sailor enduring the ducking. Some ships allowed a fine, paid to whoever routinely led the ritual – usually an old veteran – to avoid the worst of the process.

In the latter situation, ducking at the yardarm was a penalty for serious offense and just one step up from the horror of keel hauling. The criminal would be set astride a thick batten which was then, through a system of block and tackle, was suspended from the yardarm. The sailor would be heaved up violently and then let go to drop into the cold ocean. The process very much resembled the older, land based practice of ducking stools, using a local stream or – more terribly – a muddy pond or cess pool to punish women in particular. While the Royal Navy disavowed ducking as early as 1701 calling it a French proclivity, the practice probably continued to some degree after that date as it was one of the specific punishments disallowed in writing by the Continental and U.S. Navy. Freebooters used this treatment as a form of torture to get prisoners to reveal cached goods.

To duck, of course, means to put one’s head down or to dive underwater. Well known in places like Port Royal and Grand Terre would have been the ducat, in both silver and gold form. Less familiar would have been the silver Venetian coin known as a ducatoon.

And that is enough of ducking and ducks for one Saturday. Fair winds to all the Brethren.

Header: Ship in Full Sail by Munin


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That was a ducking good post!

Reminds me of the old joke about the two duck hunters. The one in back spots a duck in front of his buddy and bringing his shotgun to bear, he yells "duck!"

His buddy turns around and says "where?"...

Sorry, I guess you had to be there.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Ouch; that could turn out messy. Duck, buddy; duck!