Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Ballast

The thing about ballast, as any good sailor will tell you, is that it has to be handled just right. To quote The Sailor’s Word Book:

A want of true knowledge in this department has led to putting too great a weight in ships’ bottoms, which impedes their sailing and endangers their masts by excessive rolling, the consequence of bringing the center of gravity too low.

Trouble indeed.

Ballast is in broad terms the stuff that goes into the hold of a ship to bring her to the right water line. Too little and she is too high in the water, making her subject to rolling and capsizing; too much and she is so low that the potential for foundering is great even in relatively calm seas. Ballast is not necessarily made out of one thing; it can be anything heavy, really. In times past brick, rock, iron, and soil have been among the things used while in some modern ships water is ingeniously employed to keep a ship level upon the sea.

Out of the custom of ballasting a number of seagoing terms, and rights as well, have come. Ballastage, for instance, is the right of a monarch or government to tax ballast. A port official known as a ballast master would oversee the ballasting of a ship and the collection of the levy. This was particularly common in Britain and her holdings; it was one of the many items that the American colonies added to that arm-length list of taxations without representation.

A ballast basket is a container for lifting ballast onto a ship via block and tackle. It was often used when at sea by the gunner to move ordinance as well. Obviously, it was not a basket per ce but more like a box made of wood or metal.

The ballast mark on any ship was the waterline around her hull when she was carrying her favored ballast. Sometimes a ship was completely without ballast, particularly a merchant loaded with cargo, but the occurrence was rare. Either way, whether cargo or ballast, when it moved due to the rolling of the ship at sea the term was a ballast shift.

Ballast ports were square holes cut into the hull of merchant ships for loading ballast. Ballast shooting, usually through said holes, was the practice of discharging ballast overboard. Most well used ports throughout Europe and the Americas would fine any ship found engaging in this practice.

A ship is said to be in ballast trim when she is carrying only ballast. A ballast shovel is an oddly shaped tool that resembles an enormous grapefruit spoon made of iron. Ballast shingle is gravel, usually of slate, used for ballast.

Because of the importance of ballast to a ship, the word took on other meanings for sailors. A man was said to have his ballast if he was thoughtful or wise. On the other hand, a mate who lost his ballast was making bad decisions. An officer who carried too much ballast was full of himself and said to have a “big head”. It doesn’t take a sailor to recognize any of those kind.

Fair winds and following seas, mates; may your grog be strong and your friends be true until next we meet.

Header: USS United States by Geoff Hunt


Blue Flamingo said...

Thanks for learnin' me, Pauline - very interesting, indeed. Another possible use for the term ballast: I carry a fair amount of ballast, but I believe these days the phrase of 'junk in her trunk' would be more apt.


Pauline said...

Thanks for stopping in, BF; and I'm with you, girl (I'm thinking "right behind you" might be a bit literal...)

Le Loup said...

Apparently flint ballast was occasionally dumped on our shores by visiting British ships.

Pauline said...

Le Loup: I'm not surprised. It is exactly why most ports had laws prohibiting it. Just imagine the state of any given harbor if basically any ship that cruised through discharged ballast. Shocking, really.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I think we all carry more ballast these days. Age and gravity will do that...

It's not just a good idea. It's the law.

Pauline said...

It's true, but it's not very funny...