Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Mast

Curiously, this word did not originally mean the tall, wooden pole that holds sheets and rigging aboard ship. In fact, according to The Sailor’s Word Book, the English word comes down to us from the Anglo-Saxon maest which meant chief or leader. After mentioning this, almost in passing, Admiral Smyth goes on to say that a mast is:

A long cylindrical piece of timber elevated perpendicularly upon the keel of a ship, to which are attached the yards, the rigging and the sails.

He goes on to note that masts may be made of one piece of word, in which case we are dealing with a pole mast. They may also be fashioned of two or three pieces joined together by caps usually of metal; such are termed made masts. Made masts were often the type fashioned at sea when storm or battle had torn a mast away or cracked it in half.

The standard masts in a ship of brig or schooner size are a foremast, which is toward the bow of the ship and is only lightly shorter than the mainmast. The mainmast itself is usually just aft of center and is the tallest mast in any ship.

In frigate size or larger ships a third mast is added. The mizzen mast is positioned abaft of the main and is usually the shortest mast aboard.

Smaller poles can be fitted to any of these masts – but most usually the main and fore – to increase sail. These are put on with a cap and, in order from largest to smallest, are known as the top mast, which attaches to the mainmast proper, the topgallant mast, which attaches to the top mast, and the royal mast, which attaches to the topgallant mast. At this point we are very high up indeed, but true seaman delighted in “skylarking” away aloft. All the Porter seamen, David Senior and Junior, David Farragut and David Dixon spoke of enjoying the high points aboard ship. Horatio Nelson, even after losing his right arm, spent an inordinate amount of time in the rigging and, of course, O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey loved nothing so much as kicking off his boots and climbing right up to the topgallants.

A jury mast is one that is, as noted above, set up in place of a damaged or destroyed mast. This phraseology is where our modern term “jury-rigged”, meaning temporary or ill-fitting, comes from.

A ship is said to be over-masted or taunt-masted when her masts are too heavy, tall or both for the width and breadth of her keel. Conversely, a ship is under-masted when her masts are too small or short. A rough mast or rough tree is an unfinished spar stowed aboard ship for use as a mast should the need arise. A ship is said to spring a mast when any of her masts cracks horizontally at any point.

Mast coats are pieces of canvas fitted snuggly around the mast where it passes through the deck to keep water from leaking down below.

In common parlance aboard ship, a man was said to be as deaf as the mainmast if he was slow and did not readily perceive the meaning of an order given. As Admiral Smyth notes: “Thus at sea the mainmast is synonymous with the door post on shore.”

Header: Jack Aubrey and Tom Pullings aloft from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! "Deaf as the mainmast" is a good description for me today.

Pauline said...

Well, at least there were no pressing duties calling upon us today.