Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Time

Time is short, of the essence, and there is not a moment to lose. Or so it seems aboard ship. Stephen Maturin famously complained of this situation at sea in O’Brian’s books and in the movie Master and Commander. Jack Aubrey, for his part, could not comprehend what his doctor was whining about. To him, there truly was never a moment to be lost, and so it is with most sailors. There are other uses for time at sea, however, and even words that sound like it from foreign shores.

Time is, first and foremost, the way of keeping track of the day. All ships – from smuggler’s pirogue to pirate’s sloop to massive ship of the line – ran on bells, which mark her time. The bell was rung, or struck in common shipboard parlance, every half hour with the glass being turned at the same time. Thus eight bells signaled the end of a four hour watch.

The half-hour glass was the true time keeper and the margin for human error was great in keeping track of it, particularly under stress. To rectify any errors in time keeping, noon was read daily via a sextant. Thus solar time was set to rights each day. The call of noon was also the official beginning of the ship’s day when a new page in the log would be dated and begun. This ritual goes along with “taking time” when an assistant – usually a youth or Midshipman – would note the time via chronometer each time the officer observing with the sextant called “stop”. In this way, the astronomical observation is rectified as necessary for the most correct reading possible.

A chronometer and later the very accurate hand held watches, many famously originating from Switzerland, were known as timekeepers or time-pieces aboard ship. They were a source of concern for common sailors. Like the compass with its magnetic workings, time-pieces seemed somewhat magical and therefore must be given a wider berth.

Timenoguy is an ancient word for a stay that could prevent sheets or tacks from getting fouled in other rigging. These ropes were particularly used in the fore rigging.

A timoneer is a helmsman. The word came to English via the French timonier and could also indicate a pilot in some cases. Along the same lines is the word timonogy, which is described in The Sailor’s Word Book thusly:

This term properly belongs to steering, and is derived from timon, the tiller, and the twiddling-lines, which worked in olden times on a gauge in front of the poop, in ships of the line, by which the position of the helm was easily read even from the forecastle.

And with that, happy Saturday, Brethren. Keep your timeonguy and your twiddling-lines taut and, whenever possible, make time for yourself and those you love.

Header: Frigate Rose as HMS Surprise by Scott Kennedy


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I will certainly try... even if I am not a timoneer.

I like the painting too.

Pauline said...

Nice, isn't it?

Charles L. Wallace said...

Ship's bells... good stuff!
Very useful for confusing folks who have advanced to the point of understanding military (24 hour) timekeeping ;-) hahaha!

Pauline said...

It does rather boggle the mind, Wally; particularly the lubberly one.