Saturday, January 14, 2012
Sailor Mouth Saturday: Sound
A sound is a body of water with three sides bordered by land and the fourth fed by the sea. Another less frequent definition is a deep bay skirted by reefs or banks. For the most part, a sound will be composed of salt water and have different levels of bottom from shallow to deep. This makes the sounds around any large land mass perfect for taking soundings.
Sounding is the physical process used to determine the depth of the sea at any given point or points. This was done in routinely by use of a lead line which would be dropped overboard to the bottom of the ocean, inlet, sound and so on, if possible. Tallow would be stuck to the lead in order to determine the makeup of the sea floor, this being considered also part of the sounding. Thus these bits of bottom, whether sand, shell, ooze, etc. are sometimes referred to as soundings.
To be in soundings, a ship would be close enough to land that the lead would consistently touch the bottom. As The Sailor’s Word Book notes, deep-sea leads may touch bottom at surprising depth so being in soundings was understood colloquially to refer to sailing in water with a depth of 80 to 100 fathoms or less.
Along those lines, places in the blue ocean where the deep-sea lead could not find the bottom were referred to as soundless. These were places that our ancestors imagined to be “bottomless” as they had no knowledge of the vast canyons that lurked below the hulls of their wooden worlds. Or, for that matter, the creepy creatures that inhabit such eternal darkness; beyond be monsters, indeed.
The sounding line, along with its attached lead (pronounced “led”), is a very ancient tool. The Romans used it before the Empire; the Anglo-Saxons called it a sund-gyrd.
A similar tool, for use exclusively aboard ship, is a sounding rod. This was an iron rod with markings of feet and inches which was let down into the bilge or well of a ship via a groove in the pump. The result was a measurement of standing water in the well, from which a decision could be made about manning the pump.
In whaling, the term sounding was also used to indicate the vertical dive of a whale after it was struck. The assumption was that the whale would strike bottom – probably rarely the case in fact – and that such a dive would let out approximately four coils or 2,000 feet of the whale-line attached to the harpoon.
I hope this Saturday finds you and yours sound, Brethren. Enjoy, and a mug of grog to one and all!
Header: Moonlight by J.M.W. Turner c 1797