Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Point

The word point at sea often refers to guns, both great and small; or at least it did when ships were made of wood and men made of iron (as was the case in the era of the gorgeous painting of USS Constitution with her studding sails set above). But there were other points to be made upon wave, and we won’t skimp on any of them today.

A point of land is similar in nature to a head. It is an outcropping that reaches into the sea, projecting out and making a handing place for lighthouses and customs ports.

Point brass or point iron is a shipbuilding term referring to a particular type of plumb bob. A pointer is the arrow or indicator of an instrument, as in the pointer of a compass. Pointers, on the other hand, are props that shored up the hulls of whaling ships to help them through icy and iceberg-laden waters. This was also the term for braces used to support the bilge of any wooden ship; they were placed on the diagonal across the hold to prevent the ship’s timbers from “loose-working”: coming apart due to the heave and swell of the water on which she rode.

Pointing refers to rope and is the process by which the ends of it are tapered by hand to make them easy to fit through holes, such as the eyes of a sail. These pointings were sometimes tarred, making them similar to the end of a modern shoelace. The eye holes were thus referred to as points.

The details of a seaman’s – and particularly an officer’s – duty were known as points of service. As Admiral Smyth admonishes in The Sailor’s Word Book, these “ought to be executed with zeal and alacrity.”

As to the guns, a pointer-board was a piece of wood used to point a ship’s guns. To point a gun was, of course, to train it on a target.

Point blank and point blank range come to the English idiom not through seafaring but archery. Prior to the introduction of gunpowder into Europe, archers were highly prized in warfare both on land and sea. Practice of archery was an all-important pastime for such men (and women, as it turns out). The pre-Medieval term for what we might imagine as a bull’s eye on the practice-butt was a “blank”. Thus we come to point blank; not close or straight on but a direct hit of the arrow onto the blank.

Point blank range for the great guns aboard ship during the Age of Sail was considered between 300 and 400 yards, with some variation for the size of the bore. This was how far the ball – there is no accurate measurement for shot, chain, etc. – could fly before succumbing to gravity and beginning to arc toward the ground or water. Once guns were rifled, the use of the term fell out of favor other then to mean quite literally pressing the gun to an object and firing.

Finally, in the language of the old Royal Navy man, a point-beacher was – to use the delicate turn of phrase mastered by Admiral S – “a low woman of Portsmouth.” The engravings of Rowlandson easily come to mind.

Happy Saturday, Brethren; more tomorrow for Seafaring Sunday.

Header: Catching a Zephyr: USS Constitution off Gibraltar, 1804 by masterful marine artist Patrick O’Brien (these O’Brian/O’Brien guys really know their nautical stuff!)


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I think I got the point of that post...


Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Pauline said...

And that's the point! Now for some grog (wouldn't want to get scurvy after all...)

daleburr said...


You have left out the most important points of all, the 32 found around the compass!


Pauline said...

Well spotted, Dale. My apologies to you and our favorite navagational tool. Thank you for adding the "point" :)

Timmy! said...

I forgot to mention that I love the painting too, Pauline!

Charles L. Wallace said...

Aye, a beautiful ship, indeed!

Point. Point Arguello comes to mind (I always liked how it sounded, and this was long before Alexis Arguello began to box). Dad worked at Vandenberg, and on the base grounds is Point Honda, site of where most of DESRON 11 went aground in 1923. Seven ships went hard aground and were lost; two others were able to float off. 23 Sailors lost their lives. Curious, no - how one reference will 'point' you to another? Fascinating, as always, Pauline, and thank you for sharing.

Pauline said...

Well articulated, Wally, as always. And I've actually been to Point Honda and seen where D-11 hit land. Thankee, as always, for adding so much to my ramblings.