Saturday, October 27, 2012
Horror on the High Seas: Dead
We've discussed dead reckoning before, that amazing ability of our ancestors to make an educated guess about the positioning of their ship in blue water without reference to the stars or the planets. A keen trick if you could pull it off, but potentially deadly if your guess was wrong.
Many times the word dead has to do with components of a ship or her rigging. Dead doors are those attached to the inner bulwark of a ship's quarter gallery, this being the private latrine of the commanding officer. Since the quarter gallery is shifted slightly outward from the hull - for obvious reasons - dead doors are set in place to keep water out should the quarter gallery proper be, as Admiral Smyth puts it, "carried away." Wooden blocks, often made of elm, are used as stationary harnesses for rope to pass through; these blocks are known as dead eyes which comes from the older term, dead man's eyes. It is thought that the "dead" in this instance refers to the blocks' lack of movement.
The timber just at the midship bend, about a third of the length from her head, is known as a dead-flat. The dead-rising, by contrast, is the area of a ship near the stern post and is usually a reference to her bottom rather than her deck. Dead ropes are those which do not run through a block. Dead wood is used to correct certain inherent aberrations in a ship's keel; the blocks used were known individually as dead wood knees. Dead works refers to the entire part of the ship which is above the water line when that ship is fully laden.
Dead lights are the shutters which can be attached to the outside of the stern windows which light the commanding officer's cabin in larger ships. These are fastened shut in anticipation of dirty weather. Dead lights is also a term for swamp gas or the elusive jack-o-lantern.
Dead can also be applied to weather conditions and navigation. A dead calm indicates no wind whatever, a sailor's nightmare. This is similar to a dead-lown, which Admiral Smyth tells us in The Sailor's Word Book is a "completely still atmosphere." Dead on end refers to a full backing wind blowing in the exact opposite direction from the ship's course. Dead upon a wind is to slightly better advantage with the ship braced up and close hauled while hard tacking.
The dead months signified winter, and a dead lift was the act of moving a "very inert body" - perhaps your fallen mate. Dead weight is the amount a merchant vessel must pay for goods she did not ship. Dead pay was that given for a man on a ship's books who did not appear when compensation was handed out; as the Admiral puts it "as was formerly practiced with widow's men."
Dead men's effects were those sold via auction at the main mast when a mate died. The purchaser would often have his pay docked in the ship's books to compensate for whatever he had won at auction. This was not always done for each man, but was often reserved for those who had no family to return any belongings to.
A dead ticket is a document, signed by surgeon and commanding officer, that certifies the man is in fact dead at sea. This was the first step to clearing the seaman off the ship's books.
Finally there is the curious ritual of the dead horse, which was performed on merchant vessels. When work for which the seaman were paid via advance, such as preparing to put out to sea, was completed, the men - at least in theory - would once again begin earning new funds. At this point the effigy of a dead horse was dragged around the decks to represent the end of "fruitless labor." The doll horse was sometimes run up the yardarm thereafter and cast overboard, according to Admiral Smyth "amidst loud cheers." Now there's something most of us have never heard of but that was probably witnessed by more than one traveler in the 19th century.
And so an end to our discussion of dead. Horror on the High Seas week continues on the morrow and marches right on to Hallowe'en. Don't miss a minute, Brethren.
Header: Moonlit Night by Stefan Popowski c 1910 via Old Paint