Avast, ye hearties!
Hurricane Florence forced us to reschedule our September visit to Ocracoke Island, NC to October, but lucky us, that’s when the annual Pirate Jamboree was held. We got to partake in two days of swashbuckling good fun!
Ocracoke Island is a narrow strip of sand largely controlled by the National Park Service. The only way on or off the island is by boat, ferry or small aircraft. Ocracoke is an unincorporated town of 9 square miles, located at the southern end of the island.
This year commemorated the 300th Anniversary of Blackbeard’s Historic Last Battle, which was fought directly off the shores of Ocracoke Island. The event was filled with attendees in piratical costume, musical entertainment, magic shows, history, period encampments, vendors and a live battle with cannons on Silver Lake Harbor.
Facts about Blackbeard the Pirate:
- Edward “Blackbeard” Teach‘s piratical career was so notorious that the mere mention of his name struck terror in both honest men and pirates
- Blackbeard and other pirates in the 17th-18th centuries started out as honest privateers who engaged in maritime warfare under the commission of war. When a war ended, they were put out of work, so they turned to pirating to make a living
- He was able to read and write
- His long, braided beard was unusual; most men were clean shaven in the early 1700s
- It’s said he put smoking fuses under his hat or in his beard to look more menacing in battle
- He plundered plenty, but despite his reputation, there are no verified accounts of him having murdered or harmed those he held captive
- He was a pirate for only two years
- The Ocracoke Inlet was his favorite hangout to watch for ships traveling between the settlements of northeast Carolina
- Some historians believe he was unlawfully killed by Royal Navy Lieutenant Maynard in a political coup conceived by the governor of N. Carolina
- He was shot five times and stabbed more than 20 times before being killed. Maynard ordered the pirate’s head severed and hung from the bowsprit of the Ranger. The corpse was thrown overboard; legend says it swam defiantly several times around the sloop
- Blackbeard had been granted a pardon from England when he was killed
I heard a bit of naughty language at the jamboree, but didn’t realize how many of the sayings we use today are nautical.
Did you know the saying there’ll be the devil to pay for your bad behavior originally had nothing to do with Satan? Or that it was not a compliment if someone called you footloose?
Here are well known words and idioms that come from sailing, with some salty pirates from the Jamboree:
Aloof – Loef (Dutch) meant “windward” and was used to describe a ship within a fleet which sailed higher to the wind and was thus drawn apart from the rest of the fleet.
Clean bill of health – A certificate signed by a port authority attesting that no contagious disease existed in the port of departure and none of the crew was infected with a disease at the time of sailing.
Devil to pay – The devil was the ship’s longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done with pay or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of ‘paying the devil’ (caulking the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was one of the worst and most difficult jobs onboard.
Dressing down – When thin and worn sails were treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or set straight was said to be given a dressing down.
Even keel – A vessel that floats upright without list is said to be on an even keel. A keel is like the backbone of the vessel, the lowest and principal center-line structural member running fore and aft.
Keeled over (upside down) was a sailor’s term for death.
Fathom – A nautical measure equal to six feet, used to measure the depth of water at sea. The word was also used to describe taking the measure or “to fathom” something. Today, it means to understand something difficult.
Figurehead – An ornamental figure placed on the front of a ship for purely decorative purposes. Now, figurehead is a leader with no real power or function except to look good.
First rate – A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship.
Fits the bill – A Bill of Lading was signed by the ship’s master acknowledging receipt of specified goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in the same condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the bill to see if all was in order. If so, they fit the bill.
Footloose – The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.
Flying colors – To come through a battle with flying colors means a ship has come through relatively unscathed and with her flag (colors) flying.
Get underway – Specifically means “the forward progress of a ship though the water.” “Way” has been used in this manner since at least the 17th century.
Gripe – A sailing vessel gripes when, by poor design or imbalance of sail, it ends up with its bow into the wind when sailing close-hauled. The sails flap around, forward progress is halted, and she is hard to steer. So, quit griping.
Groggy – When the daily ration of rum was diluted with water, sailors called the mixture “grog”. A sailor who drank too much grog was “groggy”.
Groundswell – A sudden rise of water along the shore when the weather is fine and the sea appears calm. In common use, groundswell means a growing change in public opinion.
Hand over fist – Hand over hand was a British term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. American sailors changed this term to ‘hand over fist’, and the term now means to advance or accumulate rapidly.
Hard-up – ‘Hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing’ was a sailor’s way of saying he had been overtaken by misfortune and saw no way of getting clear of it.
Haze -Hazing was the practice of keeping the crew working all hours of the day or night, whether necessary or not, in order to deprive them of sleep and to make them generally miserable. Captains used this practice to assert their authority.
High and dry -This term originally referred to ships that were beached.
Hulk -A large and unwieldy ship of simple construction and dubious seaworthiness.
Idle/idler – Idler was the name for those members of a ship’s crew that did not stand night watch because of their work. Carpenters, sailmakers, cooks, etc. worked during the day and were excused from watch duty at night.
Junk – Old rope no longer able to take a load, it was cut into shorter lengths and used to make mops and mats.
Know the ropes – An important skill on sailing vessels was understanding the sail ropes. It still means a person with experience and skill today.
Listless – When a ship was listless, she was sitting still and upright in the water, with no wind to make her lean over (list) and drive ahead.
Long haul – Operation on ship requiring the hauling of a lot of line. Also seen in short haul, an operation requiring little line.
Long shot – In old warships, the muzzle-loading cannon were charged with black powder of uncertain potency that would propel the iron shot an equally uncertain distance with doubtful accuracy.
Loose cannon – A cannon having come loose on the deck of a pitching, rolling, and yawing deck could cause severe injury and damage. Now it means an unpredictable or uncontrolled person who is likely to cause unintentional damage.
Mainstay – A stay that extends from the maintop to the foot of the foremast of a sailing ship. Currently, a thing upon which something is based or depends.
Over the barrel – The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.
Overbearing – To sail downwind directly at another ship thus “stealing” or diverting the wind from his sails.
Overhaul – To prevent the buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.
Overreach – If a ship holds a tack course too long, it has overreached its turning point and the distance it must travel to reach its next tack point is increased.
Overwhelm – Old English for capsize or founder.
Pipe down – A boatswain’s call denoting the completion of an all hands evolution, and that you can go below. It was the last signal from the Bosun’s pipe each day which meant “lights out” and “silence”.
Scuttlebutt – A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the place where the ship’s gossip was exchanged.
Skyscraper – A small triangular sail set above the skysail in order to maximize effect in a light wind.
Slush fund – A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff, called “slush,” was often sold ashore by the ship’s cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money earned was known as a slush fund.
Son of a gun – When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, wives and
ladies of easy virtue often were allowed to live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a convenient place for this was between guns on the gun deck. If the child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun.”
A square meal – In good weather, crews’ mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.
Squared away – On square-rigged vessels, the state of the sails when properly trimmed. Currently, it means arranged in a satisfactory manner.
Taken aback – A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.
Take the wind out of his sails – Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship’s sails.
Taking turns – Changing watches with the turn of the hour glass.
Three sheets to the wind – If, on a three masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be “in the wind”. A ship that was three sheets to the wind would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind.
Tide over – Once upon a time, ships could move under sail power, or in the absence of wind, float along with the tide called a tide over. One could say the floating would tide the ship over until wind came again to move it along.
Toe the line – When called to line up at attention, the ship’s crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.
True colors – In the 17th century, a vessel might sail under a flag not her own. This tactic was used by almost everyone as a disguise, but the crew was required one to raise one’s true colors before opening fire on another ship. (I hear Cyndi Lauper singing)
Try a different tack – The direction in which a ship moves as determined by the position of its sails and regarded in terms of the direction of the wind (starboard tack). If one tack didn’t bring the ship up properly, one could always attempt another.
Turn a blind eye – When the signal was given to stop fighting at Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Lord Nelson held his spyglass to his blind eye and insisted he didn’t see the signal!
Under the weather – Keeping watch onboard sailing ships was tedious, and the worst watch station was on the “weather” (windward) side of the bow. The sailor who was assigned to this station was subject to the constant pitching and rolling of the ship. By the end of his watch, he would be soaked from the waves crashing over the bow. A sailor who was assigned to this unpleasant duty was said to be under the weather.
Windfall – A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore which allowed a ship more leeway.
(Read more at Nautical Slang in Common Usage)
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Learn more about Ocracoke: Visit Ocracoke
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a story about one woman’s need to tell her truth without shame.
2017 New Apple Book Awards Official Selection
2016 Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist
2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage