Saturday, November 5, 2011

Avast! Ahoy!


We were passing another ship on the Columbia River. The crew was out on deck waving at their friends on the other vessel, the passengers were out on deck because there wasn't much else going on at that moment. I stepped out on the wing station of the bridge and gave my own wave. A passenger standing nearby looked at me and asked "Aren't you supposed to say 'Avast, ahoy,' or something like that?" I have a standard answer for questions like that: "We don't do that any more." The poor guy: he actually looked a little disappointed.

Like much else in the maritime field, terminology has changed over the years (and decades and centuries). And many terms that are commonly used are misunderstood, even by folks in the industry. Avast, for instance, simply means "stop" and has commonly been replaced by "stop" (although it is still used in some specific technical contexts, like distress signals). Ahoy is a way to get someone's attention, like calling "hello" or "hey, you." Even the Coast Guard doesn't use it anymore, preferring "hello" on its all-station radio announcements.

The term aweigh as in "anchor's aweigh" is another commonly misunderstood word, perhaps because it sounds like "away." An anchor that is "aweigh" is one that is hanging just off the bottom, usually when the anchor is being pulled back on board a vessel.

bulwark
A commonly misused term among mariners is gangway, which refers to the opening in bulwark or rail through which people can pass to and from the vessel. For many, "gangway" is shorthand for the ramp or ladder that allows access to that opening. Speaking of which, gangplank is another obsolete term. Large vessels will use a ramp made of metal or sometimes wood, or an accommodation ladder, a fold up stairway. Yachts may use a similar, smaller version called a passerelle.

Many of the old-fashioned terms falling out of use date to the Age of Sail, but new terms come in as the technology aboard ships changes. Except for the few tall ships still afloat, most ships have dispensed with the term sailing master, but many have an ETO or electronics technology officer.

In 1867 Admiral William Henry Smyth published an interesting collection of nautical terms called The Sailor's Word Book: An Alphabetical Of Nautical Terms including some more especially military or scientific but useful to seamen as well as archaisms of early voyagers etc. Find it here at Google Books.

The website Ports and Ships: Shipping and Harbour News Out of Africa has an excellent online glossary of currently-used nautical terms here.




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