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Celebrating over 50 years of boating safety education

Why Canadians Make Good Sailors, Eh?

We can't be totally sure, but we think it might have to do with the horrible Canadian habit of tacking "eh" onto our utterances. The difference is that while our sailor ancestors tacked "eh" onto their utterances, they did it at the start of words, not the end, and their pronunciation was quite obviously different back then. They used the "short a" ("a" as in "bat") and came up with an incredibly rich family of nautical terms beginning with "a".

We all know, I'm sure, that the winds aloft are fairer than the winds alow, and what Hollywood director does not know that sailors (and this includes movie industry pirates and their parrots) frequently say (among other things) "Ahoy!" and "Avast there, matey!"

From time to time other ships could no doubt be seen (and described with "a" words) as being ahead, abeam, or perhaps astern, and they may have been spotted from a position amidships.

Abreast and aboard, and, of course, adrift and aground come to mind too easily as nautical terms, but some of the "a" words have lost their meaning with time and lack of use and might be less easily recognized.

The quartet of abox, a-bracket and a-Burton and a-peek (or a-peak) fall into the category of nearly forgotten words. Of these perhaps only the last one could be of any use at all to us. Its meaning is to have the bow of the ship directly over the anchor prior to weighing anchor and for this reason could be very useful to most of us on a day-to-day basis. Does anyone remember the tune "Anchors Aweigh"?

If the head-yards were laid a-box in an old fashioned square rigged vessel, they lay square to the foremast in order to heave to. The letter "a" in a-bracket should be pronounced with the long a sound (as in "way") and for that reason should be excluded from this category of "a" words, for it denotes nothing more than the triangular bracket extending from the hull of a steam or motor vessel to give support to the propeller shaft where it extends beyond the hull quite obviously in the shape of a capital "A" inverted.

Now that you are completely uncertain as to how to pronounce "a", we will go back to the short a of "bat" in a-Burton. This term applied to the stowage of casks athwarthsips in line with the deck beams. The aim was to stow as many casks of water, wine, salt beef or pork, etc., as possible in a way in which they were readily accessible below decks and at the same time took up the least space.

We might be tempted in foul weather to lie a-hull and if things are too wet on the foredeck we would probably want to head aft, a shortened form of abaft. Awash is not something limited to Mondays however undesirable the condition and virtually all yachtsmen at the helm will shout "Helm's a-lee" in tacking. The crew can get away from a boom coming over if warned what the helmsman is doing!

"Aback" describes the situation on a square rigged ship when the yards were trimmed to bring the wind onto the forward side of the sails. ("Lay all flat aback!" was the command used. The ship would obviously lose way quickly and gather stern way At anchor, of course, a mizzen topsail could be laid aback to prevent the vessel surging over her anchor and fouling the rode. Once the anchor was weighed, it would be a-Cockbill (or a-Cockbell) when hung by its ring from the cathead or from the hawsehole ready for letting go, and the word a-trip had several quite distinct meanings. Yards were a-trip when swayed up and ready for crossing. A top-gallant mast (pronounced "t'gallant") on the other hand was a-trip when it was ready to be struck or lowered. Top sails in a square rigged ship were a-trip when fully hoisted and ready for sheeting. and an anchor was a-trip when it was broken free of the ground by the pull of the cable.

Courtesty of: 1st/Lt. J. Dawson, J.N.
From "The Wheelhouse", newsletter of the Lake St. Louis Squadron.

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