How to Speak Like a Sailor

So far, I’ve shared my thoughts about my visit to the Azores during my recent three-month ship voyage.   Another aspect of the trip I thought would be fun to share is that I needed to learn an entirely different language aboard the ship.  Here’s a primer on shipboard language, aka how to speak like a sailor (whether you are one or not), and no, it has nothing to do with knowing how to use the “F***” word successfully in a sentence, although that can be useful on occasion as well.

First, when you’re on a ship, you refer to your ship as a she, as in “She needs some work on the boiler”, and “She has fine lines.”  It doesn’t matter if the ship is called “Charlie’s Tug” or some such masculine name – it’s still a she.  And don’t ask why; it probably has something to do with being able to get somewhere successfully (grin).

By the way, you might also refer to your ship as your vessel.  And you wouldn’t call it a ship if it could in theory fit into another vessel.  For example, you would call a yacht a boat, but you would call a 200 foot vessel that really couldn’t fit into another ship, a ship.  Our 600 foot vessel was a ship.

Second, there is no such thing as left and right on a ship.  You don’t say something is happening on the left or the right of the ship.  You also don’t say front or back.  Instead, you refer to the front of the ship as the bow or fore, and the back of the ship as the stern or aft.  When facing the bow, you refer to your left as the portside, and your right as the starboard side.  So if, for example, the Icelandic Coast Guard was going to do helicopter maneuvers using the front left part of the ship (true story), you would say the maneuvers were being held portside on the bow.

Then, there’s the different way to refer to the dining room, cafeteria, or whatever else you might call the place you eat when on land.  On a ship, you eat in the mess.  On our ship, there was a cadet mess, a crew mess, and an officer’s mess.  It doesn’t mean those rooms are messy (although they could be), but it is just the term for the area where you eat.  The word may have been derived from a “mess” of various foods being mixed together but I”m not sure.  And then the kitchen is the galley.  So you cook in the galley but eat in the mess.  I suggest cooking in the mess and eating in the galley – sounds a little more reasonable.

And then the bathroom.  While you had to look for the W.C. when in many of the ports we visited (for Water Closet), when on a ship, you don’t say you need to use the rest room, or the bathroom, or the men’s room, or the ladies’ room.  You say that you have to go to the head.  The reason it is called the head when you use an entirely different part of your body when you’re in there confused me until it was explained by a tour guide on the USS Wisconsin.  Basically, long ago, the bathrooms were located at the very front of the ship, right near the head of the masthead.  The term “head” stuck, and that’s what it’s called today, no matter where the head is located.

The walls are not the walls, they are the bulkhead.  The floor is not the floor it’s the deck and the ceiling is the overhead.  If going from one floor to another, you say you’re going down a deck or up a deck.  If you’re going to the very top of the ship, you’re going topsides.  You call the entire part of the ship where people sleep the “house” and you call their rooms “cabins”.  You call windows portholes.  And then there are the holds, where the classrooms were located.  Oh, and you don’t call them stairs and halls.  You call them passageways and stairwells.

It’s obviously no wonder you need a different mindset when working on a ship, otherwise, how would you know where to meet someone who says, “I’m off to the cabin to use the head and then will meet you at the portside mess topsides”?

You’d probably just stay in your room until they came to get you, or else you’d just wander aimlessly for days.

Hope this was helpful!

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