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News arrow Features arrow HARBORMASTER SHARES HIS LOVE OF SAILING

HARBORMASTER SHARES HIS LOVE OF SAILING Print E-mail
August 17, 2004 11:00 pm
Harbor master Dan Thompson of the Port of Brookings Harbor shows a sextant used in sailboat navigation. (The Pilot/Bill Lundquist).
Harbor master Dan Thompson of the Port of Brookings Harbor shows a sextant used in sailboat navigation. (The Pilot/Bill Lundquist).

By BILL LUNDQUIST

Pilot Staff Writer

Those who had always wondered what it meant to be "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea" found out at a recent South Coast Discovery Series program.

Dan Thompson, harbor master of the Port of Brookings Harbor, didn't even have to leave his place of employment to speak at the Book Dock near the port's boardwalk.

He came not to speak about the port, however, but about nautical language, lore and interesting facts.

Thompson has a real sailor's credentials after spending 30 years in the Coast Guard, with 18 of them at sea.

He retired as the commanding officer of the Chetco River Station in 1995, but he still sails a boat, his fourth.

"You know what B.O.A.T. stands for, don't you?" he said. "Bring out another thousand."

Salty Talk

"Have you ever heard the expression ‘caught between the devil and the deep blue sea?' " said Thompson. "Did you ever do anything wrong and your mother told you, ‘There will be the devil to pay when your father gets home'?"

Thompson explained that wooden sailing ships were made of planks with seams running between them. The longest seam on the ship was called the devil seam.

To caulk the seam with tar, a sailor had to be lowered over the side in a bosun's chair. If the job had to be done on a voyage, the sailor was below the devil seam, but above the sea.

It wasn't a particularly pleasant duty, especially if the ship was moving. In fact, it made a great punishment. Hence the term, "the devil to pay."

Thompson said the term "toe the line" also had its roots in shipboard discipline. Decks were also made of planks with caulked seams. When officers called the crew to assemble on deck, the men had to keep their toes on a particular seam or line.

A young lad on a ship would be punished not by sitting in a corner, but by standing at attention with his toes on the line.

One of America's most famous authors, Samuel Clemens, derived his pen name from nautical language.

Thompson displayed a line used for sounding depths. He said the Coast Guard still carries them on its boats in case something happens to the electronic instruments.

The lines were marked off in fathoms, or 6-foot intervals. Thompson said a fathom was the span between the fingertips of the outstretched arms of a 6-foot tall man.

If the lead weight at the end of the line hit bottom at the one fathom mark, the sailor would call out one mark to the captain.

Twice that depth would be mark two, or mark twain, the name Samuel Clemens adopted when he worked on a Mississippi River steamboat.

Thompson said the lead weight also had a hollow end where tallow would be placed. When it was pulled up, the sailors could tell whether the bottom under their boat was sandy or rocky.

Even the names of parts of ships have their origins in nautical lore. The Vikings didn't have many navigational instruments, but they knew crows were land-based and would fly back toward land if they were released from a ship.

When out of sight of land, said Thompson, the Vikings would release a crow from a basket at the top of the mast. A platform up the mast is still called a "crow's nest."

Thompson displayed another maritime tool: a 47-foot-long knotted line. Sailors would play it out behind the boat and haul it in to read every 28 seconds. That's how they knew how many knots they were traveling.

In another bit of nautical lore, Thompson told why the chief petty officer's patch was switched from his right sleeve to his left.

It was changed, he said, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt decided the eagle on the patch should face the heart.

The novel "Two Years Before the Mast," said Thompson, derived its name from the quarters for common seamen, which were in front of the mast.

British sailors, said Thompson, took the saying "what the sea wants, the sea will have" literally.

They didn't learn to swim because, if the sea wanted them, swimming wasn't going to save them.

Not all expressions have nautical origins, said Thompson. In World War I, most of the men in the trenches came from farms.

If a man was killed, the government insurance program paid his survivors about enough to pay off the farm. Hence, if a man was killed, he was said to have "bought the farm."

Nautical language doesn't have to be spoken, said Thompson. He revealed at the end of his talk that the ship's flags displayed behind him spelled out T.G.I.F., or "thank goodness it's Friday."

One Mast or Two?

Thompson also has a wealth of knowledge about nautical equipment.

He explained that a sailing ship with one mast, rigged both fore and aft, is called a sloop. Those without a foresail, usually seen in the Northeast, are called cat boats.

A two masted boat is called a ketch if the wheel is behind the rear mast. If the rear mast is shorter, and the wheel is in front of it, the boat is called a yawl. Thompson joked the term must have come from the South, y'all.

A "bugeye" ketch has two slanted masts. Thompson said the advantage of having two masts, besides speed, is that the boat can be sailed in heavy weather with just the sail on the rear mast.

Thompson also showed off several shapes of anchors, and said most boats carry at least two types.

He explained how buoys mark the "highway system" in channels, and how radar is used in San Francisco Bay to track ships to keep them all safe.

Charts, not maps, said Thompson, show the depth of water and tell sailors where to go and where not to go.

"If you know your speed and your heading with a compass," he said, "you can find your position on a chart."

He said sailors can also tell where they are on charts by watching the pulse and color patterns of light beacons.

A sextant, said Thompson, is still an excellent backup for electronic instruments. Sailors use it to take the angles of the sun, moon and stars. Using sight reduction tables, they can navigate with it.

Thompson said he has taken some long voyages without the aid of electronic instruments.

He bought his first Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) device only a year ago. It was a small battery-powered unit, but it worked so well that Thompson bought a larger GPS unit that can run off the ship's power.

He said it is programmed like a computer. "You just punch in the buoys and it will tell you what to steer on the compass. It will tell you your speed, distance and time."

"But if your batteries die," he warned, "you need the old stuff. You need the knowledge of the other stuff on long voyages."

Thompson, a former bosun's mate, also showed how a bosun's pipe is blown to pipe dignitaries on board a ship.

The small reeded whistle, he said, can be tuned by bending the pipe, hammering the bowl in a bit, or soldering the sides by the reed.

Indeed, he said, some dignitaries took so long getting on deck that a bosun would run out of breath if his pipe was not perfectly tuned.

 

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