Last night I attended the first training course for the James Craig (pictured), a rather rah-rah Sydney ship visiting Melbourne over summer. It is called a ‘barque’, which I take to mean ‘fuckoff big iron-hulled boat with a ridiculous amount of sails that take a full hour to set’. Its crew is 45; the Enterprize has 6. It needs two tugboats to get it off the pier, everyone carries sheath knives and sleeps in hammocks, and they have a sail called a ‘spanker’.
During the course I realised why it is this sailing lark is so hard to get the hang of. Everyone is obsessed with minutiae. You ask one simple question (eg ‘what is a spanker and what do I do with it’) and the answer will encompass the history of sailmaking, the correct way to set and furl it in certain conditions, possibly the thread count of the cloth, the original bloke who refloated the James Craig – who is over 80, had sailed around the Horn eight times before his nineteenth birthday and scales those futtocks like nobody’s business – and finally, if you’re lucky, the location and use of the sail in question.
Hours pass, stomachs grumble and everyone makes a frenzied dash for the Monte Carlos. Thus, despite the oceans of terminology and safety regulations thrown at us, only the least useful details stuck in my mind:
Ships’ engineers are easily identified. They walk around in threes, and are always grumbling.
Do not infuriate the Bosun by moving things around his locker. You may only borrow the rotten cotton.
The quarterdeck must not be referred to as the ‘poop deck’. This is historically inaccurate for a ship built in 1874, and you will upset the older sailers.
Sea shanties may not be sung when hauling up the small boat. They are only permissible when sweating/tailing the downhauls and so on.
Blocks (those big wooden thingies designed to take the strain on load-bearing ropes) are also called ‘widow-makers’.
Your beard may pose a safety hazard; check with your watch leader for advice.
Piece o cake! Can’t wait.