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The 'Lore' of the Sea

The Bible - The wooden decks of even the most modern super-liner have to be kept clean and the traditional way is to scrub them with a small block of sandstone. Nowadays the stones are fitted with handles but originally sailors had to get down on their hands and knees and use elbow grease. Because they had to get down on their knees into a praying position the sailors affectionately called the sandstone block the Bible, and smaller ones for getting into tight spaces, prayer-books.

Blowing the Grampus -In days of old if a sailor fell asleep whilst on watch he was likely to have a bucket of cold water thrown over him . This was known as Blowing the Grampus.

Comb the Cat - In the days of sail when hours were long, food was poor and discipline harsh, a form of punishment for seamen was flogging with the cat-o - nine-tails. Twenty or thirty lashes was not uncommon and after several strokes, when the seamen's back became lacerated, the tails of the cat would become coated in blood and stick together. With the tails matted together a stroke could inflict serious and permanent damage on the seaman. To prevent this, after each stroke, the boatswain's mate, who usually inflicted the punishment, would run his fingers through the tails to separate them. In doing so he was said to comb the cat .

Dead Horse - When a seaman joined a ship, or signed on, it was not uncommon for him to receive an advance on his wages which had to be worked off. This period of working off the advance was referred to as the dead horse . In merchant ships there used to be a celebratory custom whereby, on having worked off the dead horse, an effigy of a horse stuffed with straw would be paraded around the deck to the song 'Old man, your horse must die '. It would then be hoisted to the yard arm and then cut adrift to fall into the sea. If passengers were being carried the effigy would be auctioned and the proceeds divided amongst the crew. If the bosun attempted to get extra work done while the ship's crew were working off a dead horse he was said to be flogging a dead horse.

Donkey's Breakfast - was the name given by the merchant seaman to his mattress in the days when it was normally stuffed with straw. Use of the straw filled mattress continued on many ships until the 20th century but the increased power of the trade unions and the various Merchant Shipping Acts led to improved conditions for seamen and out went the Donkey's Breakfast. Straw filled mattresses were a ship-board economy and only used on the wooden bunks which lined the forecastle or deckhouse where the seamen were accommodated.

Burgoo would be found in the messes of sailing ships and was a kind of gruel or porridge consisting of boiled oatmeal seasoned with salt, sugar and butter. It was easily prepared, nutritious and the ideal meal for serving during periods of rough weather. However, on ships where the cook was too lazy to prepare anything more elaborate or the owner too mean to provide alternative rations, burgoo became the dish of the day, every day. It would be served at every evening and eventually became unpopular with the seamen.

Busking, not to be confused with the musicians at Waterloo Station, was a now long obsolete term for a sailing ship which was beating to windward along a coastline. It was also used to describe a pirate ship that was cruising in search of victims.

To Ghost is the sailing masters art of making headway in a sailing ship without any appreciable wind to fill her sails. By using light airs a well trimmed sailing ship can make considerable headway on what appears to be a flat calm sea.

Gingerbread or Gingerbreadwork is the gilded caring and scroll work which decorated the hulls of larger sailing ships, more notably warships and East Indiamen, during the 15th to 18th centuries. It can be seen today on the stern of Nelson's Victory at Portsmouth and the Cutty Sark at Greenwich. 'To take the gilt off the gingerbread' was probably the master gunner's objective during an engagement.


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