Vulcan Power Squadron - The Ahart Odyssey | Home | Ahart Odyssey Menu | Ahart Odyssey Search

by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Forty-Three

Thanksgiving 2001 in Man of War Bay, Tobago, West Indies was extremely enjoyable. Only three of the 21 boats in the bay were from America, so we three couples got together and had a great time. We even watched an old Clint Eastwood western after dinner. Can't get more American than that. One of our dinner companions is a retired Electrical Engineer and fellow HAM radio operator. He had some good ideas for tweaking the performance of our radio gear and also talked me through testing and ultimately bypassing a faulty battery isolator. Probably saved me quite a few dollars that would have been spent at a repair shop.

I just finished reading a fascinating little book by Edmund "Bear" Downing called "Sailor Talk," which is a compendium of nautical terminology and their derivations. Mr. Downing gives ample credit to the late great John Ciardi, author and internationally renowned etymologist. We used to listen to Mr. Ciardi on National Public Radio years ago, as he would discuss the origin of popular words and phrases. I'd like to share two interesting stories from the book. Specifically, the derivations of the terms "The whole nine yards," and, "Dressed to the nines." The following is paraphrased from the book:

The terms originate with ships-of-the-line (large war ships) in the British Navy of centuries past. They aren't associated with American football, nor with the British WWII pilots with their twenty-seven feet long ammunition belts, nor with large dump trucks capable of transporting 9 cubic yards of material.
A British ship-of-the-line of the late 16th through the middle 18th centuries always had three masts with three primary yards (sails) on each mast, which were called the main yard, the t'gallant (top gallant) and the tops'l (topsail). In those days, and even into the early 19th, century, it was rare for a ship-of-the-line to have any other yards. Even Admiral Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, carried only nine yards in the Battle of Trafalgar, the last significant sea battle fought under sail, which took place on October 21, 1805 off Trafalgar, Spain. A sniper fatally wounded Nelson after he defeated the combined French and Spanish fleet thereby ending any aspirations of Napoleon to invade England.

For a sailing ship to complete a tacking maneuver (turning), the attitude (angle) of the yardarms, which are the horizontal wooden spars that suspend the yards from the masts, would be changed in a particular sequence. In the early stages of the tacking maneuver, the captain could change his mind and abort without any real consequence. However, once the ninth yard was changed over, attempting to abort would usually put the ship in stays or irons (dead in the water, head to wind). And, as you might guess, that wasn't a good thing to happen. In battle some captains would make use of this fact when maneuvering for position against an inexperienced opponent. They would start a tack to fake the opponent into a corresponding move. At the last moment, they would abort the tack to catch the opponent in a weak position. A winning captain would always study his opponent's yards, knowing that the other captain wasn't fully committed to a tacking maneuver until he went with "the whole nine yards."

To celebrate victories or special occasions, such as coronations, captains would have their ships decorated or "dressed" in bunting or flags. When ships were so dressed with bunting and flags hanging from all nine yardarms, they were said to be "dressed to the nines." Well, there's a little nautical trivia that you can use to amaze and impress your friends.

It is interesting to talk to other cruisers and visit with them on their boats. We have been on large sixty plus foot sailboats with huge inside helm stations as well as flying bridge helms and small 20 something foot sailboats that I'm not sure I would trust to cross a small lake. Then there are the motorboats, which by and large are all based on a trawler design, and all of the owner sailors have interesting stories to tell about their boats and their adventures. One of the most interesting boats, which is really a ship, that we have seen was the "Lissa," which is a converted inter-island freighter. We estimated that she was well over 120 feet long and except for her immaculate white paint, she still looked like a working freighter. We met the owner and his wife ashore one day, but they left the bay before we could wangle an invitation aboard. Other cruisers told us Lissa is a familiar sight around the islands, so maybe one day we will get a chance to see how a freighter is converted to a personal yacht. And I would certainly classify it as a yacht. However, most cruisers do not consider themselves "yachties." That sounds too ostentatious. "Cruising" on a sailing vessel (SV) or a motor vessel (MV) sounds more like the lifestyle people lead today, which is very informal compared to the image a yacht implies. Every now and then we hear someone on the radio, refer to his or her boat as a yacht, but most of the time boats are referred to as the SV or the MV followed by the name of the vessel.

A local entrepreneur, who operates one of the beachfront restaurants, has started a delivery service for cruisers. His intention is to visit cruisers in the morning and take orders for food, ice, fresh water, newspapers or fuel and then make deliveries that afternoon. At least that is the theory. When in the islands, time is considered interesting, but not something one must pay close attention to. So, when we ordered fuel one morning, it naturally arrived one morning, several days later. However, the three men who delivered it were so jolly and full of good spirit, there was no choice but to smile and have a good time with them. They brought the diesel in a 55-gallon drum and it was hand pumped into our tanks. Each man took a turn on the pump and about an hour later we had our fuel. We did, of course, filter it through our "Baja" filter, which is a large funnel with a very large fine screen filter. It was a good thing we did, because the filter trapped about a tablespoon of dirt. Most of our fuel consumption at anchor is for charging batteries and making fresh water. We usually run one of the engines or the generator for two or three hours every third day. The engines burn about a half-gallon per hour, so that averages a half-gallon per day. Not a bad price for fresh water and electricity. Stay tuned.

Dates: 2001-11-28,
Locations: Tobago, West Indies

The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.