We have a special treat this morning! Many of you know WHC Executive Director Capt. John Doswell from our Hidden Harbor tours. His expert narrative and behind-the-scenes anecdotes reveal new and exciting insights of the ins-and-outs of our working harbor on every tour.

Today, he has penned a post about the head-spinning world of maritime terminology for us.

Capt. John Doswell. Photo: ©Mitch Waxman

Capt. John says:

To the novice mariner or landlubber, maritime terms seem to be illogical, capricious, ambiguous, confusing, whimsical, erratic or just plain weird. It is only after many years of experience on the water that the salted mariner comes to accept that maritime terms actually are illogical, capricious, ambiguous, confusing, whimsical, erratic or just plain weird.

Capt. John Doswell with then Manhattan Borough President, now NYC Comptroller, Scott Stringer. Photo: ©Mitch Waxman

The beginner may wonder why? Why is a window a portlight? What’s wrong with the pointy end? Why is that thing floating in the water called a camel? The seasoned professional mariner knows why, of course. In two words: “job protection”. It’s the same with the vocabulary associated with any other profession.

Capt. John Doswell. Photo: ©Mitch Waxman

I’ve always believed that 50% of any discipline is simply learning the argot. (Argot, in case you don’t know, is an underworld or secret language. For a really excellent discussion of argot, read Chapter II (Roots) of Book Seven (Argot) of SAINT-DENIS in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.)

Capt. John Doswell with Ed Kelly, President of the Maritime Association on the mic. Photo: ©Mitch Waxman

It would be great to believe that, having mastered the language of the sea, one could travel to any country and be understood on a boat. No, no, no. It doesn’t work that way. Go to France and, with a few exceptions, you would have to start all over again. Same with Chile, Japan and the Netherlands.

Capt. John Doswell. Photo: ©Mitch Waxman

In general, with this glossary, I have attempted to keep it to really useful (well mostly) terms that I judge people with an interest in the waterfront ought to know. Like bow, stern, pier, wharf, dry dock, longshoreman, pilot house and so forth. This is, by far, NOT a complete list of all the parts of a boat or ship. You won’t (thankfully) find lazerette, fo’c’sle, garboard strake, charlie noble, hawse pipe, binnacle and any of hundreds of other similar esoteric terms that most boaters know by heart.

Well, some boaters.

Capt. John Doswell. Photo: ©Mitch Waxman

And you won’t find another few hundred or so sailing terms such as by the lee, lee helm, leeward, lee cloth, alee, hard alee, and of course, lee.

But if you’re planning to go out on a boat, it’s good to know what the gangway is. And a really handy phrase to remember is the translation for “where is the loo?” (Answer: “Where is the head?”).

Capt. John Doswell. Photo: ©Mitch Waxman

And you will learn, in a way that’s hard to forget, how to tell port from starboard. These two words, it turns out, are among the least illogical, capricious, ambiguous, confusing, whimsical, erratic or just plain weird words in the mariner’s lexicon, once you understand their origins. And you’ll discover why a boat’s speed is measured in knots instead of miles-per-hour.

They will actually make sense. At least I hope so.

Capt. John Doswell congratulates the winner of the Annual Spinach-eating contest at the Tugboat Race and Competition held every Labor Day Sunday. Photo: ©Mitch Waxman

So read on and don’t worry if they don’t sink in the first time through. This is not a dictionary – it’s meant to be an easy read, and to provide a handful of basics about boats, ships and the facilities that serve them. If it gets you hooked so that you really want to know what a marlin-spike is or how to use a holy stone, that’s great. If not, I hope you enjoy the journey anyway.

Harbor FAQs by Capt. John Doswell

Click here (pdf download) for definitions

by Captain John Doswell, Executive Director of the Working Harbor Committee

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