Tuesday, November 21, 2017

An apology to my readers. Due to flooding, I had to abandon my home for about 8 days, and then come back and make repairs. It’s all done now, thank goodness. I appreciate your patience.

Image result for devil seam ship 18th century

It is said that sailors did not like to speak the name of the Devil. Some people believe that naming a thing adds to its power (as in “he who will not be named.) For this reason, it is said, that sailors on general and pirates in particular, coined the name Davy Jones. Keeper of the infamous Davy Jones’ Locker.

The Locker, of course, it at the bottom of the sea – final resting place for drowned sailors. The seafaring men of the era had their own heaven – Fiddler’s Green – and their own hell as well. It’s consistent with their understanding of themselves as a breed apart. Sailors had an entirely different knowledge base than landsmen. They traveled far more – fragments of Chinese pottery in the 17th century ruins of Port Royal indicate that at least some of the pirates there had sailed to China. And they lived vastly different day-to-day lives.

But I, personally, don’t agree with those who think that sailors were too afraid of the Devil to mention his name. In fact, there was a part of the called “The Devil”

I’ll explain what it was to the best of my landsman’s ability. It’s pretty easy to understand what the deck of a ship is. It’s the part that you usually stand on. The upper deck, which is open to the weather, is called the weather deck. The side of the ship – the outside – is called the hull. The place where the two meet is called the Devil.

This is an important part of the ship. The attachment of the hull to the decks is literally what holds everything together. Decks on wooden ships always had seams – the boards making up the deck. The devil-seam is the longest of them all. Because of its curve, it is actually longer than the boat. And it is also a place where water can enter the ship.

This gives us several interesting sayings. “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is one. This saying has probably survived because it makes sense to the rest of us. The Devil is a bad person. The deep blue sea is dangerous. So being stuck between the Devil and the deep blue sea is not a good place to be.

But when you think of it in nautical terms, it becomes even worse. Because the “devil” is the very outside edge of the boat. The only thing between “the devil and the sea” is air. Not something you want to be trying to stand on. Add the fact that few 18th century sailors knew how to swim, and you have described a horrible situation. The moment when Wile E. Coyote realizes he’s standing on nothing, and plunges to his doom.

The other famous quote about this nautical “devil” is one you probably don’t associate with boats at all. “The Devil to pay” certainly gets its meaning across. After all, the Devil requires his due. So when things are looking bad, and someone says, “There’ll be the Devil to pay.” It surely signifies that someone is in trouble.

Well, not quite. Remember the devil-seam? Well, things on wooden boats need to be sealed so they are watertight. This is called “paying” them. In the case of a join between two pieces of wood, the common method of “paying’ was to stuff something into any large holes or cracks. Usually this was pieces of frayed rope – it’s already long, thin and flexible, and natural-fiber rope breaks down under the sun, saltwater and strain of shipboard use.

The second step of “paying” was to pour hot tar (a petroleum product) or pitch (pine tree sap, harvested for the purpose) into the frayed rope, and smooth it all down. The pitch made it watertight, while the fibrous material made it hold together better.

Both pitch and tar had to be heated, a difficult and dangerous thing on a moving ship. Vessels of the time were highly flammable, being made from dry wood, soaked in pitch and tar. Any fire presented a hazard. In addition, there were no safety measures for handling the scalding, sticky, flammable material.

Tar bubbling up from the ground 
The pitch might be heated over a portable stove placed on the deck, in which case the pot might turn over due to the ship’s movement, spilling dangerously hot material over a deck mostly populated by men who were barefoot. Flying liquid could touch human’s skin, as well, for there was not much in the way of protective clothing, either, and it would stick to men’s skin, even as it burned them.

Carrying buckets of the stuff was little safer. The handles of pots would also be hot, and there were no safety-approved handguards. Rags were all that was available. If the material was heated on the galley stove and carried up to where it would be used, it would need to be carried up a ladder.

Burning pitch

The full phrase isn’t just “The devil to pay.” It’s “the devil to pay and no pitch hot.” Meaning that sailors would have to go through the dangerous job of heating the pitch, and then the smelly, difficult, and only slightly less dangerous job of spreading it over the longest seam of the ship.

So my assentation is that sailors were plenty brave enough to talk about the Devil. They just found that too much of their regular work seemed to be inspired by him. Thank goodness that today we have better protection when performing dangerous work.


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