Henry David Thoreau, a favorite author, wrote “Call everything by its true name,” or something to that effect. Never more useful advice could perhaps be given, in such a complex, demanding environment as that of a ship afloat.
Many of you come from places so far inshore they are on the blank bits of our charts. Considering you’re more likely to go work at an office or small shop than to be at sea, you may discover yourself in a foreign universe when it comes to being aboard a ship at sea. Not only is the social structure completely different — where your opinion is not often requested and even less often respected — but everything you touch, stand on, or put in your hand has a specific purpose and a specific name. These tools, actions, events, and the etymology of their distinct nomenclature are washed down through the ages, all of which began when the first man invited another amigo to jump on his floating log.
Now that you find yourself on something spiffier than a floating log, which you now call a yacht, the rest of your vocabulary has to follow suit so you can better communicate with your crewmates and impress the people at marina bars once you dock. Learning, understanding, and using the fullness of the correct vocabulary is essential for you to better understand commands and to better communicate a situation to your superiors.
Sometimes, it prevents tragic situations and can save a life. There is little as dangerous as the presumption of knowledge, and the excuse that “I thought it was …” simply will not change a life-threatening situation. Therefore, you must know the name of everything on deck — learn its function, as well as how to use, maintain, and repair it. The structure in place is there so you can source details and information from your crew.
Your own efforts should include reading every label on every item on deck and in your lockers. Take inventory, as it allows you to see and touch everything. Every wash down offers you the opportunity to touch and discover every detail of your deck. If there’s anything you don’t recognize, anything you can’t call by name, or anything whose function nor operation is not familiar to you (and that you cannot describe fully and clearly), ask your crewmates. The magic of mariners is that we all share a common bond, language, lore, and knowledge that’s been handed down for millennia. Most true mariners are happy to share the awareness of your new chosen home at sea.
As you chamois the topsides, sense each item with your hands and eyes, and remember that everything on deck is important, otherwise it would not be there — and that includes you. Make yourself important on deck and essential to the safe operation of all things on deck, for the safety and comfort of your guests and crew. Become the deckie that the skipper counts on, learn the names of all things so you can do all things, and take the first step to becoming the seaman you could never have imagined.
This column originally ran in the January 2021 issue of Dockwalk.