What’s Your Boat's Secret Code?

14 August 2009 By Rubi McGrory

Maritime traditions have generated a vast number of words and phrases ever since the first boat put to sea. This seems a natural evolution when you consider a closed group of people communicating with each other about a specific set of needs. Over time, much of the nautical lexicon came ashore and infiltrated landlubber language. People use these words today having no idea of their salty origins – including phrases such as “the whole nine yards,” which means to fully execute a maneuver by reconfiguring all nine yard-arms of sail; or “to learn the ropes” – to figure out which lines control which pieces of shipboard rigging.

We don’t have so many sails and ropes to control anymore, but that doesn’t stop modern-day mariners from developing their own language. This usually changes from boat to boat, and most frequently is used as a code to refer to people or processes on board.

Mate Stuart can’t recall when it came to his attention, but insists every boat he has ever worked on has referred to the guests—either charter or private—as “The People;” sometimes “The Peeps” for short.

Stew Melanie explains, “Every charter I’ve ever done, we come up with code names for ‘The People.’ It’s not forced, but just a way of referring to people without having to say their names. One kid had the flu the whole time he was on board, so we called him DK for diseased kid. Another time we had people who showered three times a day so we called them the TCPIWs, short for The Cleanest People in the World.”

Bethany, a freelance chef, worked aboard a motor yacht with an open galley. Some guests had to walk through the galley to get to their cabin and frequently the boss or his wife would walk in for a snack. The crew had come up with a system to alert one other that a guest was in hearing range. “We weren’t doing anything wrong or even gossiping, but sometimes we would get loud or silly, and would forget people could hear us.”

Their solution: They would use the word “spatula” or “sugar mill” in a sentence, which signaled, “‘The People’ are approaching, stop talking about a drunken evening in Ibiza or complaining about mystery stains on the fitted sheets.”

It isn’t all about ‘The People,’ though. “Taking out the trash” can mean sneaking down the dock for a cigarette and doing a “freezer dive” involves attempting to find something the chef knows is in the back or bottom of a deep freeze.

Stuart, an eight-year veteran of the industry, says every boat has a different term for the clandestine cocktails snuck after ‘The People’s’ needs have been met. One boat gave it the straightforward name, “Happy Hour,” while on another, with supposedly dry crew quarters, the crew would pour wine into mugs and called it “Coffee Time.”

The one term that appears to be uniform across the industry describes the activity performed when the guests depart the vessel at the end of the trip: “Happy Dance.”

This codified language isn’t necessarily foolproof and should be used with extreme care.

Bethany cooked aboard a yacht with an international crew and a very unkind guest among “The People.” The Dutch stew had been teaching the crew naughty words in her native tongue, so this particular guest was known as Mrs. [part of anatomy][another part of anatomy] in the crew quarters.

The mate had been away on family business. Returning mid-charter, he had to jump into a game already in play. One day he was overheard saying “Good morning, Mrs. [part of anatomy][another part of anatomy], can I get you some coffee?”

“We never knew if she understood what he said. She was Danish, but fluent in several languages.” Bethany paused before adding, “She didn’t leave a tip.”

What are some of the secret code words on board your boat?