The other day at a Tradewinds instructors meeting, the estimable Craig Walker, a true gentleman and our most accomplished teacher, opined that we should not be cursing during class. Now, on the one hand, I completely agree that our instructors should maintain a professional demeanor at all times, one that would not be out of place in church. On the other hand, this admonishment flies in the face of all we know about the sport. When a neighbor, and for some reason this is funnier if it’s a woman, has a habit of expressing herself with rapid fire strings of expletives, do we say her language is sugary? No, we say it’s salty. Do we say she curses like a golfer? Heavens, no. She curses like a sailor. Even nerds recognize this, and if you don’t believe me, Google “make Siri curse [space].” Google will fill in “like a sailor.”
Here at Tradewinds, during my first class more than two decades ago, I was taught that there were actually two sets of commands to learn. The much loved instructor Ron Pook informed us that when cruising, it’s “trim the main, please.” But when racing, the proper expression is “Trim the !#%@$ main!”
Truth is, sailors don’t really have a whole catalogue of curses that differ from those of the lubbers. It seems it’s the frequency of their use that distinguishes the sailor from the landsman. Of course, there are two familiar sailor’s exclamations that we all know: Popeye’s “Well, blow me down!” and Long John Silver’s “Shiver me timbers!” It is, I’m sorry to report, not completely clear that either one was ever actually in common use by the sailors of yore, but both can be traced to 19th century literature. “Blow me down” has come down to us in the still often used phrase, “I was blown away.” I don’t think the sense of it requires much investigation. “Shiver me timbers” is a little less obvious. To “shiver” is to splinter, and is related to the word “shiv.” Of course “shiver” also meant “shake.” Either way, one’s timbers may get shivered by a cannon ball from a hostile vessel.
I’m hopeful that Craig will permit our saying, “Blow me down! That was an awesome tack!”