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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Putting the Old Woman to Work

Afloat on a Sea of Words, Part 1

By Farwell Forrest

January 24, 2006

A Note to the Reader. This is the third article in a series. The first is titled "A Short History of Canoe Sailing," and that's more or less what it is, too. The second is "Ways to Harness the Wind." It's a look at how paddlers can become part-time sailors without having to mortgage their homes or get a second job. Needless to say, I recommend both of them.

We swim in a sea of words, and we take no more notice of it than fish notice the water that surrounds and supports them. But words are every bit as important to us as water is to a fish. Words surround us and support us, too. We use words to convey information. And we use them to conceal. Both are necessary ends. We — you and me and everybody — also build walls with words, dividing "us" from "them," separating our class from their class, our race from their race, even our generation from their generation. Often this is unconscious, but not always. Words are our business cards. They identify us to others. This is especially true in the professions. Medicine, law, engineering, education.… Each has its own special vocabulary. Speak the language and you'll be welcomed as a member of the club. Stammer, stumble, or simply stand mute, however, and you immediately reveal yourself as a layman. When I tell a doctor that my shoulder hurts, she smiles a knowing smile and proceeds confidently with her examination. Our roles are confirmed. She is the doctor. I am the patient. Everything is as it should be.

But what if, in an unguarded moment, I say instead that I suspect I'm suffering from an acromioclavicular subluxation of traumatic origin? The doctor's first response then is to frown. Perhaps she thinks I'm shamming, that I've been mining the textbooks for an excuse to skip work. Or maybe she even wonders if I'm another doctor, a colleague she met at a conference, for instance, someone whom she should have recognized. In any case, my slip of the tongue has disturbed the social hierarchy of the examining room. Our roles are in doubt. That's why, if I've got any sense at all, I'll quickly add something like "And you know, doc, my shoulder sure hurts." This will quickly put things right. Each of us can now slip effortlessly into the proper role. Order and harmony have been restored.

Clearly, words have magic. They can wound or heal, reassure or threaten. We petition for blessings for ourselves and our friends, only to curse our enemies in the very next breath. Some words are even too terrible to speak aloud, and their number seems to be growing. They now include much more than the familiar epithets and obscenities long known and used by almost every eight-year-old boy (yet still proscribed by the Federal Communications Commission). When was the last time you heard someone admit that he had a "problem," for example? Today, all we have are "issues." Even "challenge" — an earlier euphemism for "problem" — is under threat. Soon it, too, will likely be banished beyond the pale of civilized speech. And then there's the minefield of race and gender. That collision of language and politics is always explosive. When I wrote "layman" a few minutes ago, I knew immediately that some reader, somewhere, would shudder on encountering it. But I simply can't bring myself to write "layperson." Not yet, at any rate.

Enough of this. Technical vocabularies do more than sustain artificial social barriers, of course. They also save time and increase precision of speech, enhancing the use of language to communicate information. This is often important to paddlers, who have a long list of useful and necessary words of their own. Where would we be without J-stroke, brace, and roll, for example, let alone ender and Mystery Move? Speechless, that's where. Sailors, too, carry a ditty bag of special words aboard their boats, and any paddler who's thinking about putting the Old Woman to work will have to learn the language of sail and the sea. Not all of it, however. I've never had to ask anyone to mouse a hook, for example, and unless you're a stevedore or a deckhand, you, too, will probably manage pretty well without this particular turn of phrase. But if you decide to hoist sail, you'll still need a basic working vocabulary. So let's begin to stock our own ditty bag with sailor's words. Rather than the usual alphabetic glossary, however, I'll explore one broad subject area at a time, following the familiar journalist's checklist: Who? What? When? Where? How? (I'll leave Why? to the philosophers.) We'll start with…


A sailor is a sailor, whether or not she's a paddler as well, but what do you call the person whose hand controls the tiller? Because I'm an old fossil and beyond redemption, and because the skipper in my boat doesn't seem to care how she's addressed, so long as it's followed by a snappy "Aye, aye, Ma'am," I'll call her the helmsman. If this makes you unhappy, alternatives exist — "helmsperson," "helm," even (so help me) "helmer." You're welcome to any of them.

The other half of the crew is just…well…the crew. Few canoes or kayaks need more than two people to handle sail and hold a course. Usually, in fact, one person can do both jobs. So the ship's muster-book will have only two entries at most: helmsman and crew. Everyone else — including the ship's cat — is just live ballast. Note that possession of the helm doesn't make you the captain of the ship. In a canoe or kayak, as in a sailing dinghy, the crew can also be the skipper. And she often is. After all, if you and your partner are in the same boat, chances are pretty good that you'll each want to take a turn at the helm from time to time. So far, so good. But there can only be one skipper on any vessel, and that hat doesn't change heads during a voyage. Period. A boat under way isn't a democracy, and in any case, it's hard to reach a majority consensus on a disputed issue when there are only two voters. The wind and the waves won't always give you time to take a vote, anyway.

So while the person with her hand on the helm is the helmsman, she isn't always the skipper. That title goes to She (or He) Who Must Be Obeyed, the individual whose experience, good judgment, and proven skill make her the person most suited to command. She may or may not be the best sail trimmer or helmsman aboard. But she'd damn' well better be the best waterman. It doesn't matter if she's steering the boat or handling the sheet. The skipper's word is law. End of story. Are you tempted to envy her unchallenged authority? Don't be. The responsibility for the well-being of others is a terrible burden, and the sea shows no mercy to the unprepared. On a bad day, even Golden Pond can levy an awful toll. And when a decision goes against you on the water, it's final. There's no court of appeal.

OK. While Who? may be the most important question we'll ask — a boat without a skipper and crew is just another bit of flotsam, after all — What? is the one with the most answers. It's easy to see why. The sailor's world is full of strange names for unfamiliar things (Do you know what a "clew" is? Or don't you have a clue?), not to mention familiar names used in unfamiliar ways ("Sheet," for instance. If you're three sheets to the wind, you don't need a clothespin; you need a cleat — and a clear head). It's too big a subject for this week, but next time out we'll tackle it.

The language of sail and the sea is good for a lot more than just impressing landlubbers in the marina bar. It's a tool for communicating vital information in a hurry, without dangerous ambiguity. After all, even the smallest sailboat is a tangle of sticks and strings. Each one of these has a role to play, and every one has a proper name. If you're planning to put the Old Woman to work for you — and I hope that you are — you'll need to have all their names on the tip of your tongue. You wouldn't try to navigate a stretch of seacoast without first studying an up-to-date chart, would you? Why should the sea of words be any different? It, too, has rocks and shoals aplenty, all of them waiting to claim another hapless victim. But knowledge is power. And words are the beginning of knowledge. So let's begin our voyage of discovery.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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