Some of English’s most colorful expressions originated in the mouths of British Royal Navy sailors. I learned about some of the power behind them near Oak Island, off the coast of Canada’s Nova Scotia, while doing atmospheric research for my novel The Oak Island Affair (which has just been re-released in print and as an ebook by Iguana Books.)
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Oak Island was closed to the public, but Vanessa, the novel’s main character, and her friend Brigit sailed there. I hired a shoestring-budget sailor to take me on the same trip.
We landed at Joudrey’s Cove (straight ahead in the picture.) No one was around so I walked the beach, smelled the air, listened to the wind in the rigging, watched the cormorants. It was early June and chilly, but we were dressed in waterproof pants and jackets. All was well. Until we pushed off again.
The wind had picked up so much that my skipper decided to sail on only the small jib sail.
“Prepare to come about!” The skipper calls this to warn all hands of a change in tack. When the boat’s bow comes up into the wind and then through it, the sails will catch the wind on the other side. I uncleated the jib sheet.
I crossed the cockpit as the boat turned. Mahone Bay‘s spring winds are capricious however, and our twenty-foot boat was too little. No sooner had we come about than a gust blew in from a different direction, catching the sail at the wrong moment, heeling us over too far. The sail caught the water, and the next thing I knew I was in the Very Cold Atlantic. Ropes swirled around my head. My running shoes and waterproof rain gear pulled me under.
Fortunately I am a strong swimmer. I have also been a writer since the age of thirteen. What I thought, with excitement, as I kicked towards the surface was:
Here are some other expressions the Royal Navy has given us:
Let the cat out of the bag: when a seaman broke the rules he was tied to the mast and flogged with a knotted rope called a cat of nine tails, which was kept in a bag.
Loose cannon: the most dangerous thing on a wooden warship rolling and pitching at sea was a loose cannon.
Learning the ropes: the network of sheets and lines on a British navy sailing ship was complicated. In a strong wind, your life could depend on knowing what to pull, what to loosen, how to make the right knot.
Touch and go: when ships met at sea, sometimes they came close together to exchange people or goods. Their hulls would touch and then move apart, a delicate and precarious moment. (CBC Sunday Morning)
May all your verbal hands be on deck, your English expressions rich and varied — even if it sometimes means sailing too close to the wind!
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