Nautical wayfarer

Ship money, in British history, a non-parliamentary tax first levied in medieval times by the English crown on coastal cities and counties for naval defence in time of war. It required those being taxed to furnish a certain number of warships or to pay the ships’ equivalent in money. Its revival and its enforcement as a general tax by Charles I aroused widespread opposition and added to the discontent leading to the English Civil Wars.

Apparently there has forever been a price to pay for seaside dwelling. This historical reference to ship money is but a reminder of the allure to me of the Atlantic Ocean. One of my first expressions of this nautical enchantment – aside from having attended Dalhousie law school au bord de la mer in Halifax, Nova Scotia – was the acquisition of a ship’s bell.

The singular feature of a real ship’s bell (in case you’re unfamiliar with the usage) is that is has no face; that is, no numbers, hour or minute hand. It’s peculiar medium for telling the time is the strikes of a bell. The well known strike is “eight bells and all’s well“. These strikes were designed to echo the routine 4-hour watch of labour on board the ship, beginning for example at midnight with eight bells, followed by one bell at 12:30 am, two bells at 1:00 am, three at 1:30 am, four at 2:00 am, five at 2:30 am, six at 3:00 am, seven at 3:30 am and finally eight bells and all’s well at 4:00 am (which was called the “dog watch”). Each watch would take its turn with the essential activities of manning the helm, navigating, trimming sails, and keeping a lookout.

The dog watch exists because, in order for the crew to rotate through all the watches, it is necessary to have an odd number of watches in a ship’s day. Splitting one of the watches in half allows the sailors to stand different watches instead of one team being forced to stand the mid-watch every night. The choice of time also allows both watches, if there are only two, to eat an evening meal at about the traditional time.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word ‘dogwatch’ is a direct translation from either German or Dutch of a similar term. It originally referred to the night-watch on ships — that is, the time when (on land) all but the dogs were asleep. The name is also said to be derived from Sirius, the “Dog Star”, on the claim that Sirius was the first star that can be seen at night. An alternative folk etymology is that the name arose because someone tasked with one of these ‘half’ watches was said to be ‘dodging the watch’, taking or standing the ‘dodge watch’. This became shortened to ‘dog watch’. Another variation is that those sleeping get only ‘dog sleep‘ in this watch. Stephen Maturin of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series retells the 19th century humourist Theodore Hook’s pun that the dog watch is so-named because it is “cur-tailed” (“curtailed”, i.e. shortened).

Lately I have been consumed by the hopeful advent of the opening of the Canada/USA international border to enable us to drive to Florida in October. The anticipation has filled me with relentless memories of the sea – the noise, the smell, the colour and its general attraction. There are so many elements at play in the constitution of this forecasted departure from our rural agrarian vernacular.

Years of straddling the Canada/USA border has rendered us akin the nomadic bird population, driven by instinct to depart from one to the other. We appear to be nearing the end of our year-long isolation though naturally I am reluctant to draw any immediate conclusions. We advanced somewhat as a result of the latest statistics that the vaccination standard originally set by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been met ahead of schedule. It is heartening at the least.

Meanwhile we address the medical and dental matters which had been delayed by the pandemic. All these threads are slowly becoming entwined. The enthusiasm rises accordingly.