The nautical persuasion

Any beverage too weak. Over-watered spirits.

“His food the land-crab, lizard, or the frog;
His drink a wish-wash of six-water grog.”

Excerpt From
The Sailor’s Word-Book: An alphabetical digest of nautical terms, including some more especially military and scientific, but useful to seamen; as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc.

By the late
Admiral W. H. Smyth, K.S.F., D.C.L., &c.
Revised for the press by Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Belcher, K.C.B., &c. &c.


Lucem Libris Disseminamus

It’s easy to lapse into the nautical vernacular on the island of Key Largo in the State of Florida in the United States of America.  And in spite of the national political turbulence and the constant shootings of innocent people by deranged madmen, it is a distinct honour and pleasure to be here and to be part of the Union’s remarkable history. There is a fervour which penetrates the Bohemian atmosphere on Key Largo. I am forever aware of my unspoken privilege to be a Canadian, indeed a descendant of the revolutionaries who once abandoned the United States of America in favour of the British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. But since 1763 my family (both paternal and maternal) has criss-crossed the border between us two in varying degrees of residency and patriotism; and, to this day I triumph to resort here in this sub-tropical climate, to share with other like-minded Northerners the inexpressible beauty of the azure sea and soothing warm air.

This may seem an odd introduction to what at first might appear to be an etymological or an anthropological study of sorts. Indeed it is neither as I cannot enlarge upon the desideratum for a nautical dictionary. And I have even less to say about the seamen who traveled the waves that now surround me to my left and my right as I caste my sight along the length of the Florida Keys.

“What’s in a word? is a question which it is held clever to quote and wise to think unanswerable: and yet there is a very good answer, and it is—a meaning, if you know it. But there is another question, and it is, What’s a word in? There is never a poor fellow in this world but must ask it now and then with a blank face, when aground for want of a meaning. And the answer is—a dictionary, if you have it.”

Yet while I cannot speak to the topic of words or seamanship I may however address with direct and immediate knowledge the circumstances which have provoked this nautical persuasion of mine. Key Largo is known for its fishing and snorkelling. And, if you’ll forgive the indecency, it has been said that here on Key Largo “Boats are like assholes, everybody has one!” It may perhaps enhance the legitimacy of my persuasion to know that my post-graduate study of law was at Dalhousie University in the Province of Nova Scotia which of course is adjacent the North Atlantic Ocean. During our studies we soon became aware of the historical parallel connection between Nova Scotians and Americans in the coastal States immediately to the south including not surprisingly the alliance with Harvard Law School.  Dalhousie Law School by the way is the oldest law school in the British Empire including England where legal studies were in the Inns and Temples by apprenticeship.  The only more ancient law school is Harvard Law School.

But back to the nautical theme, the more scintillating American connection for us young law students was that associated with booze; in particular, the nefarious sale and transport of it. I recall being told by Judge Willie Gunn that his father, a former lawyer in Cape Breton, met one afternoon with a bootlegger client of his who had been charged with a criminal offence.  When the lawyer asked his client, “What’s your story?” the client looked coldly at him and replied, “That’s what I’m paying you for!”

While living on Spring Garden Road in Halifax around 1972, I and a friend ventured to the nearby docks in Halifax harbour to see the USS Intrepid. It was massive. To our surprise we were greeted by a seaman who (no doubt bored with his time) invited us on board for a tour. He was clearly of the junior class of sailor.  He showed us his quarters.  While I cannot recall all details thereof I distinctly remember there were no doors on the heads (reportedly to avoid any swinging back and forth on the rollicking seas).  Further when we asked what it was like at the bow of the ship, the sailor replied that he had never been there.  He said five men had died in the past year, fallen overboard or whatever.