Naval Sayings – Between the Devel and the deep blue sea

Each month in the Modelers Central free monthly email newsletter we take a look at a Naval Saying from around the world.

There are many sayings and expressions that originate from language used historically by sailors. These sayings described specific aspects of life at sea and maritime traditions, and often referred to parts of sailing ships. Many of these expressions date from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some, over time, have crossed over in to common use, and are still used today, although in many cases the meanings of sayings now are far removed from their original meanings.

Between the Devil and the deep blue sea – In difficulty, faced with two dangerous alternatives.

The phrase was originally ‘Between the Devil and the deep sea’ (and somes ‘the Dead Sea’ or ‘the Red Sea’). The sea turned blue much later and the phrase became well-known via the title of a popular song Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, written by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, and recorded by Cab Calloway in 1931.

What’s the source of the original phrase? Well, we would really like to know. CANOE, the Committee to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything, would have us believe that it has a nautical origin (well, they would wouldn’t they?). In her book ‘When a loose cannon flogs a dead horse there’s the devil to pay‘ Olivia Isil unambiguously attributes a nautical origin to the phrase, albeit without providing any evidence for that.

Set against that there’s the explanation that this is from the usual meaning of Devil, that is, the supreme spirit of evil. If it’s that Devil we are talking about then the origin is straightforward – the Devil is bad and falling in the deep sea is bad, so when being caught between the two would be cause for concern.

People who like that explanation can point back to Greek mythology for an earlier version of the idea of being caught between evil and the sea. Homer’s Odyssey refers to Odysseus being caught between Scylla (a six-headed monster) and Charybdis (a whirlpool).

To explain the nautical theory we’ll need to define some sailing terminology.

“Devil – the seam between the deck planking and the topmost plank of the ship’s side”.

This seam would need to be watertight and would need filling (caulking) from time to time. On a ship at sea this would presumably require a sailor to be suspended over the side, or at least to stand at the very edge of the deck. Either way it is easy to see how that might be described as ‘between the devil and the deep sea’.

The first recorded citation of ‘the Devil and the deep sea’ in print is in Robert Monro’s His expedition with the worthy Scots regiment called Mac-keyes, 1637:

“I, with my partie, did lie on our poste, as betwixt the devill and the deep sea.”

Shipwreck – Torrent 1868

Each month in the Modelers Central free monthly email newsletter we take a look at a shipwreck from around the world.Torrent

Waters have for many millennia separated but also connected civilizations. They have been the carrier of many human adventures. Some of the traces of the travellers, warriors or merchants have found their last resting place on the bottom of the sea, rivers and lakes.

It can be estimated that over 3 million shipwrecks are spread across ocean floors around the planet. While this is of course only an estimate and while the preservation of their remains depends much on the environment, some of these wrecks are thousands of years old. They can provide precious historical information. A shipwreck by nature is testimony to trade and cultural dialogue between peoples. It also functions, however, as a time capsule, providing a complete snapshot of the life on board at the time of sinking. Each month we will take a look at a shipwreck from around the world.

Torrent was an American three-masted wooden sail ship that shipwrecked near the coast of Alaska on 15 July 1868.

Torrentwas built in Bath, Maine in 1852. It was made of wood, weighed 576 tons and measured probably 50 meters in length. It consisted of two decks.

In October 1867, the United States and Russia signed the Alaska Treaty with the US acquiring the territories now belonging to the state of the same name. To protect the American interests, the Army decided to construct a fort near the mouth of the Kenai River on Cook Inlet. The fort would complement the existing forts at Sitka and Kodiak.

Battery F of the Army’s Second Infantry Division was chosen to man the fort, under the command of Lt. John McGilvray. Torrent was one of two sailing ships destined to carry the men of the Division, ammunition, supplies and building materials to the new fort at Cook Inlet. The transported goods were intended to last six months. A second ship, Milan, commanded by Captain Joseph Snow, would follow carrying 267,000 board feet (630 m3) of lumber and 300 tons of coal.

Torrentwould be commanded by Captain Richard Carlton. The ship carried a crew of 15 men, five Army officers, 125 enlisted men, four laundresses, two servants, and 11 children. It finally set sail for Alaska on 11 June 1868.

Torrentsailed north for almost a month, reaching Kodiak Island on 7 July. The following day she headed to Cook Inlet through the Chugachnik Gulf (now known as Kachemak Bay). It is unclear why she followed this route since the orders were to proceed to the Russian settlement of St. Nicholas near the mouth of the Kenai River.

As the ship approached, lookouts were able to see Kenai and what is now called as Homer Spit. The next morning, Lt. McGilvray dispatched a small reconnaissance party in one of the ship’s boats. Upon inspecting the terrain, McGilvray was convinced that it would be impossible to establish even a temporary post at that place.

After conferring with the captain and others knowledgeable about the area, McGilvray decided to establish a temporary fort at Port Graham, about 20 miles (32 km) south. Torrent set sail on the morning of 12 July, encountering a storm in the area. The storm was so strong that she returned to Kenai Harbor to wait until the next day. On 13 July, she set sail again, entering Cook Inlet. However, the storm covered them again as she made her way along the coastline. On 14 July, the men were able to see Port Graham at the distance and decided to wait until the next day to land.

On the morning of 15 July, the mate sailed Torrent to the harbor but couldn’t avoid a long, rocky reef that extends from the shore about a 1 12 miles (2.4 km). With a strong current estimated at 7 knots (13 km/h; 8.1 mph), Torrent struck the reef hard. The strong current spun her 180 degrees, carrying her onto the rocks. The hull timbers broke and she began taking-on water.

Quickly, the passengers and crew headed to the ship’s six lifeboats and abandoned the ship, without having time to salvage provisions or personal belongings. Shortly after, the ship sank. All of the passengers reached shore safely. An army officer and some of the sailors attempted to reach Fort Kodiak in one of the lifeboats, but were forced to return.

The castaways were rescued two weeks later by Captain Snow, of Milan, and by Captain Erskine, of the steamer Fidelater, who spotted the Torrent ’​s floating in the sea.

The soldiers of Battery F spent the winter of 1868 to 1869 at Kodiak. They later arrived at the Russian settlement of St. Nicholas, aboard the steamer Constantine on 17 April 1869, finally establishing what would be Fort Kenai. The garrison would remain active for less than two years, when the Army headquarters ordered its abandonment in August 1870.

In 2006, a team of four investigators started an expedition to find remains of the Torrent shipwreck.

On 9 October 2007, it was announced that the team had found the remnants of the ship. Divers found the wreckage off the south-central Alaska coast. It is believed to be the oldest American shipwreck ever found in Alaskan waters.

Discovered on the wreck were guns, cannons, shoes and plates, as well as brass, copper and bronze objects. Divers also located a toilet, two anchors, sections of hull and heavy bronze rudder hinges weighing at least 100 pounds (45 kg). One anchor measured 10 feet (3.0 m) tall with a stem 2 12 feet (0.76 m) in circumference.

Torrentis now being considered for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. State or federal archaeologists are expected to study the wreck if they can secure enough funding.

Naval Sayings – Batten down the hatches

Each month in the Modelers Central free monthly email newsletter we take a look at a Naval Saying from around the world.

There are many sayings and expressions that originate from language used historically by sailors. These sayings described specific aspects of life at sea and maritime traditions, and often referred to parts of sailing ships. Many of these expressions date from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some, over time, have crossed over in to common use, and are still used today, although in many cases the meanings of sayings now are far removed from their original meanings.

Batten down the hatches – Prepare for trouble.

‘Hatch’ is one of those words with dozens of meanings in the dictionary. In this case we are looking at the ‘opening in the deck of a ship’ meaning. Ships’ hatches, more formally called hatchways, were commonplace on sailing ships and were normally either open or covered with a wooden grating to allow for ventilation of the lower decks. When bad weather was imminent, the hatches were covered with tarpaulin and the covering was edged with wooden strips, known as battens, to prevent it from blowing off. Not surprisingly, sailors called this ‘battening down’.

The above was explained, probably better than I just have, in the definitive record of history of nautical language, Admiral W H Smyth’s 1867 encyclopaedia The Sailor’s Word Book. He calls it ‘battening of the hatches’ but it is clearly the same expression:

“Battens of the hatches: Long narrow laths serving by the help of nailing to confine the edges of the tarpaulins, and keep them close down to the sides of the hatchways in bad weather.”

The misspellings ‘battern down the hatches’ and ‘baton down the hatches’ are sometimes found in print. ‘Batons’ are sticks or staffs, which makes that particular misspelling plausible. ‘Batterns’ are a form of stage lighting.

The earliest reference to this practice that I know of is in William Falconer’s An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1769:

The battens serve to confine the edges of the tarpaulings close down to the sides of the hatches.

The first citation of the explicit use of the phrase ‘batten down the hatches’ is from the 1883Chambers Journal:

“Batten down the hatches – quick, men.”

Shipwreck – Arabia

Each month in the Modelers Central free monthly email newsletter we take a look at a shipwreck from around the world.

Waters have for many millennia separated but also connected civilizations. They have been the carrier of many human adventures. Some of the traces of the travellers, warriors or merchants have found their last resting place on the bottom of the sea, rivers and lakes.

It can be estimated that over 3 million shipwrecks are spread across ocean floors around the planet. While this is of course only an estimate and while the preservation of their remains depends much on the environment, some of these wrecks are thousands of years old. They can provide precious historical information. A shipwreck by nature is testimony to trade and cultural dialogue between peoples. It also functions, however, as a time capsule, providing a complete snapshot of the life on board at the time of sinking. Each month we will take a look at a shipwreck from around the world.

The steamboat Arabia was a side wheeler steamboat which hit a snag in the Missouri River and sank near what today is Kansas City, Kansas, on September 5, 1856. It was rediscovered in 1988 by a team of researchers. Today, the artifacts recovered from the site are housed in the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

Paddlewheel of the Arabia Steamboat. Located at The Steamboat Arabia Museum, Kansas City

The Arabia was built in 1853 around the Monongahela River in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Its paddlewheels were 28 feet (8.5 m) across, and its steam boilers consumed approximately thirty cords of wood per day. The boat averaged five miles (8 km) an hour going upstream. The boat traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers before it was bought by Captain John Shaw, who operated the boat on the Missouri River. Her first trip was to carry 109 soldiers from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Pierre, which was located up river in South Dakota. The boat then traveled up the Yellowstone River, adding 700 miles (1,100 km) to the trip. In all, the trip took nearly three months to complete.

In spring of 1856, the boat was sold to Captain William Terrill and William Boyd, and it made fourteen trips up and down the Missouri during their ownership. In March, the boat collided with an obstacle, nearly sinking. Repairs were made in nearby Portland. A few weeks later the boat blew a cylinder head and had to be repaired again. The rest of the season was uneventful for the boat until September 5.

On September 5, 1856, the Arabia set out for a routine trip. At Quindaro Bend, near the town of Parkville, Missouri, the boat hit a submerged walnut tree snag. The snag ripped open the hull, which rapidly filled with water. The upper decks of the boat stayed above water, and the only casualty was a mule that was tied to sawmill equipment and forgotten. The boat sank so rapidly into the mud that by the next morning, only the smokestacks and pilot house remained visible. Within a few days, these traces of the boat were also swept away. Numerous salvage attempts failed, and eventually the boat was completely covered by water. Over time, the river shifted a half a mile to the east. The site of the sinking is in present-day Kansas City, Kansas, although, as described below, many of the remnants have been removed to a museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

In the 1860s, Elisha Sortor purchased the property where the boat lay. Over the years, legends were passed through the family that the boat was located somewhere under the land. In the surrounding town, stories were also told of the steamboat, but the exact location of the boat was lost over time.

In 1987, Bob Hawley and his sons, Greg and David, set out to find the boat. The Hawleys used old maps and a proton magnetometer to figure out the probable location, and finally discovered the Arabia half a mile from the river and under 45 feet (14 m) of silt and topsoil.

The owners of the farm gave permission for excavation, with the condition that the work be completed before the spring planting. The Hawleys, along with family friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell, set out to excavate the boat during the winter months while the water table was at its lowest point. They performed a series of drilling tests to determine the exact location of the hull, then marked the perimeter with powdered chalk. Heavy equipment, including a 100-ton crane, was brought in by both river and road transport during the summer and fall. 20 irrigation pumps were installed around the site to lower the water level and to keep the site from flooding. The 65-foot-deep (20 m) wells removed 20,000 US gallons (76,000 l) per minute from the ground. On November 26, 1988, the boat was exposed. Four days later, artifacts from the boat began to appear, beginning with a Goodyear rubber overshoe. On December 5, a wooden crate filled with elegant china was unearthed. The mud was such an effective preserver that the yellow packing straw was still visible. Thousands of artifacts were recovered intact, including jars of preserved food that are still edible. The artifacts that were recovered are housed in the Steamboat Arabia Museum.

On February 11, 1989, work ceased at the site, and the pumps were turned off. The hole filled with water overnight.

The site where the boat sank is an unassuming field about half a mile from the river. After the pumps were turned off, the site was filled back in so that it would not be a hazard to humans.

Naval Sayings – Anchors aweigh

Each month in the Modelers Central free monthly email newsletter we take a look at a Naval Saying from around the world.

There are many sayings and expressions that originate from language used historically by sailors. These sayings described specific aspects of life at sea and maritime traditions, and often referred to parts of sailing ships. Many of these expressions date from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some, over time, have crossed over in to common use, and are still used today, although in many cases the meanings of sayings now are far removed from their original meanings.

Anchors aweigh – Said in preparation of getting underway, especially of a ship.

There is some doubt in the public mind as to how this phrase should be spelled. Internet searches for ‘anchors away’ bring up many thousands of hits. The correct spelling is ‘anchors aweigh’. As with other frequently seen misspellings, like ‘baited breath’ and ‘just desserts’, the ‘away’ version does make some intuitive sense. The supposed shout of ‘anchors away’ fits well with the image of ropes being cast off and the anchor being hoisted as a ship prepares to sail away across the sea. There’s some justification for assuming the ‘away’ spelling, as the first known usage of the term in print comes from John Smith’s A Sea Grammar, 1627, in which Smith uses that form:

‘What is the Anchor away?’

The meaning of the word was nevertheless not the current ‘away – removed to a distance’, but rather the ‘aweigh – being weighed’ meaning.

The word ‘aweigh’ or, as it was often spelled in early citations, ‘a-weigh’, is now only used in this little phrase. An anchor that is aweigh is one that has just begun to put weight onto the rope or chain by which it is being hauled up. Sailors were fond of adding ‘a’ to words to make new ones, for example, ‘astern’, ‘aboard’, ashore’, ‘afloat’, ‘adrift’, ‘aground’, etc.

‘A-weigh’ is synonymous with the old and now defunct terms ‘a-peak’ and ‘a-trip’. ‘A-peak’ was the Anglicized version of the French ‘a pic’, that is, vertical. It is easy to see why the French chose the word vertical to describe an anchor which was being hauled onboard ship. ‘A-trip’ just meant ‘about to be underway’, that is, ‘on a trip’. This wasn’t only reserved for anchors; ‘a-trip’ was a general sailing term that was used for anything that was about to begin.

Admiral William Henry Smyth, in his nautical dictionary The Sailor’s Word-Book, 1867, listed this entry for ‘A-trip’:

“The anchor is a-trip, or a-weigh, where the purchase has just made it break ground, or raised it clear. Sails are a-trip when they are hoisted from the cap [a thick block of wood], sheeted home, and ready for trimming”…

and for ‘Apeek’:

“A ship drawn directly over the anchor is apeek”…

The earliest known citation that refers to an anchor being ‘aweigh’ is in an exchange between two characters in John Dryden’s The Tempest, 1670:

Trincalo: Is the Anchor a Peek?
Stephano: Is a weigh! is a weigh.

The song Anchors Aweigh was composed by Charles A. Zimmerman in 1906 with lyrics written by Alfred Hart Miles. It was adopted as the official song of the United States Navy:

Stand Navy down the field, sails set to the sky.
We’ll never change our course, so Army you steer shy-y-y-y.
Roll up the score, Navy, Anchors Aweigh.
Sail Navy down the field and sink the Army, sink the Army Grey.

Anchors Aweighwas also a popular musical comedy film of 1945, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.

Shipwreck – CSS Ellis

Each month in the Modelers Central free monthly email newsletter we take a look at a shipwreck from around the world.

Waters have for many millennia separated but also connected civilizations. They have been the carrier of many human adventures. Some of the traces of the travellers, warriors or merchants have found their last resting place on the bottom of the sea, rivers and lakes.

It can be estimated that over 3 million shipwrecks are spread across ocean floors around the planet. While this is of course only an estimate and while the preservation of their remains depends much on the environment, some of these wrecks are thousands of years old. They can provide precious historical information. A shipwreck by nature is testimony to trade and cultural dialogue between peoples. It also functions, however, as a time capsule, providing a complete snapshot of the life on board at the time of sinking. Each month we will take a look at a shipwreck from around the world.

CSS Ellis (later USS Ellis) was a gunboat in the Confederate States Navy and the United States Navy during the American Civil War. It was lost during a raid while under command of famed Navy officer Lieutenant William B. Cushing.

The Ellis was purchased at Norfolk, Virginia in 1861 by the State of North Carolina and turned over to the Confederacy when that State became a member. With Commander W. T. Muse, CSN, in command, she played an important part in the defense of Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark in Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina on August 28–29, 1861, of Roanoke Island on February 7–8, 1862, and of Elizabeth City, North Carolina on February 10, 1862; that day she was captured by the Union Army after a desperate struggle in which her commander, Lieutenant James W. Cooke, CSN, was badly wounded.

Elliswas taken into the U.S. Navy and assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. She was placed under the command of Lieutenant C. L. Franklin, USN, and spent her entire U.S. Navy service in the sounds and rivers of North Carolina.

Ellistook part in a combined expedition which captured Fort Macon, near Beaufort, North Carolina, on April 25, 1862. She had a brief engagement with Confederate cavalry off Winton, North Carolina on June 27, and from August 15 to 19 she made an expedition to Swansboro, North Carolina to destroy salt works and a battery. On October 14, she was detailed to the blockade of Bogue Inlet, and a week later, captured and burned the schooner Adelaide with a valuable cargo of turpentine, cotton, and tobacco.

In November 1862, Ellis, under command of Lieutenant William B. Cushing, sailed up New River Inlet to capture Jacksonville, North Carolina. The steamer captured two schooners, some arms and mail. On her way down river, Ellis ran aground on November 24 and could not be refloated. After dark her commanding officer, with great coolness, moved all the crew except six and all her equipment and supplies except her pivot gun, some ammunition, 2 tons of coal, and a few small arms to one of the captured schooners. While the schooners slipped down the river to wait, Cushing and five of his men remained to fight it out. Early on the morning of November 25, the Confederates opened fire on Ellis, and in a short time, Cushing was forced to decide between surrender and a pull of a mile and a half to a waiting schooner. Cushing chose not to surrender, and before leaving his ship, set fire to her in five places, leaving the gun trained on the enemy to let the ship herself carry on the fight when flames would fire the cannon. Cushing and his men reached the schooner and made for the sea, getting the vessel over the bar just in time to escape several companies of cavalry trying to cut off the schooner at the mouth of the inlet. Ellis was blown to pieces by the explosion of her magazine on the morning of November 25, 1862.