Sunday, 30 August 2009

Float My Boat

What is it with men and boats?
The obsession for detail stretches all the way back to the Bible when that old lush Noah sets to constructing an ark:
‘of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch’
I think that’s God giving the shipwright - or is it arkwright? – instructions.

Immediately, you see them getting fussy on the specifics; not any old wood, oh no, gopher wood, not any old boat, a bloody ark.

Up until that moment ‘ark’ meant ‘cupboard’, as in the Ark of the Covenant: the cupboard in which lay the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod and some manna. Manna, incidentally, is another name for honeydew, as in Coleridge’s lines in Kubla Khan, ‘for he on honeydew hath fed & drunk the milk of Paradise’. While honeydew is a pretty name, in reality it’s just sugar-rich aphid poop, excreted after they have feasted on plant sap. It can be collected and ground into tasty bread, or certainly tasty if you are wandering in a rocky desert. But I digress…
So now Noah and his sons Ham, Shem & Japeth are to make a cupboard boat because there’s been a bloody great eruption on Thera [now known as the Greek island Santorini].

Thera had been experiencing continuous cycle of volcanic activity, but when it finally blew itself completely to pieces, the event was an even bigger than Krakatoa.
[When Krakatoa detonated, so much dust was thrown into the air that affected the sunsets round the entire globe for a full seven years after]
The Thera eruption caused a massive Mediterranean-wide tsunami. If bible literalists are to be believed and Noah really did wind up on Mount Ararat, then the cupboard boat was swept from the Levantine coast all the way to
the Armenian border, some 900 miles inland. The paranoid don't hold with this explanation and believe the flood is evidence of the old guy in the sky being cross.
[pictured, Santorini - showing the massive caldera where the volcano vaporised]

Next in boatworld came the rise in warships during the naval antagonism of the Punic Wars with the Romans' trailing the Carthaginians and only catching up when they captured one of their boats and used it as a blueprint to copy. First there were biremes, with two levels of oars, then came triremes, followed by quadriremes, a very popular model making up most of the fleet of the Eastern Mediterranean. When it came to quinqueremes, purists said they all had to come from Nineveh [cross section pictured] and on it went: hexaremes, sexiremes septeremes, bigger and bigger until they hit polyremes and Ptolemy IV [pictured] went berserk and built a "forty" that was 128m long, required 4,000 rowers and 400 other crew, and could support a force of 3,000 marines on its decks – but probably couldn’t get out of the harbour.

Further East, the Chinese were perfecting the junk, which had a maneouverable mast and butterfly-like sails, making it possible to sail into the wind. The innovation below decks was to divide it into separate compartments, so if one got storm damaged the others remained safe and dry.
Much later, the Portuguese perfected the galleon and in about 1534 unleashed the São João Baptista, the most powerful warship in the world. With 366 bronze canons it soon became known by its nickname Botafoga, meaning ‘spitfire’. As a battleship, it became truly famous when it rammed open the chains protecting Tunis harbour, allowing the Christian allied fleet to capture the city. Botafoga’s firepower was only exceeded by the arrival, forty years later, of the Spanish vessel Our Lady of the Conception, better known as Cagafuego, a nickname in a similar vein, meaning the ‘Fireshitter’.
Away from war and three hundred years later, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing the genius of Isamabard Brunel brought us SS Great Britain. [it is now a museum in um Bristol I think, pictured] Made of iron and with a screw propeller she became the largest vessel afloat until overtaken by the Titanic.
Not only was the Titanic the biggest ship ever built, but surpassed all rivals in onboard luxury with a swimming pool, libraries a gymnasium, barber shops, a squash court and Turkish baths. The most expensive one-way trans-Atlantic passage was £2,500 - £50,000 in today's currency. Technologically advanced features included 3 elevators, ship-wide wiring feeding electric lights and a powerful 1,500-watt radio allowing constant contact with the shore, a facility that heightened the sense of terrible drama
playing out on her decks when the iceberg was struck killing 1,517.

Skip forward to Corfu this summer where I visited two boats that prove that the shipbuilding madness kicked off by God’s ‘gopher & pitch’ fantasy, still rages quite unabated. Bigger, faster, blingier, my Aaron’s rod is bigger than your Aaron's rod was much in evidence. First up was Guilty. The boat belongs to an old dude, art collector and presumed squillionaire called Dakis Joannou.

Last year while puttering along in a titchy dinghy in Majorca, we come across the weirdness of Andrei Melnichenko’s Philippe Strack designed boat called simply 'A' [pictured left] so I wasn’t expecting to be surprised by Guilty...but...I certainly was.
Mr. Joannou commissioned Jeff Koons to design the boat’s livery - if it can be described as such - which Koons duly did, in a strange homage to Roy Liechtenstein.
Having been a bit of a fan of Jeff Koons’ monumental kitsch, I now am completely off him. The current show of his ‘pool toys in stepladders' at The Serpentine exposes him as a hollow Wizard of Oz. Uninteresting in the same way that Gilbert & George’s major retrospective in Tate Modern revealed their vacuity.
That aside, Guilty is certainly eye-catching. As someone said, ‘it looks like a seagull ate a bad liquorice allsort and splattered it with techni-coloured guano'. The boat is daring and amusing and unusual and really quite hideous. Nor did Mr Koons consider
what large slabs of black paintwork would feel like underfoot under the full glare of Greek sunshine and a ban on footwear. Wherever it goes it is surrounded by the sound of outboard engines as curious passersby circle it for a closer look.
Inside, the design is less Koon-hell and more like an ultra modern Tribeca penthouse with neon light artworks, David Shrigley cartoons painted directly onto the wall, shocking pink fur rugs and many other examples of expensive playfulness. Everything shouts rock god.
It’s as if a bunch of coke-crazed designers got hold of the plans and egged each other in a frenzy with cries of, ‘More Sodom you pussy!’ ‘Much more Gomorrah!’ 'Whaddaya mean we can’t have permanent green fog around the hull?’ It’s all the stranger for its juxtaposition with the mild and pleasant Mr. Joannou.

Completely dwarfing Guilty was groovy Hollywood mogul David Geffen’s Rising Sun, a super-yacht that goes 34 knots…. [pictured above] which is about 40mph, so if you were planning to water ski
behind it, think Hokusai-style wake.
I don’t know when a boat stops being a yacht and starts being a super-yacht, but maybe it’s at the same point a humble fishing dhow becomes an ark.
If Thera had blown while Geffen was having Rising Sun built and God had chosen him rather than Noah, then there would have been plenty of room to
save the unicorn, chimera and phoenix – or maybe Noah did manage to load them and they just died of gopher wood allergies.

We went to Rising Sun for drinks one evening. It reminded me of the time my friend Hugo took me as his walker for a long weekend off Sardinia on a huge yacht, although it was about half the size of Rising Sun and I slept on the floor of his cabin like a hobo in the Ritz. The host was friend-de-jour of Hugo's who had made a rapid fortune cornering the copper market, but whose name now escapes me; all I can remember is that tabloids called him the Copper Whopper. The boat was icy cold from air conditioning with electronic doors and I wandered about all weekend, shivering in two cardigans with doors swishing open and shut, wondering where the hell everybody was.
Rising Sun is like what a roll-on roll-off ferry dreams of being if only it could meet the right rich guy. It has a crew of 45 all dressed in ninja black and walking around with earpieces. All was restrained elegance and expanses of bird's eye maple and carpet so thick it was bouncy.
There was a three-storey stairwell to fall to your death.
We were shown round by the nautical equivalent of a hotel manageress who showed us a selection of rooms including the engine room and an onyx-lined loo. The whole place was exactly like the sets where Bond dispatches 45 Ninja crew members. The engine room with its hearse-sized carburetor glinted with such cleanliness that it wouldn't make much difference if a patient as ru
shed there or to the hospital room across the passage. The engine is something like 45,000 horsepower, or to put it more modern terms, has the carbon footprint of a coachload of yetis.
That’s the weird thing about boats, people always show you absolutely
everything: the loos and the engine and - unless you feign a coughing fit - how they both function…
How else do you think I know how fast the darn thing goes?

When people come to my house, I hate to let them leave without showing them how my washing machine works and a detailed explanation of my garden shed's contents, so maybe I'm not so different.

Everything is stultifying just so at sea and the grander the boat, the more
concentrated this ship-shaped nuttiness. When anal people die, they go to the celestial boatyards. Our poor tour manageress was visibly shaken & terribly embarrassed when she spotted some teeny smuts of charred pine needles on the vast foredeck, borne there on the wind from a forest fire across the island and only avoidable if they'd had serried ranks of turbine-sized hairdryers pointing Canute-like into the wind. They're probably on order now.
We were shown the garage in the belly of boat, housing another two
speedboats and half a dozen jet skis, like Rising Sun had been on fertility pills. There was a fabulous cinema, a gym, a library where all the books were hidden from sight so we had to take her word that is was a library and a whole state of the art beauty spa for the unkempt guest to get wrestled into...some sort of kemptitude.
My favorite moment was looking through a porthole and glimpsing a bevy of cleaning staff not only ironing the sheets on a bed, but hoovering them too.While I liked David Geffen enormously
, Rising Sun felt slightly like a 45,000 carat gold, velvet-trimmed trap. It had that peripheral vibe that softly whispered 'Citizen Kane' to me and I could swear one of the jet skis was called Rosebud.
Mr Geffen seemed commendably well-adjusted, but living in that sort of luxurious, uber-sanitized removal from the grime of ordinary life also removes the simple
pleasures the grind affords: watering one's own tomato plants, watching white linen blowing on the washing line, chatting to the neighbour while picking up a parcel he's taken in for you, cooking bacon for groggy teenagers, slipping into warm, slightly rumpled sheets at night.....
Sailing into the sunset on something of the scale of Rising Sun pitches a human straight onto the lip of loneliness; like being the only person living in Paris.
And to think all this flamboyance kicked off with a floating cupboard.

Nautical Terms that have hopped into common usage:

As the Crow Flies
When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be know as the crow's nest.
The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship. If a ship does not have enough "leeway" it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.
A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore which allowed a ship more leeway.
Over the Barrel
The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, a mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.
To Know the Ropes
There was miles and miles of cordage in the rigging of a square rigged ship. The only way of keeping track of and knowing the function of all of these lines was to know where they were located. It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.
The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.
First Rate
Implies excellence. From the 16th century on until steam powered ships took over, British naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship. rated.
Pipe Down
The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun's pipe each day which meant "lights out" and "silence".
If two blocks of rigging tackle were so hard together they couldn't be tightened further, it was said they were "Chock-a-Block".
The sailors' daily ration of rum be diluted with water. The men called the mixture "grog". A sailor who drank too much grog was "groggy".
Three Sheets to the Wind
A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a three masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be "in the wind". A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind.
The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea.
Buoyed Up
Using a buoy to raise the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from chafing on a rough bottom.
By & Large
From the nautical: by meaning into the wind and large meaning with the wind: as in, "By and Large the ship handled very well."
Cut and Run
If a captain of a smaller ship encountered a larger enemy vessel, he might decide that discretion is the better part of valour, and so he would order the crew to cut the lashings on all the sails and run away before the wind. Other sources indicate "Cut and Run" meant to cut the anchor cable and sail off in a hurry.
In the Offing
From the 16th century usage meaning a good distance from shore, barely visible from land, as in - "We sighted a ship in the offing."
A small triangular sail set above the skysail in order to maximize effect in a light wind.
The Bitter End
The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship's bow. If all of the anchor cable has been payed out you have come to the bitter end.
Toe the Line
When called to line up at attention, the ship's crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.
To prevent the buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.
Slush Fund
A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff, called "slush" was often sold ashore by the ship's cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money so derived became known as a slush fund.
Under the Weather
If a crewman is standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray.
If a ship holds a tack course too long, it has overreached its turning point and the distance it must travel to reach it's next tack point is increased.
Gone By the Board
Anything seen to have gone overboard or spotted floating past the ship (by the board) was considered lost at sea.
Above Board
Anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.
Old English for capsize or founder.
Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea
The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship and next to the scupper gutters. If a sailor slipped on the deck, he could find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The Devil To Pay
To pay the deck seams meant to seal them with tar. The devil seam was the most difficult to pay because it was curved and intersected with the straight deck planking. Some sources define the "devil" as the below-the-waterline-seam between the keel and the the adjoining planking. Paying the Devil was considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant task.
Rummage Sale
From the French "arrimage" meaning ship's cargo. Damaged cargo was sold at a rummage sale.
A Square Meal
In good weather, crews' mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.
Son of a Gun
When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, women were allowed to live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a convenient place for this was between guns on the gun deck. If the child's father was unknown, they were entered in the ship's log as "son of a gun".
Let the Cat Out of the Bag
In the Royal Navy the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Bosun's Mate using a whip called a cat o' nine tails. The "cat" was kept in a leather or baize bag. It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag.
To sail downwind directly at another ship thus "stealing" or diverting the wind from his sails.
No Room to Swing a Cat
The entire ship's company was required to witness flogging at close hand. The crew might crowd around so that the Bosun's Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o' nine tails.
Taking the wind out of his sails
Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship's sails.
Start With a Clean Slate
A slate tablet was kept near the helm on which the watch keeper would record the speeds, distances, headings and tacks during the watch. If there were no problems during the watch, the slate would be wiped clean so that the new watch could start over with a clean slate.
Taken Aback
A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern.
When prisoners were being transported to Australian they would shout 'watch out under' before they vomited over the side, the phrase got shrinkwrapped to fit the emergency of the moment.
At Loggerheads
An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams. It was a handy weapon for quarrelling crewmen.
A large sail used only for sailing downwind and requiring rather little attention.
No Great Shakes
When casks became empty they were "shaken" (taken apart) so the pieces, called shakes, could be stored in a small space. Shakes had very little value.
Give (someone) a Wide Berth
To anchor a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.
Thwarts are the diagonal pieces of wood that strengthen a boats hull - but are easily tripped over.
Cut of His Jib
Warships many times had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship a captain might not like the cut of his jib and would then have an opportunity to escape.
Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the cargo. A distorted, mixed up message was said to be garbled.
Press Into Service
The British navy used Pres Gangs to fill their ships' crew quotas by kidnapping men off the streets and forcing them into service.
Touch and Go
This referred to a ship's keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.