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When Nautical Terms Go Ashore

BACK in September when hurricane Hugo was boiling toward the Carolinas, the newsmen glibly broke out again with the expression, ``Batten down the hatches.'' Folks readying for a storm were battening down their hatches. We Mainers like to hear nautical terms from highlanders who have brought them ashore, and once in a while a newsman knows what he's saying. This newspaper, at the time of Hugo, got caught up on ``veer.'' We recalled that hurricane David, back in 1979, was about to strike Miami, but ``veered away'' and barreled into central Florida.

To veer, as to changing direction, is all right, and a truck crossing Kansas can veer in any direction it pleases without alarming the ancient mariners. But when you come to the wind, veer has a certain meaning, and a wind that veered away from Miami wouldn't barrel into central Florida, but would roar over the Keys in a wild whoop-dee-doo. A wind that veers moves in the direction of the compass, or with the sun, and goes from east through south to west. When it doesn't veer, a wind backs in.

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In the long ago, ``the hatch'' was the deck of a vessel. Cargo in the hold was ``below hatches.'' The openings through which cargo was lowered and raised were hatchways. Hatchways had covers, and with covers in place seamanship was tidy. On smaller craft a hatchway cover was in one piece and lifted or slid easily. In the days of clippers and downeasters the covers were made in several sections, and often fitted together by derrick. Great care was taken by deckhands to fit the pieces just right. Sea water in a hold is unthinkable carelessness.

Along the coast of Maine, hatchway covers gained adage standing. Anybody who had ``his hatchway covers upside down'' was careless and even unreliable. Probably nobody ever kept his hatchway covers upside down, but the idea is persuasive.

Since hatchway covers were made to be tight, in normal weather (unknown to Mainers) it would seem fit to put to sea with them in place. But it was forever prudent before going to sea to make sure. Battening down the hatchways wasn't something you did at sea at the last moment, just before the storm struck, but was done before leaving port as routine before ``fillin' to the no'th,'' and drifting past the breakwater on the going tide.

With a hold full of prime pine lumber that was pure gold in Rio, you took no chances. So the hatch covers would be fitted into place, and then a tarpaulin (canvas, sailcloth) would be stretched over each hatchway and battens spiked to secure the edges. Your dictionary tells you so under batten - nautical meaning b. Seamen battened down hatches not so much in emergencies, but as routine precaution before sailing.

In the windjammer days of Bangor pine, there was a sawmill product of lesser quality known as ``scoots.'' It was random lumber, but not ``slabs,'' and while it wasn't worth a top price, it had a value.

When a vessel had her hold full of top-quality lumber and the hatchways were battened, the captain could take on a load of scoots on the deck as a speculative investment. He didn't have to pay freight on scoots, and if he made any money he could keep it. Scoots would be lashed down, but if a big wind hit they would disappear overside and the captain was sad.

Then there's the tale of the brig Vashti, out of Searsport, Maine, for New Orleans with a cargo of spruce timbers. Somewhere below Hatteras she bumped into something of the nature of Hugo, and immediately lost her scoots. Next there was a spine-jingling crash and Vashti listed heavy to port.

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Capt. Eben Slaughter Pendleton ordered watch-and-watch, and the pumps were manned. For four days the men worked the pumps, and by a tremendous feat of seamanship the captain beached the Vashti, saving all hands and his precious lumber. Then they found the bottom had dropped off the Vashti when the first crack of the wind hit her, and with all that spruce aboard she was as good as a raft and wouldn't have gone down anyway.

There are several variations to this story, but they all make the point that Captain Pendleton was fussy, and to keep water out of his hold would never leave port unless his hatchways were battened down double.

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