In the early 1900s, steam was rapidly replacing sail, and the square-rigged ‘tea clippers’ that dominated the merchant marine were fast becoming anachronisms. Like so many workers today, sailors suddenly faced an economy characterized by disruption.
My great uncle Leighton was one of them. He was captain of the clipper ship Melanope, which was withdrawn from service in 1905 after establishing the world speed record for Pacific Ocean crossings – 40 days from Adelaide, Australia, to San Francisco.
Not fancying a career in a steamship, Capt. Leighton Robinson came ashore and became port captain of San Fransisco. In this role, he mediated disputes between crews and ship owners, and very much maintained his sailorly idiosyncrasies – chief of which was his nautical speech. Even though the Melanope was beached, Capt. Leighton continued to talk as if he was at sea. To a little boy who first met him at the age of five, he was like a character straight out of Treasure Island.
On his first visit to the extended Vancouver family, he wore a sailor’s canvas shirt and trousers, and his captain’s cap. He’s fondly remembered loudly declaring that he was “three sheets to the wind, damn nearly decks awash!” after downing a few shots of Scotch.
Subsequent research revealed that a sheet is the rope that controls the trim of a sail. When a sheet comes loose from its tether, the sail flaps wildly in the wind, as it spills air and shakes violently about. Three sheets coming loose is tantamount to losing control of the ship, as three sails flap wildly like flags and make crackling sounds like pistol shots. Decks awash was a perilous condition, which in nautical slang also meant ‘drunk.’
There are also reports of an accompanying song, “What do you do with a drunken sailor?” that the family audience was taught during the first visit and learned to sing in multiple verses with great enthusiasm.
Capt. Leighton also had a store of more dignified phrases like, “Make way the channel ripples for the great sea swell!” that earned a place at important family celebrations. Its recitation is compulsory now at Robinson high school and university graduations. The phrase describes the onrush of Atlantic swells and wind as the great British clipper ships exited the English Channel from London and set course for the Cape of Good Hope. It became synonymous in my family for exiting adolescence for the perils and rewards of adulthood.
Another favourite comment was the phrase, “I like the cut of his (or her) jib (the forward sail on most ships).” This meant that the observed individual had the right stuff, and that it was rather obvious just by looking at them. The negative could also be deployed, as in, “I don’t like the cut of his jib.”
Capt. Leighton also passed judgment on how well a person bore personal trials and tribulations with the phrase, “His Plimsoll line wasn’t visible!” This meant that the individual was overladen with baggage and not seaworthy in the oceans of life. The Plimsoll line was named after the 19th century English politician and social activist Samuel Plimsoll, who reckoned the need for black painted reference marks on merchant marine ships’ hulls indicating the maximum depth to which vessels could be safely immersed when loaded with cargo.
While I was sheltered from them, my great uncle Leighton also had a magnificent vocabulary of swear words. Dad told me that he and his brother loved to watch the old mariner rig the family sailboat, because predictably something would break and suddenly unloose a torrent of wonderfully colourful obscenities. “The old boy said words we never heard another adult speak. It was great to be around him when something buggered up.”
Although Capt. Leighton died in 1956, his words live on as sailors’ shanties recorded in audio by the American Library of Congress in the 1930s. With several of his old crew mates, he recorded scores of them for posterity. The Sailors’ Alphabet and Good-bye, Fare You Well are now somewhat unbelievably available on Amazon Music.
Capt. Leighton Robinson spoke in the sailor’s vernacular when all around him were adopting new technology and the language of progress. He made his simple statement of opposition in speech and folk music. The fact we still remember means something.
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery.
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