Sailor’s Jeopardy: It’s knot what you think

August 2021

By David Roper

I wonder if Ken Jennings, the “Greatest of All Time,” Jeopardy winner, was a sailor. If not (and even if so), here is one I bet even he couldn’t answer: ‘Knots spaced 47’3” apart.

Graphic by Duane Cline

So, let’s play Jeopardy for Sailors. Since long-ago sailors are the ones accountable for so many of today’s terms, I thought it would be fun to explore what’s behind them in Jeopardy format. So here we go:

#1 Answer: Knots spaced 47’3” apart

Question: What is a “common log”?

It was used by seventeenth-century mariners to measure (roughly!) the speed of their ships. It was a coil of rope with equally spaced knots, attached to a piece of wood shaped like a slice of pie, weighted, and allowed to pay out on its own. Those knots were 47’3” apart. The speed was measured by counting the knots against an approximately 30- second hour-glass (sand timer), giving the ratio of 1 statute mile (5280 feet) to the length of the rope between knots. Got it? This is where we got the term “logbook”.

#2 Answer: A slurry of fat sold ashore by the ship’s cook to make money for himself or the crew

Question: What is a “slush fund?”

A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling and scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels aboard ship. The “slush” was sold ashore by the cook to make extra money for himself and others; hence the term “slush fund.”

#3 Answer: A child born onboard ship by an unknown father.

Question: What is a “son of a gun?”

When in port and the crew was restricted to the ship for long periods of time “ladies of easy virtue” were often allowed to live aboard with the crew; when a child was born aboard, a convenient place for delivery was between the guns on deck; then, if the father was unknown, the child was entered in the ship’s log as a “son of a gun”.

#4 Answer: The term “Devil to pay.”

Question: What is one of the most unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship?

The “devil” was the ship’s longest seam in the hull. Caulking that seam meant squatting in the bilges to complete this difficult, seemingly impossible task, using “pay” or pitch, a kind of tar, hence, “the devil to pay.” Landlubbers assumed it referred to Satan and gave the term a moral interpretation.

#5 Answer: Keeping the crew working all hours of the day and night.

Question: What is hazing?

In the 19th century, many captains used to practice this, overworking their crews regardless of whether it was necessary, as a way to assert their authority. Hazing came to mean harassing or humiliating when initiating a newcomer to the group, thereby asserting the authority of the group.

#6 Answer: In good weather, the crews’ mess was a warm meal served on square wooden plates.

Question: What is a square meal?

#7 Answer: He’s almost missed every deadline from each of his four editors at Points East since 1998.

Question: Who is Points East columnist Dave Roper?

David Roper’s latest book, “Beyond Mermaids…Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends,” is finally on bookshelves. It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-time bestseller, and is available on Amazon.