Sailing in sound

A picture may often be worth a thousand words, but there are some words worth any number of pictures.

I am thinking of sailing words, or the language of sailing. No bright sailboat, in the sun by Van Gogh, or Winslow Homer ship struggling in a stormy sea, conveys to me the essence of sailing as pungently as one line from John Masefield: ''. . . the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,'' or ''and a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.''

And it's not just the poet's skill in putting sailing words together. It's the very words themselves that paint vivid pictures of what it is to sail the seas, or even the lakes. Listen to: ''luff up,'' ''heave taut,'' ''run before the wind,'' ''taut jib sheet,'' ''beat to windward.''

Even basic terms like ''tack,'' ''beat,'' ''reach,'' ''hike,'' and ''heel'' evoke splendid images to me. The resonance of the command ''Ready about!'' and the liveliness of the term for that maneuver ''Coming about'' convey to me the exhilaration of sailing as oil, watercolor, or instant camera never could.

It's possible that the jargon of sailing does not hold the same appeal for people who live near water and are more or less familiar with its unique, olden-times flavor. ''Mainsail'' (main'sel) and ''halyard'' may sound ordinary as ''bus stop'' to them, but not to me. To be raised on the high plains of the Southwest United States is to be forever impressed with water in whatever form it presents itself, and with the exotic matters associated with harbors, rivers, lakes, oceans, or streams.

People in my town loved to go ''out to Buffalo Lake.'' You would have to laugh at the puddle we called a lake, and it was in fact an old buffalo wallow. It certainly never saw a sailboat. Thus, perversely, people out at Buffalo Lake can easily empathize with Masefield's declaration, ''I must go down to the sea again. . . .'' Any landlubber senses just how he felt, and I believe it's partly because of the special language of sailing.

Of course most modes of transport have their own special language. Railroading does, and trucking and, especially, flying. They all convey something of their particular appeal. But still, the others are so modern and . . . mechanical. Can an aileron ever have the charm to its name of a lanyard or a runaway halyard? It will take centuries for ''shooting touch-and-go landings'' to attain the tradition and beauty of ''shooting into the wind'' or ''sailing a close reach.'' Even cowboying, romantic and romanticized as it is, can't begin to match the romance language of sailing, no doubt because the cowboy's time was so brief compared with the sailor's age-old occupation.

In fact the words of sailing are part of our everyday conversation without our being very conscious of it. How many times do we speak of ''leeway'' and ''even keel,'' and ''lower the boom,'' or do we try to ''fathom''?

Of course we don't say it but we sometimes hear the command to ''Shove off.'' And children down the ages continue to declaim, ''Gangway'' (Stand aside) and ''Pipe down'' (Keep quiet). Perfectly proper and seamanlike language. When it's understood that a sheet is a line (rope or wire as in ''fishing line'') which controls the angle of the sail in its relation to the wind, the term ''three sheets to (in) the wind'' comes to describe a lamentable situation.

Only ''groundswell'' seems to have lost something in the conversion to other terminology. According to the nautical dictionaries, groundswell is ''encountered in shoal water and is practically constant.'' But not when a politician detects it. But ''scuttlebutt'' passes into our conversation straight and true from its derivation. It was the container of fresh water provided for the crew and today is the water fountain where they gather and discuss things.

The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn chose his own name and passed it into literary history because he liked the sound of the call on the Mississippi River, ''Mark twain,'' which might have denoted a sounding, a compass bearing, or the period of a watch.

And is there a newspaper anywhere without a masthead (top of the mast)? How many know that ''rake'' is the angle of a vessel's masts from the vertical? Thus ''rakish'' is ''having rake to the masts'' and therefore, of a smart, speedy appearance.

The title ''Two Years Before the Mast'' is better understood when it is known that ''before the mast'' is a term indicating service while an unlicensed seaman , because the sailor's quarters are forward of the foremast.

''Forward of,'' not in front of. On land things are in front of, or to the right or underneath or behind. How pedestrian! Listen to: ''after part,'' ''abaft,'' ''abeam,'' ''leeward'' (pronounced loo'ard), and of course, ''starboard'' and ''portside.'' How about ''a quartering sea''? (Indicates the direction a sea is running.)

Within such language can't you hear the ''call of the running tide''? (Courtesy, again, of John Masefield.) Can't you feel the ''flung spray and the blown spume and the sea gulls crying''? I for one have hardly ever set foot in a sailing vessel, and really prefer my foot on firm ground. But I hear what those lilting words are expressing. Wait for me, Mr. Masefield. I must go down to the sea, too.

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