ON THE WATERFRONT: Scuttlebutt about toeing the line

THIS WEEK WHEN I stopped in at Platypus Marine, the full-service shipyard, yacht-repair facility and steel-boat manufacturer on Marine Drive in Port Angeles, I was asked if there was any scuttlebutt, which served to remind me of the nautical jargon that has made its way into common usage.

Onboard ship, the scuttlebutt is slang for a drinking fountain.

For landlubbers, it typically means to chatter about the newest tidbit of gossip.

The word’s origin dates back to the late 1700’s or early 1800’s.

Onboard a ship, a butt was a cask that held fresh water.

A hole was chopped or cut (scuttled) in the top from which sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water and thereafter the scuttlebutt became the place where the ship’s sailors could exchange gossip.

Toe the line

The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called “oakum” and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar.

The visual result, seen from afar, was a series of parallel lines about six inches or so apart, running the entire length of the deck.

As a rule, once a week — usually on Sunday — a warship’s crew was ordered to fall in at quarters.

Each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation on a given area of the deck.

To ensure a neat alignment of each row, the sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.

Another use for these seams was punitive.

The youngsters in a ship, be they ship’s boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time.

A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time.

Hopefully, the delinquent would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment.

From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to “toe the line.”

Son of a gun

In days of yore when ships were in port and the crew was restricted to the vessel for any extended period of time, wives and ladies of the night were allowed to live aboard alongside the crew.

Not unexpectedly, children resulted from many of these liaisons.

The most convenient place for the de facto maternity ward was between the 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.”

Ashore here

Platypus hauled out a 65-foot U.S. Navy dive boat this week. A contractor is assessing the integrity of the hull by scanning it using an ultrasonic testing method that will provide them with an in-depth status report of every square inch of the vessel’s hull.

Once that task has been completed, the hull, main deck and pilot house will be sandblasted and repainted.

While out of the water, the vessel will also have some mechanical issues attended to, prior to being returned to the fine folks at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton in mid-October.

Platypus has the 87-foot Coast Guard cutter Adelie in the Commander building. I understand that much of her running gear will be rebuilt as will her rudder assembly.

The stern launch door will be removed, inspected and reinstalled.

Adelie is attached to the Coast Guard station on Ediz Hook and was put into service in August of 2001. She has an expected service life of 25 years, of necessity to reach 25 years requires periodic maintenance and upkeep the likes of which the professionals at Platypus Marine provide. Adelie will be back in the water by mid-September.

Monday, Tesoro Petroleum bunkered British Robin, an 827-foot crude oil tanker that is flagged in the United Kingdom.

Tuesday, Tesoro refueled Bulk Honduras, a 623-foot Liberian flagged bulk cargo ship.


David G. Sellars is a Port Angeles resident and former Navy boatswain’s mate who enjoys boats and strolling the area’s waterfronts and boat yards.

Items and questions involving boating, marina and industrial activities and the North Olympic Peninsula waterfronts are always welcome. News announcements about boating groups, including yacht clubs and squadrons, are welcome as well.

Email [email protected] or phone him at 360-808-3202.

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