Friday, 3 January 2014

Tugging your chain

Ah, a life on the ocean wave, a sailor’s life for me, although you’d be forgiven for finding such a thing a less than attractive proposition while the wind bows and the rain lashes down. As well as a life of service it’s a life of shared experience, comradeship and true teamwork as a ship’s company perform each their allotted task to fight the ship. Without its men, a fighting ship is pointless; without their ship the men helpless.

And for all this to come together, in a lesson for companies, nay whole countries, each should appreciate what the others bring to the ensemble. Which is why officers under training are required to work in all ‘parts of ship’ under the authority of experienced ratings. It’s a curious thing to hear a Petty Officer order a young Sub-Lieutenant to scrub and paint, and then add the word, ‘Sir’. More amusing is the playing of apprentice games to put the future superior officers firmly in their place. “Well, you certainly fucked that up… Sir” always plays well, below decks.

And we all fall for the well-practised comedy routines of the salty old dogs. It’s all part of the great and seemingly endless traditional ways of naval service, bound up in sometimes impenetrable slang and a language all of its own. People even abandon their own given names in favour of a universal code of nicknames. Anybody called Smith is forever going to become ‘Smudge’ and a Reed is likely to go by ‘Blood’ throughout his career and beyond. There are many more: ‘Derby’ Allen, ‘Dinger’ Bell, ‘Wiggy’ Bennett, ‘Nobby’ Clarke, ‘Tug’ Wilson, ‘Shiner’ Wright and ‘Pincher’ Martin to give but a taste. Some, like ships themselves have long and honourable origins: Dreadnought, Fearless, Intrepid… Invincible. Others spring into life on popular whim, from cultural phenomena and the famous faces of the day.

The Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service, tends to name its vessels after their purpose, with tugs such as RMAS Adept, Nimble, Powerful and Faithful attending the needs of Her Majesty’s sleek, grey messengers of death. But every now and then, often when abroad, you’ll find yourselves accompanied by a vessel named after a real person; sometimes famous, such as the Sir Walter Scott or the Eleanor Roosevelt , sometimes more obscure, like the Frances K. McAllister out of New York.

Thus it was I experienced my mild comeuppance during what used to be called the Dartmouth Training Squadron (DTS) deployment, way back when. In the second half of the trans-world trip (we had the money to pay for PROPER sea training back then) as newly elevated Senior Officer Under Training, I was standing smartly at ease on deck during Procedure Alpha – the ceremonial showing of all redundant numbers - as we were guided out of Wilmington, North Carolina.

The Chief Bosun’s Mate (Buffer – even ranks and titles have nicknames) spoke quietly into my ear. “See that boat, Sir?” he asked. I glanced toward the sturdy harbour vessel currently flanking our starboard bow. “Yes Buffer” I replied. He continued “Hell of a coincidence, innit, Sir. I have an oppo with the very same name.” I screwed up my eyes and scanned the nameplate. “Blimey, Buffer – you have a mate called Lionel Fortescue?”

“No Sir, don’t be daft” he said, “My mate’s called Tug.”


  1. Good tale. Or good tug, if you prefer.

  2. Excellent, so true to life and I am still known as 'George' only because I am a 'Geordie!' Bravo Zulu.