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Sea-going Language

Every Cruiser Should Know

by Brent Betit

You don't need to know what a mizzenmast is when voyaging on a cruise ship. I've never seen anyone batten down any hatches, either. If you don't know that a funnel isn't just something you use to pour oil into your car without spilling any on the engine block, you won't suffer a bit. I've taken lots of ship tours but never seen a poop deck. In fact, I think those are now only found on Captain Mitty's ship, wherever that mythical vessel may be. On the other hand, on most cruise ships, the decks get swabbed every day -- and for all I know, the deck hands that do this are still called swabbies.

Every profession has its own secret language, fully known only by its initiates. We call such language jargon. In my profession, architects talk about the program for a building, value engineering, punch lists, and soft costs. None of those things mean what they sound like. All of them are code words or phrases that others involved in the trades understand immediately.

The sea has been hosting voyagers since long before the Vikings sailed their fierce-prowed ships in northern waters, and much of its romance and mystery comes from its language, words, and stories. As R.H. Dana wrote in Two Years Before the Mast,

"there is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship. . ."

Which is all well and good, but why bother to learn any of the cruise jargon? You'll only be on the ship for a week or so, and the signs are probably in English, and you really don't need to know your port from your starboard, and. . . Well, you get the idea.

I was on a cruise during 1997, a Song of America sailing to Bermuda (You can see my review by clicking here: Song of America . We were in pretty heavy seas, and my inside cabin was feeling a bit claustrophobic, so I ventured out to read a book in one of the public areas, next to the Can Can Lounge (the Song's performance theater). Normally, passengers are allowed to walk the length of the Song on the particular deck I was on, passing through the Can Can Lounge; however, with a rehearsal going on, the performers had closed the doors, and the RCI staff thoughtfully posted a sign that said: "To reach the cocktail party in the Oklahoma Lounge, descend one deck and head aft to the next stairwell." You may know that on a ship, aft is the opposite of forward, but fully 50% of the many passengers I watched were stupefied by the sign. I could see their lips move, watched a blank stare descend over their faces, and their jaws slacken. "Aft? What the dickens does this mean, Emma"


That's why you need to know some of the jargon. So herewith are some terms you should learn:

Aft: in the rear of the ship, Emma, so get that silly look off your face; opposite of fore or forward.

Amidships: this is just what it sounds like -- in the middle of the ship.

Beam: the width of the ship at its widest point (the Panama Canal is 110 feet wide; some ships have beams too wide to allow passage; for example, the Grand Princess with a beam of 118 feet, cannot traverse the canal).

Bow: the front part of the vessel. Passengers prone to seasickness should avoid cabins toward the bow, as pitching (see below) is more pronounced here.

Bridge: the control center of the ship, where navigation, steering, and monitoring of life safety systems occur. Most large ships have a closed bridge policy, with entrance only by special tour. Many smaller ships have an open bridge policy, where passengers may visit almost anytime except in foul weather conditions or during tricky maneuvers

Companionway: no, not the way your companion went; this refers to an interior stairway.

Disembark: sounds like something you do to a tree before cutting it into lumber; actually means to leave a ship (also called debark).

Draft: not beer served in the lounge. This refers to the measurement in feet from the waterline of the ship to its lowest point on the keel (see below). Modern ships have shallow drafts to allow for passage into more harbors (and to avoid tendering). These relatively shallow drafts, however, can also create a less stable ride, with more roll.

Embark: What a tree does as it grows. (Oh, come on. You didn't believe that for a minute, did you?) Boarding a ship.

First seating: the earliest meal time in the full-service dining room (as opposed to second seating). Cruisers almost always get table assignments on a cruise with first and second seating meals.

Forward, fore: the opposite of aft (which you've already learned, Emma). The bow or front end of the ship.

Free port: an after dinner drink given away by friendly bar service staff. (Yeah, right!) Actually a sea port free of customs duties and regulations. Perhaps the most well-known free port is St. Thomas, USVI.

Funnel: the ship's chimney, out which exhaust from the ship's engines are expelled. The most striking funnels are those of Royal Caribbean, all of which are wrapped by their distinctive Viking Crown Lounges. Nearly all of the lines do something distinctive with their funnel.

Gangway: the ramp or stairway between ship and shore when it is docked.

Gross Registered Ton (grt): this has absolutely nothing to do with weight. A nautical, gross registered ton is not 2,000 pounds. A gross registered ton is 100 cubic feet of enclosed space. In calculating gross registered tons, all enclosed space is measured, with the exception of certain areas like the bridge and galleys. As the top deck is not enclosed, its floor space is not measured. A large ship is 50,000 grt or greater. For context, Princess's Grand Princess, currently one of the largest ships afloat, is 104,000 grt. In general, the larger the ship, the more stability it offers in rough seas -- as well as a greater variety of activities, larger public spaces, more extensive entertainment facilities, more shops, more, more, more.

Keel: the lowest point on a ship's hull, extending the entire length of the vessel.

Leeward: whatever side of the ship is currently sheltered from the wind (note that this can therefore change depending on which way the wind is blowing!)

Nautical mile: 6,080.2 feet [technically, one-sixtieth of a degree of the circumference of the earth]. As this is about 800 feet longer than a land mile, a ship doing 20 knots is going faster than 20 land miles an hour (actually about 23 land miles an hour).

Open seating: this is when seating in the main, full-service dining room is not assigned, and cruisers may choose their table companions at meals. This often happens at lunch during days in port on nearly every line, and is also common on some of the upscale, single-seating cruises during every evening meal.

Passenger to crew ratio: Exactly what it sounds like -- take the total number of passengers and divide it by the total number of crew members. The result is usually something like 2:1 or 2.5:1, although on the luxury cruise lines like Seabourn it can be as low as 1.5:1. Why is this important? In general, the lower the ratio, the better service you can expect, because the lower the ratio, the more crew members there are for each passenger. You can find these numbers in many published guide books on cruising, such as the Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships.

Pitch: if you are fortunate, this term will remain meaningless to you. If you are prone to seasickness, it could potentially develop vast meaning. Pitch refers to the rise and fall of the ships bow (and the consequent, but opposite, rise and fall of the ships stern). If you look at a teeter-totter, and imagine your cabin placed somewhere along its length, you can soon understand why cabins in the dead center of the ship experience significantly less pitch than those at the immediate bow or stern. Choose your cabin wisely if you are squeamish!

Poop deck: I've never cared enough to find out what this really means. Captain Mitty can have it.

Port: the left side of the ship when facing toward the bow (forward). See starboard.

Port of Call: a port at which your ship anchors or ties up to the dock and you are allowed to disembark for varying lengths of time. Novice cruisers believe that port-intensive cruises represent good values (probably for the same reason that super-size French fries are popular). Experienced cruisers often believe they represent exhaustion.

Port tax: a per capita charge levied by the local port authority and paid by the cruiser (in advance, with their cruise fare).

Purser: a management position equivalent to a hotel general manager.

Roll: the side-to-side movement of a ship. Envision the ship as a palm tree in a gale. At the very top of the tree (i.e., top deck), movement can be relatively severe. At the base of the tree (i.e. bottom deck), movement can be less pronounced. Combining what you've learned about pitch and roll tells you that the most stable cabin aboard is on the lowest deck, centered between both the sides and the ends of the ship.

Space ratio: the number of gross registered tons divided by the total passenger capacity (based on double capacity rather than all berths being full). A higher space ratio generally results in a more comfortable, less crowded cruise. In general, space ratios of 40 and above are extremely spacious, 25 to 40 are comfortable, and below 25 feel somewhat pinched. Most rating books delineate space ratios for each ship, and this can be very important information in selecting a cruise.

Stabilizer: you may learn to love these. A computer controlled, retractable fin-like device extending out from either side of the ship below the waterline. Stabilizers are designed to do exactly that: to stabilize a ship so that it does not roll.

Starboard: the right side of the ship when facing the bow. When distinguishing this from port, remember that starboard, the right side, has two "r's", while port, the left side, only has one "r." And as a Cruise Letter reader, Pat Casadei, kindly informed me by email, another way to remember this is that both port and left have four letters.

Stern: opposite from the bow; the back end of the ship.

Steward: the person who will clean your cabin twice a day, bring you fresh towels and ice, turn down your bed at night (and, if you are a woman and leave your negligee out, often transform it into a flower or a butterfly). These hard-working souls can make a tiny cabin feel comfortable, and can make you feel more pampered than you've been since you were a kid. Tip them well!

Tender: a small ship used to transport passengers from the cruise ship to the shore, often when the draft of the ship is deep enough that it cannot tie up to the dock. Tendering can often add two hours round trip to disembarking and embarking at ports of call. Some of the older, larger ships -- NCL's Norway is an obvious example -- routinely tender their passengers ashore at ports of call.

Windward: opposite from leeward; the side of the ship against which the wind is blowing. You almost always discover this side of the ship just after stepping out on deck in your spanking new hat.

If you've read this far, you're now a certified old salt, able to engage in mystifying conversation that will have the folks back home in total awe. Don't forget to strap on your hat when sailing to windward. Happy cruising!


Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont. His columns include material for a planned book on the subject of cruising, and he is interested in your comments and suggestions. Brent may be reached at: bbetit@bigfoot.com.

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