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Sea Secrets
Sea Connections
Ocean Market
Pollution Solution
Stranded Along the Coast
Reflections on the Sea

Reflections: Procedure


  • Identify some basic terms associated with boats, ships, and sailing.
  • Use expressions derived from nautical sayings in context.



language arts, social studies, literature, music


1. Read the selection from Gulliver's Travels aloud to students. Ask for student impressions of this almost-foreign language. Help them along by explaining some basic terminology. The main frame of a boat is its hull. The bow is the forward part of the boat from where the planks begin to curve inward. The stern is the wider rear end of the boat. If something is located aft it is toward the stern; if it is fore it is toward the bow. The deck is the planked floor that runs the length of the boat. A hatch is a rectangular opening in the deck. You can go below into the lower part of the boat, which includes the hold, where cargo is stored. The gangway is the main entrance to a boat from the side. The masts are the tall timbers that carry the sail. The mast closest to the bow is the foremast, followed by the main mast. If there are three masts, the third is the mizzenmast. (Traditionally, a sailing boat with a bowsprit-a large, tapered pole extending from the front of the vessel-and three masts was known as a ship. Later, a ship was defined as a boat powered by sail or steam.) Mounted across the masts are large timbers called yards that support the sails, or sheets. The outer part of a yard is called the yardarm. The supporting timber of the foresail or the jib is the boom. The sails are held in place by lines called rigging. The keel is the structure that runs the length of the boat, supporting and uniting the boat. Most of the keel is below the waterline.

As the wind fills the sails, the part of the boat facing the wind is the windward side and the part sheltered from the wind is the leeward side. As you look forward on the boat, the lefthand side of the boat is the port side and the righthand side is the starboard side. Some other common terms include the following:

fast-secure or fixed

foul-become entangled

list-tilt of a boat

trim-arrangement of sails to get the most wind

limey-During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British seamen were called limeys because of the limes issued to sailors to prevent scurvy.

tack-a boat's direction with respect to the wind

2. Work with your school librarian or music teacher to get a CD or cassette for students to listen to while doing this activity. You might play classical music such as Wagner's Flying Dutchman or Debussy's La Mer. You might find recordings of traditional sea chanteys-songs sung by sailors in rhythm with their work. The music and lyrics to "Blow the Man Down" and "Sailing, Sailing" can be found in An Illustrated Treasury of Songs. You might also find contemporary music that will appeal to students.

3. Hand out the student page. As students work on section A independently, circulate among them to offer help with the meaning of unfamiliar expressions. The Pequod's hull was stained by the typhoons of the Pacific and the calms of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic oceans. "[D]arkened like a French grenadier" refers to soldiers in Napoleon's eighteenth-century campaigns in Egypt and Siberia who threw grenades in battle and became darkened with soot. The bow-the front of the boat-may have appeared bearded because of seaweed or a protective covering. The masts are the tall timbers that carry the sails, and the reference is probably to the spires of the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, the most famous example of Romanesque architecture. The wooden decks were probably wrinkled from exposure to seawater.

In section B, students may have answers similar to these:

1. I like the cut of his jib. I like the way he looks-his clothes, his walk. The jib is the triangular sail fore of the foresail.

2. It's time to swab the deck. It's time to clean up. This was the order to clean the boat's deck with a rope mop that sometimes had a wooden handle.

3. Please stand by. This is an expression derived from the command for sailors to be ready.

4. All hands on deck. This expression derived from the captain's command to summon the entire crew.

5. I was really taken aback by what he said. This means to momentarily stop short or literally move back. When the wind suddenly shifts and comes into the sails from the front, the boat is said to be taken aback.

6. It was touch and go there for a while. This expression means you were unsure what the outcome would be. It is used to describe a boat that runs aground and then immediately recovers and floats again.

7. Now everything is on an even keel. Everything is going along smoothly. A boat is on an even keel when the keel is horizontal in the water.

8. Thar she blows. There it is. This was the cry of the spotter aboard a whaling boat upon seeing a whale.

9. In class today, Ms. Smith really lowered the boom. She gave some bad news or got angry. The boom is the timber that holds the jib sail near the bow of a boat. A sudden wind shift can quickly blow it around to knock down anyone standing in the way.

10. It's like flogging a dead horse. This commonly means belaboring a point that has already been made clear. A dead horse is what seamen called a month's work on board, for which they were paid in advance. On the last evening of the month the crew would flog a straw-stuffed horse and throw it overboard. In section C, encourage students to be creative in writing a scene. For further reading, they might try some of the sea stories from the online Ocean Planet exhibit. They might try reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville or Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Dana. The latter contains a helpful glossary of nautical terms. Some students might enjoy a nonfiction adventure by an oceanographer/innovator such as Jacques Cousteau or Bob Ballard or an adventurer like Thor Heyerdahl.

4. Tell students that sailors can communicate between boats by semaphore, a system of visual signaling with flags. Have the students do library research to find out the flag symbols for the letters of the alphabet. Each student can draw and color a page-sized flag to represent a different letter of the alphabet. Place the flags around the classroom for a week or so with the letters labeled. Students can become familiar with their meaning. Then take the flags down and ask students to write out their own names in flag letters. They might create their own flag words and challenge one another to decode them.

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