A large boat is not a boat. It is a ship.
At what point a boat becomes a ship is the subject of many returns on a Google search, but Google wasn’t around 30 years ago when I was almost forced to walk the plank for calling a 75-foot long Sea Scout ship a “boat.”
And while we’re talking about nautical terms, in case you are a landlubber — and yes it’s “lubber” not “lover” — let me warn you: one does not park a boat, you moor it to the dock; you do not drive a boat, you steer or pilot the ship; a ship does not have a front, it is a bow and it rhymes with “ow;” you don’t walk to the back of a ship, you make your way “aft” as you walk to the stern.
It may be hard to believe, but somebody once trusted this nautical term challenged landlubber to man the helm of a 65-foot sea going vessel.
When I worked for the Boy Scouts of America I spent three years in Bellingham, Washington as the Council Exploring Executive.
The Council included Whatcom, Skagit, and San Juan counties and part of Island County. There was lots of water. The territory included the San Juan Islands.
As the Exploring executive, I had the opportunity to work with the Council’s Sea Scout ships, which were actually Explorers not Scouts.
Our fleet of sea scout vessels included a large sailboat that belonged to a group in LaConner, a 75-foot wooden ship based out of Bellingham, and a 65-foot tin can based out of Oak Harbor.
The wooden ship had an interesting history. It was originally a private yacht that was kind of commandeered into service during World War II. After the war it was used by Washington state to ferry visitors to a prison that sat on an island. Eventually it was surplused and became a Sea Scout ship.
The 65-foot steel-hull vessel, if I recall my sea legends correctly, was an Army T-Boat also surplused to become the SES Whidby.
In order to learn more about our Sea Scouts, I was invited to ride along with them on a weekend trip to a state park in the San Juan Islands.
The occasion was a “rendezvous,” where all of our Sea Scout ships converged at one location for a weekend.
I rode aboard the Whidby.
During the trip while I was in the helm area — it had a special name but it escapes me now— the skipper, or adult leader of the ship, was explaining to me how the navigator, who stood at a table behind the helmsman, used his charts to plot the ship’s course. The navigator would give a compass reading and the helmsman would turn the ship’s wheel to match the navigator’s compass direction.
Simple, or so I thought.
The skipper directed the youth at the helm to stand aside and let me take a turn. The navigator gave me a compass reading and I turned the wheel until the compass at the wheel said we were moving in that precise direction.
But the ship kept turning. Soon we were off course and I had to turn back the other way. It took a few back and forth turns before we were straight on course. By then it was time for a new heading.
I turned the wheel again and same thing, back and forth.
Eventually I learned that it took a while for the ship to respond to a change in direction. I learned to turn the wheel gently and wait for a response.
The skipper and Sea Scouts laughed at me as I would turn the wheel and then raise my arm out and hold my hand out horizontally and use a waving motion to coax the bow to move.
As I piloted the ship, I’m sure the path was more zig zag than straight, which meant an increase in fuel consumption and time.
I learned that just a small turn of the wheel can make a big change in a ship’s course. And that it really does take time for a large ship to respond to a change in direction.
We had a great time in the San Juan Islands. I learned a lot about our Sea Scout ships and their leaders. We bonded as I was willing to get out of my comfort zone and spend some time with them.
But on the way home, they didn’t let me steer the ship. And I didn’t ask.