A deep dive into the meaning and origin of ‘old salt’

A deep dive into the meaning and origin of ‘old salt’

The term “old salt” is widely understood to mean an experienced or seasoned mariner. But how many years of sailing experience does it take for one to be given the tag? I have known some fellows who chalked up enough seagoing service to get licensed as masters in their early 30s. Can they be called “old salts”?

Most dictionaries, unfortunately, fail to shed light on the matter. “One who has sailed for many years” is how “old salt” is usually defined. The online dictionary Wiktionary offers a definition that is a little more useful:

old salt (idiomatic) A seasoned sailor, especially one who is hardy and forthright in manner.

The Cambridge Dictionary define “hardy” as “strong enough to bear extreme conditions or difficult situations”. “Forthright” refers to  a person who is “(too) honest or direct in behaviour”. From this, one can surmise that it is not just age and experience that make for an old salt.

Character and spirit

My interest in old salts and the synonymous term “sea dogs” has led me to ruminating often on these uncommon actors on the maritime stage. I share below my own thoughts about them:

Old sailors and old fishermen always fascinate me. The former are often referred to as “sea dogs” or lobos de mar in Spanish. Sailor or fisherman, the appellation is entirely appropriate. These men are hardy spirits who cut their teeth on boats and spent many years at sea. They can tell if a storm is coming just by looking at the clouds, checking the wind direction, and feeling the air. They know the sea as a man knows the contours of his lover’s body. Past the prime of their lives, they still hear the siren call of the ocean. Their weathered faces are like old books filled with tales of adventures and mishaps, of loves won and loves lost. They have what I would call “character”.

From ‘Old men and the sea: An essay in pictures and words’ (Marine Café Blog, 16 July 2020)

The genesis of ‘old salt’

The exact origin of the term is rather hazy. The earliest published work I could find that mentions the term is the second edition of ‘A Mariner’s Sketches’, a book by American author and sailor Nathaniel Ames published in 1830. Two excerpts:

The ceremony of shaving on crossing the line was omitted, to the manifest disappointment of the “old salts” and great relief and gratification of us who were uninitiated.

* * *

Whistling at sea is never tolerated except in a calm. “A whistling sailor, a crowing hen and a swearing woman ought all three to go to hell together,” so say the old salts.

Feel free to download the book here.

Ame’s book is a personal account of his life at sea as a naval sailor. His use of the term “old salt” strongly suggests two things: 1) the term was in use before the 1800s; and 2) it most likely originated with the crews of American naval ships (I have not come across the term “old salt” in any old British work of fiction or non-fiction).

Interestingly, the U.S. Surface Navy Association’s (SNA) has an an Old Salt Award which it bestows on an active duty officer who is Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) qualified and has held the qualification for the longest time. Retired Vice Admiral Barry McCollough, SNA president, explained the rationale: “In the Navy, we have an expression for respected, experienced and knowledgeable mariners. We call them ‘Old Salts’. It is fitting that we acknowledge our lore, customs and traditions, and honor the most senior of all our active duty Surface Warriors with the ‘Old Salt’ designation. It is the old salts who have made it possible for our traditions to be kept alive.” (Locklear Named Surface Navy Association’s “Old Salt’, 12 May 2014)

Huzza! to all old salts, living and dead.

Honour the old salts and sea dogs with this unisex t-shirt.

CLICK HERE to order it from The Nautical Shop of Marine Café Blog.

~ Barista Uno

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The wonders of old Venice come to life in watercolour

The wonders of old Venice come to life in watercolour

Some of the most alluring and interesting artworks that feature Venice are those executed in watercolour. The reason for this has as much to do with the peculiarities of the medium as with the timeless appeal of the city’s grand architecture and its quaint bridges and charming gondolas.

Says The New York Times about watercolour as an art medium:

There is something about watercolor that attracts wide interest. Perhaps it’s the luminosity of the medium, or freshness of its effects. A watercolorist walks a tightrope of risk, unlike the practitioner of any other medium. It is a direct and difficult medium; the effects are often created with lightning speed, and they cannot be reversed or duplicated.

‘The Importance of Watercolor’, The New York Times (17 April 1994)

The following watercolours from the 19th and early 20th centuries showcase the beauty of Venice as well as the consummate skills of those who created them:

Gondolas Before a Palace on the Grand Canal in Venice
Watercolor and gouache on wove paper
Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (British, 1821–1906)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Santa Maria Della Salute, Venice, 1933
Watercolour and pencil
Cass Gilbert (American, 1859–1934)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Venice, 1933
Watercolour and pencil on paper
Cass Gilbert (American, 1859–1934)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Giudecca Canal with Shipping near the Chiesa dei Gesuati, 1880s
Watercolour over graphite on wove paper
David Law (Scottish, 1831–1901)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Afterglow, Venice, no date
Watercolour on paper
Albert Goodwin (British, 1845–1932)
Photo credit: Royal Watercolour Society
Courtesy of Art UK

Rio dei Mendicanti, Venice, probably 1903-1906
Watercolour over pencil on off-white paper John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925)
Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art :: Newfields

A Gondola on the Grand Canal, Venice, 1866
Watercolour over graphite with gouache on wove paper, laid down
William Callow (British, 1812-1908)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

 

A related post you might also like:

Venice, no date
Watercolour
Hercules Brabazon (English, 1821–1906)
Courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum

A Canal, Venice, 1800–1870
Graphite and watercolour, heightened with white on buff paper
James Holland (British, 1800–1870)
Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

Red Sail, Venice, c. i1884
Watercolour over graphite pencil
Frank Duveneck (American, 1848–1919)
Courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum

Venice, c. 1903
watercolor over black chalk
Henri Edmond Cross (French, 1856–1910)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, at Sunset, 1865/1884
Watercolour and gouache over graphite on wove paper
Edward Lear (British, 1812–1888)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

~ Barista Uno

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A dire warning to seafarers who are womanisers

A dire warning to seafarers who are womanisers

I recently came across an interesting old ballad called ‘The Sailor’s Tragedy’. Also known as ‘The Dreadful Ghost’, the song was published in 1826 by Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns in an eight-page booklet that included three other ballads. It reminds me of the maritime Lotharios and skirt-chasers I have encountered in real life.

A familiar tale

‘The Sailor’s Tragedy’ is about a sailor who abandons a lover after getting her pregnant. Gripped by shame and despair, she hangs herself and returns as a ghost to take revenge on the man. It’s a familiar tale that calls to mind the vengeful women of Japanese legends and the famous German legend of Lorelei.

The following is the full text of Robert Burns’ version of ‘The Sailor’s Tragedy’. Scroll further down to watch a live performance of the ballad.

The Sailor’s Tragedy

I am a sailor, and home I write,
And in the the seas took great delight,
The female sex I did beguile
At length two were by me with child.

I promised to be true to both,
And bound myself under an oath,
To marry them if I had life,
And one of them I made my wife.

The other being left alone
Saying you false deluding man,
To me you’ve done a wicked thing,
Which public shame will on me bring.

Then to the silent shade she went,
Her present shame for to prevent,
And soon she finished up the strife,
And cut her tender thread of life.

She hung herself upon a tree,
Two men a-hunting did her see;
Her flesh by beasts was basely tore,
Which made the young men weep full sore.

Straight they went and cut her down,
And in her breast a note was found;
This note was written out at large,
Bury me not I do you charge.

But on the ground here let me lie,
For every one that passes by,
That they by me a warning take,
And see what follows e’er too late.

As he is false, I do protest
That he on earth shall find no rest,
And it is said she plaug’d him so,
That to the seas he’s forc’d to go

As he was on the main-mast high,
A little boat he did espy.
In it there was a Ghost so grim,
That made him tremble every limb.

Dewn to the deck the young man goes,
To the Captain his mind for to disclose;
Here is a spirit coming hence,
O Captain stand on my defence.

Upon the deck the Captain goes,
Where soon he spy’d the fatal Ghost;
Captain said she you must and can,
With speed help me to such a man.

In St Helen’s this young man died,
And in St Helen’s is his body laid;
Captain, said she, do not say so,
For he is in your ship below.

And if you stand in his defence,
A mighty storm I will send hence,
Will cause you and your men to weep,
And leave you sleeping in the deep.

From the deck did the Captain go,
And brought this young man to his foe,
On him she fix’d her eyes so grim,
Which made him tremble every limb.

It was well known I was a maid,
When first by you I was betray’d,
I am a spirit come for you,
You beguil’d me once but I have you now.

For to preserve both ship and men,
Into the boat they forced him;
The boat sunk in a flash of fire,
Which made the sailors all admire.

All you that know what to love belong,
Now you have heard my mournful song.
Be true to one whatever you mind,
And dont delude poor woman-kind.

Watch American singer Debra Cowan perform ‘The Dreadful Ghost’ (aka ‘The Sailor’s Tragedy’) at The Prince Albert pub and music venue on Trafalgar Street, Brighton, East Sussex. The lyrics shown after the video are different from the Robert Burns version, but the storyline is essentially the same.

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It’s of a sailor of whom I write,
Unto the seas he took great delight,
Two maidens fair he did beguile
And those two maidens he had with child.

Oh, one of them, for public shame,
Unto some handsome grove she came,
And there, at length, for to end all strife.
She cut it there, the thread of life.

She hung herself down from a tree,
Where two men a-hunting did her see.
They got a knife and cut her down,
And on her bosom a note was found.

And this was writ in letters large:
“Don’t bury me, I do you charge,
But on the ground there let me lie,
That maids may see me as they pass by.

“Let them take warning by my fate,
And quit this folly before it’s too late.”
And while on land she plagued him so,
To the seas at length he was forced to go.

One morning on the topmast high,
A little boat he chanced to spy,
A little boat with a large crew of men,
And a female ghost who stood up then.

Down decks, down decks this young man goes,
To greet the captain in his morning clothes,
He says, “Captain, captain, stand my defence,
For I see a spirit a-coming hence.”

 

So up on deck this captain goes,
And there he spies this dreadful ghost,
She says, “Captain, Captain, come tell me true,
Does such a man sail among your crew?”

“It was in St. Taliens this young man died,
And in St. Taliens his body lies.”
She says, “Captain, Captain, don’t tell me so,
For he’s sailing down in your ship below.

“And if you don’t bring him up to me,
A mighty storm you soon shall see,
Which will cause both you and your gallant men to weep,
And leave you slumbering in the deep.”

Down decks, down decks this captain goes,
And brings this young man up to his foes,
And when she fixed her grim eyes on him,
It made him tremble in every limb.

“Oh, don’t you remember when I was a maid,
You caused my poor trembling heart to bleed;
Now I’m a spirit come for thou,
You baulked me once but I’ve got you now.”

Down in her boat she forced him,
Down in her boat he was forced for to go,
And as he did, we all did admire,
For the boat went down in a flame of fire.

And as she sank, she rose again,
And aye she sang this mournful strain:
“You sailors all who are left behind,
Never prove false to young womankind.”

~ Barista Uno

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Pilot boats on the move: 12 striking colour photographs

Pilot boats on the move: 12 striking colour photographs

Pilot boats on the move: 12 striking colour photographs

The sight of a beautiful pilot boat sprinting and whipping up giant spumes could give one an adrenalin rush. It might even make young men and women want to become pilots. The exhilaration and thrill, however, cannot mask the cold reality: pilotage is hard work, and those who have chosen it as a career face constant danger.

The following are some of the most striking pictures of pilot boats that I have come across. Click on each one for a larger view.

“You know, our life is arduous, responsible, and hazardous. People on shore, I am sorry to say, very seldom recognise this. Not seeing us piloting ships through the streets of London, they think all we have to do is to get our orders, and come on shore to cash them.”

— Thomas Roads, as quoted in Pilots by Alfred T. Story, The Strand Magazine (1894)

Pilot boat Apollo, Nieuwe Waterweg (2016)
Photo by Kees Torn
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Pilot boat in Naples, Italy
Photo by Pete on Pixabay
Licence: public domain

Parmelia heading out into open water from Fremantle Harbour, Western Austraia (2012)
Photo by JarrahTree via Wikimedia Commons
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia

View of Kwillina, the pilot boat at Esperance Ports, Western Australia (2019)
Photo by Bahnfrend via Wikimedia Commons
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Pilot approaches 2, Normandie (2015)
Photo by Michael Foley on Flickr
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic 

Pilot boat in Estonia (2008)
Photo by neeme on Flickr
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

A WONDERFUL MUG FOR PILOTS

This white glossy mug features a 1925 etching by the noted British marine artist, Arthur John Trevor Briscoe (1873–1943).

 

Click here to order.

Pilot boat in the Faroe Islands (2013)
Photo by Omer Bozkurt on Flickr
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Aberdeen Harbour pilot boat making its way Back to the harbour (2018)
Photo by Rab Lawrence on Flickr
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

 

Check out this other delightful post:

Exhilarating marine art: Pilot boats of yesteryear in action

Pilot boat Pieter Deconinck, Netherlands (2006)
Photo by Gerwin Filius on Flickr
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

Pilot boat – Musel-Arnao, Principado de Asturias, España (2011)
Photo by Pedro Menéndez on Flickr
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

Pilot boat from the port of Dieppe in the mist (2017)
Photo by Brice Menou on Flickr
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

Pilot boat escorting the cruise ship Voyager of the Seas out of Sydney (2012)
Photo by Jim Bendon via Wikimedia Commons
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

~ Barista Uno

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Humans on hot days: Refreshing vintage photographs

Humans on hot days: Refreshing vintage photographs

Humans on hot days: Refreshing vintage photographs

On sweltering days, humans are instinctively drawn to water. The mere sight of it evokes a feeling of delight and even joy. The following vintage photos may not bring surcease to those suffering from the current heat wave that is gripping many countries. Nonetheless, they are refreshing to the eyes, if not to the spirit.

Men really know not what good water’s worth;
If you had been in Turkey or in Spain,
Or with a famish’d boat’s-crew had your berth,
Or in the desert heard the camel’s bell,
You’d wish yourself where Truth is—in a well
.

— Lord Byron, ‘Don Juan’ (1818–24), Canto II, Stanza 84

Boys following water cart on Cotton Street, Poplar, London (1927)
Photo by Donald Macleish from Wonderful London by St John Adcock, 1927
Courtesy of Simon Knott on Flickr

Hot Weather Scene, N.Y. (1910)
Bain News Service, publisher
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

Boys dipping their heads in fountain, New York City (1908)
Photographer unknown
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

Licking blocks of ice on hot day, 1910
Bain News Service, publisher
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

Hot day—watering horses, Union Square, New York City (1911)
Bain News Service, publisher
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

Children playing in the water, Trafalgar Square, London (1927)
Photo by Donald Macleish from Wonderful London by St John Adcock, 1927
Courtesy of Simon Knott on Flickr

Australian soldiers outside the ANZAC Memorial during a heat wave, Hyde Park, Sydney,
4 January 1946
Photo by the Sun newspaper
Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

 

A wonder-full article about water

The wonder of water: A celebration in song and art

~ Barista Uno

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