English for mariners: 21 useful water idioms

English for mariners: 21 useful water idioms

Idiom: a group of words in a fixed order that has a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own (Cambridge Dictionary)

Seafarers who want to hone their English skills would do well to learn and use more idioms in their daily life. Idioms are useful tools for facilitating communication. They can also give a good impression of the seafarer to senior officers and management.

The following idioms are all related to water.

dead in the water — used to describe something that has failed and is unlikely to succeed in the future

Example: Plans to restore the historic SS United States are dead in the water.

 

fish out of water — describes a person who feels uneasy or uncomfortable in a situation that is new to him or her

Example: Some sailors feel like fish out of water when they grow old and can no longer sail.

 

spend money like water — spend money mindlessly or recklessly [This implies that one has plenty of money to spend. — BU]

Example: He spent money like water to impress the ladies.

 

muddy the waters — to make an issue or situation more complicated and confusing

Example: People who spin theories about the cause of a marine accident just muddy the waers. 

 

in hot water — in a difficult or troublesome situation where a person is likely to be punished because of his action/s [Water in this idiom is always in the singular form, so don’t say “in hot waters”. — BU)

Example: The able seamen was in hot water after disobeying the captain’s order.

 

like oil and water — used to describe two things or persons that are so different from each other that they cannot co-exist in harmony

Example: The two shipmates were like oil and water, always arguing.

 

does not hold water — said of a statement or explanation that is not supported by the facts and is therefore weak

Example: The captain’s claim that the accident was due to the ship having a defective engine does not hold hold water.

 

water under the bridge — something that belongs to be past and cannot be changed, so it is best forgotten

Example: He was finally at sea, and his love for a faithless woman was now water under the bridge.

 

water off a duck’s back — said when something (e.g., criticism) has no effect on a person

Example: The captain scolded and cursed the crew, but it was all water off a duck’s back.

 

keep one’s head above water — to have just enough money to survive or continue

Example: Some shipowners pay their crews just enough to keep the latters’ heads above water.

like a duck to water — to engage in a new activity with ease and enjoyment, often suggesting a fast learner

Example: The young girl took to sailing like a duck to water.

 

test the waters — to try something tentatively before committing yourself to doing it

Example: Those who work at sea usually don’t have the luxury of testing the waters.

 

water down — to weaken something or make it less effective

Example: ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, seems so watered down that many shipowners get away with abusing seafarers.

 

throw cold water on — to be negative about or disapprove of an idea or plan

Example: The unions threw cold water on the shipowners’ proposal to freeze wage levels for seafarers.

 

unchartered waters — a situation which is completely new or unfamiliar and could pose a challenge or even danger to those involved

Example: Using Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) is unchartered waters for a ship officer who lacks training.

 

pour oil on troubled waters — to calm a tense situation or stop a dispute from getting out of hand

Example: The angry crew was on the verge of mutiny, but the captain was able to pour oil on troubled waters.

 

blow out of the water — to defeat something or someone overwhelmingly

Example: When it comes to quality education, American maritime academies blow many of their foreign counterparts out of the water.

 

watering hole — a place for drinking alcoholic beverages, usually a bar

Example: The sailors went to their favourite watering hole every time they were on shore leave.

 

come hell or high water — used when somebody is determined to do something no matter the difficulty or the possible consequences.

Example: The seaman decided to report the double-payrolling to the ITF come hell or high water.

 

troubled waters — a difficult situation marked by problems, discord and emotional stress

Example: The chief mate’s marriage was in troubled waters because he was often at sea.

 

have both oars in the water — to remain calm and avoid extreme emotional reactions during difficult times

Example: He is a level-headed captain who always has both oars in the water.

Familiarise yourself with more idioms in

~ Barista Uno

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The French father and daughter who painted seascapes

The French father and daughter who painted seascapes

Is artistic talent genetic and can it be inherited? One is tempted to consider the possibility in the case of Herminie Henriette Gudin, daughter of the 19th-century French marine painter, Theodore Gudin. The expression “a chip off the old block” may well come to mind when one views Ms. Gudin’s seascapes. However, this would not do justice to her individual gift as an artist.

Says the International Maritime Museum Hamburg abouut Ms. Gudin:

She was the daughter of the famous painter Théodore Gudin (1802-1880), and quickly enjoyed great success thanks to her special talent. Although she was known as “Gudin La Fille“ during her lifetime, her participation in the Paris Salons in 1848, 1849, 1850, and 1853 proves that she was widely accepted among contemporary critics. Her works are characterized by finely nuanced light accents and their atmospheric effect.

Read more: Henriette Hermine Gudin, marine painter

There is very little information about the personal life of Herminie Henriette Gudin. It would be interesting to find out how she got into painting and to what extent she was influenced by the elder Gudin. In any case, here are sample paintings by father and daughter for everyone to enjoy:

The daughter’s art

Bringing in the catch (no date)
Herminie Henriette Gudin (French, 1825–1876)
Courtesy of Christie’s
Shared by Marine Café Blog under the Fair Use principle

Beach scene with shrimp fishermen by moonlight (by 1876)
Herminie Henriette Gudin (French, 1825-1876)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A shipwreck (no date)
Herminie Henriette Gudin (French, 1825-1876)
Courtesy of Bukowskis auction house

The father’s art

View of a Rocky Coast by Moonlight (between 1830 and 1880)
Théodore Gudin (French, 1802–1880)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Battle of Lagos, June 27, 1693 (before 1880)
Théodore Gudin (French, 1802–1880)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Seascape during a Storm Seen from the Ship “Le Véloce” (1839)
Théodore Gudin (French, 1802–1880)
Courtesy of Fondation Custodia via Wikimedia Commons

~ Barista Uno

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Inspired by poetry: Mendelssohn’s symphonic seascape

Inspired by poetry: Mendelssohn’s symphonic seascape

In 1795 the famous German poet and author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote a pair of sea poems. Both are short. The first (Meeresstille, or Calm at Sea) consists of only eight lines; the second (Glückliche Fahrt, or The Prosperous Voyage), 10 lines. However, they would inspire Felix Mendelssohn to compose a captivating concert overture which borrowed the titles of Goethe’s poems and was first performed in 1828.

A symphonic seascape

Watch the Frankfurt Radio Symphony perform Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt), Opus 27. At the baton is Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Colombian violinist and conductor.

The source of Mendelssohn’s inpiration

The following are English translations of Goethe’s poems from the 1853 book, Poems of Goethe, translated in the original metres by Edgar Alfred Bowring.

Goethe obviously intended the poems to be read in tandem. The first describes a deathly calm at sea. For sailors during the Age of Sail, this spelled trouble. The boat is becalmed — meaning, it is dead in the water. It cannot move forward as there is no wind to propel the sails. The second talks about improving conditions at sea. With the mist clearing and the wind building up, the vessel is finally able to sail. The poem ends with the triumphant shout, “I see land beyond!”

Meeresstille (Calm at Sea)

Silence deep rules o’er the waters,
Calmly slumb’ring lies the main,
While the sailor views with trouble
Nought but one vast level plain.
Not a zephyr is in motion!
Silence fearful as the grave!
In the mighty waste of ocean
Sunk to rest is ev’ry wave.

Glückliche Fahrt (The Prosperous Voyage)

The mist is fast clearing.
And radiant is heaven,
Whilst Aeolus loosens
Our anguish-fraught bond.
The zephyrs are sighing,
Alert is the sailor.
Quick! nimbly be plying!
The billows are riven,
The distance approaches;
I see land beyond!

~ Barista Uno

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The mind’s eye: Five imaginary seascapes caught on camera

The mind’s eye: Five imaginary seascapes caught on camera

The mind’s eye: Five imaginary seascapes caught on camera

‘Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination. But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it’. — Walt Disney

Fearing the paling of my imagination, I challenged myself by looking at an old concrete wall to try to find anything that resembled a seascape. The wall stands just a few feet outside my window. It is made of hollow blocks with no paint, just random coats of cement plaster. I looked and looked, my mind painting small seascapes on the rough canvas. After several days of wall-gazing, I came up with the following black & white photographs.

Moon Over the Sea
Photo by BU, 2023

Waves Against the Rocks
Photo by BU

The Coming Storm
Photo by BU

Bird’s Eye View of Sea and Land
Photo by BU

Ghost Ship
Photo by BU

~ Barista Uno

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Eight great quotes about beginnings to ponder upon

Eight great quotes about beginnings to ponder upon

Sunrise over the Eastern Sea, 1932
Fujishima Takeji (Japanese, 1867–1943)
Courtesy of the Google Art Project

Humans have an instinctive need to celebrate beginnings — New Year’s Day, the birth of a child, the launching of a newbuilding ship, etc. Such events do not only mark the start of something new. They evoke feelings of hope, which is the one essential quality that separates man from animals. The famous Irish poet, William Butler Yeats,  summed up the difference in the first four lines of his poem ‘Death’:

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;

The past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is or has been is but the twilight of the dawn.

— H.G. Wells, in The Discovery of the Future (1901)

 

What one needs to do at every moment of one’s life is to put an end to the old world and to begin a new world.

— Nikolai Berdyaev, in The Beginning and the End (1947)

 

…every moment is a fresh beginning.

— T. S. Eliot, in The Cocktail Party (1949)

Geese at Dawn, 1933
Richard Bishop (American, 1887–1975)
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The beginnings of all things are small.

— Marcus Tullius Cicero, in De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (45 B.C.E.)

 

Now at last I have come to see what life is,
Nothing is ever ended, everything only begun,
And the brave victories that seem so splendid
Are never really won.

— Sara Teasdale, in ‘At Midnight’, Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (1966)

 

You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields.
That which is you dwells above the mountain and roves with the wind.
It is not a thing that crawls into the sun for warmth or digs holes into darkness for safety,
But a thing free, a spirit that envelops the earth and moves in the ether.
If these be vague words, then seek not to clear them.
Vague and nebulous is the beginning of all things, but not their end,
And I fain would have you rememberme as a beginning.
Life, and all that lives, is conceived in the mist and not in the crystal. And who knows but a crystal is mist in decay?

— Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet (1923)

 

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new [people] and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope.

— Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (1958)

Dawn, 1903
Joseph Farquharson (Scottish, 1846–1935)
Photo credit: Walker Art Gallery
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence (CC BY-NC)
Courtesy of Art UK

There are no fixed limits
Time does not stand still.
Nothing endures,
Nothing is final.
You cannot lay hold
Of the end or the beginning.
He who is wise sees near and far
As the same,
Does not despise the small
Or value the great:
Where all standards differ
How can you compare?
With one glance
He takes in past and present,
Without sorrow for the past
Or impatience with the present.
All is in movement.
He has experience
Of fullness and emptiness.
He does not rejoice in success
Or lament in failure
The game is never over
Birth and death are even
The terms are not final.

— Chuang Tzu, in The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton (1965)

~ Barista Uno

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