Cool Nautical Terminology

I was going to make a comparison between the recent events in my life and those of the fellows who accompanied James Cook on his last voyage, but then I got hung up on the word “sprung.”

If you’ve heard of James Cook, Cap’n Cook to those who follow him, you’ll know that he’s the English navigator/sea captain/explorer who laid the first European eyes on places like Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii.

I was going to call this post “Back to the Boats,” which is what I’d presumed his men did after Cook met his… well, you may know the story. If not, or even if so, here it is, in butchered form:

Cook and his men aboard HMS Resolution, with HMS Discovery in company, apparently lorded it over the Hawaiians in 1778. He and his men treated them rather badly, but were themselves treated with kindness because the Hawaiian god of love was at that time ascendent. This is thumbnail history, so please forgive my gross generalities. They are gross.

So Cap’n Cook sailed off with his ships away from Hawaii and right into a typhoon. The main mast on the Resolution got sprung.

Now, that’s a funny term, sprung. You think of it like a spring, or a piece of metal, that goes “sproing” and is now bent or something. The etymology of the term is lost to time, but, to a sailor, the meaning is a little different.

In Cook’s day, a ship’s huge lower main mast, perhaps two feet in diameter and seventy-five feet long, was often cut from a single tree: it was, in truth, just a very large stick. But the lower main mast carried the weight of two smaller masts above it, plus the weight of all of the spars and rigging and sails. And it had to withstand the pressure of the wind on the sails, as well as the constant rolling and heaving of the ship. It was constantly under a lot of pressure.

When it sprung, it simply cracked, or split, as you’ve seen old wood do.

Everyone aboard would have heard it, like a profound knock against the hull. And they would have agonized in fear with every wave, as the broken fibers of the mast ground and groaned against one another. How long would it hold together?

And the lower main mast being a tree, there was truly no way to repair it at sea. You could lash smaller pieces of wood around it, like a brace, but a sprung mast was in constant danger of snapping altogether. When a mast was sprung, the only remedy was to replace it.

So, what I thought was cool was that one doesn’t spring a mast. In nautical circles, sprung is not a verb, but an adjective, and therefore not the past participle of spring, but a term unto itself. A mast is simply sprung. I thought that was cool.

Gee, Uncle John, tell us some more!

Anyway, Cook sailed the Resolution back to Hawaii to acquire a new piece of timber for the mast, but by the time they’d arrived, their god of war was in ascendency, and the natives weren’t so friendly.

Cook may have been ill, or out of his head, when he tried to kidnap a chieftain as a means of coercing some of the natives to return a ship’s boat, which, it turned out, they hadn’t stolen.

The kidnap was foiled, and Cook himself was stabbed right through with a steel knife he’d traded to the natives. His men scrambled for their lives back to the boats across a beach thronging with angry, armed warriors. Most made it. But the Resolution sailed off to elsewhere in search their needed timber, with a sprung mast but without her beloved captain, whose corpse lay bleeding on the beach.

This post has so very little to do with anything that you might be interested in, and I do apologize.

Anyway, I backed out of the play: my role was equivalent to Security Guard #4 in a B movie, and the theater was 45 minutes away. I had five lines. Five. There are no small parts, only small actors, but the producer referred to my part as a “throwaway character.” That’s a small part.

Back to the boats.

Author: John D Reinhart

Author, technical writer, videographer, actor, and naval historian John D Reinhart is a very busy guy. You can find his novels as

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