Why Do We Refer to Boats as “She,” Anyway?

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
Aug. 14 2013 2:23 PM

A Gentleman’s Guide to the Shore

Oyster advice! Boating etiquette! Ween!

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. Alternatively, you may pose them to the Gentleman Scholar over a plate of a dozen oysters or shout them gruffly at him while he helms a handsome powerboat. (Questions may be edited.)

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson

Photo by Christina Paige

Do you know the rules of the road?

The Gentleman Scholar was helming a handsome powerboat when this question came gruffly in. Picture it: On a fine afternoon near the end of the oughts, down east among the tourist and lobster traps, at the wheel of a beaut of a cocktail cruiser, he glowed with a new confidence in his nautical skills. Visions of a fried clam basket danced in his head as he moseyed toward the inner harbor of a vacation town. Respectful of the no-wake zone, he reduced speed; mindful of Chapman's etiquette guidelines regarding loud music, he killed the volume on a boom box blasting "Party Barge." Spotting two kayakers, he decided it would safe and suave to give them a very wide berth. That's when a gentleman piloting a white sport boat, which somehow resembled a bathroom fixture in a futuristic hotel room, emitted a scolding bark: "Do you know the rules of the road?"

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What had I done to deserve this? Was there a moment of imminent danger? No, certainly not. But I'd made a coarse choice when correcting course to steer clear of the kayaks, failing to respect the other boater's right of way. At the time, I was like, Whatever, dude, but now I need to thank the other boater for his consciousness-raising question and properly apologize for killing his vibe. My maneuver disrespected the navigation rules, and though the guy needn't have been quite such a dick about it, a special code governs gentlemanly conduct on the seas, and it’s kind of OK for the captain of a boat to be kind of a dick. His responsibility is to enforce order. 

But, to answer the question, dick, I do know the rules of the road. Indeed, I insist that anyone planning on helming a powerboat, handsome or otherwise, follow my lead and take a Power Squadron course. Much more fun than driver's ed. Perhaps the highlight of my class came when a boy in his early teens presented a wonderful ethical problem: The instructor had been discussing the first point of the safe skipper's pledge—"I will assist those in need"—and the kid wanted to know if he was obliged to rescue nefarious sorts: "But what if they're pirates?" Discuss among yourselves. 

Further, I'd suggest that a greenhorn sailor grab a copy of Colgate's Basic Sailing Theory. With his succinct tribute to the stop knot and his clear directions on finding the wind, author Steve Colgate will help you begin to pretend that you know your way around a sloop, and his approach to the "language of the sea" is especially helpful: "Until you understand the strange words used in sailing, you will be unable to sail well. ... You can't afford to say, ‘Let that thing over there go!’ when you mean ‘Free the jib sheet!’ " 

This brings us to the Gentleman Scholar's first law of maritime grammar: It is correct to refer to a boat or a ship with a feminine pronoun, as in Love's Labour Lost: "The ship is under sail, and here she comes amain." This has been going on since at least the 14th century, and it is a shame that many authorities, including Lloyd's List, have stepped away from the practice in recent years. Is the usage demeaning to women? I put the question to some intelligent feminists of my acquaintance. One said that calling a boat “she” is "a clearly sexist tradition that stems from dehumanizing and objectifying beliefs blah blah blah blah blah." Another said, "It's just what you do."

Intriguingly, no one is certain why it's just what you do, but a persuasive theory appears in Otto Jespersen's Essentials of English Grammar"The choice of a sexual pronoun is occasioned only by the fact that there is no non-sexual pronoun available except the inert it.” I am likewise inclined to regard the pronominal feminization of boats as affectionate and honorific—a show of respect for the power of majestic mysteries, like the constructions Mother Earth and Mother Nature, and a recognition that a vessel alive on the tides is not quite inanimate. To be on the sea is to encounter one's own insignificance—or so you might think, in a squall, amid 40-knot winds, with your blood on the jib, when you've tied yourself to the boat and she's still trying to throw you off, before you lose the rudder and the mast and, with them, the power to do anything except to cry hoarsely for help.

Happy boating!

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