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?"

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!

Do you like Ween? It's an important question. 

The Gentleman Scholar was out with his wife the other night when she sought to gauge his feelings about the glorious weirdos who recorded Pure Guava (1992) and Chocolate and Cheese (1994). For the record, the answer was, "Yes, I do like Ween. Thank you for your question"—but her point was to coo about the band's 1997 record, The Mollusk, naturally enough, as she was posing the question over a plate of a dozen oysters.*

The Mollusk borrows its name from the largest and most delicious of the marine phyla. (Cf., the fried clam basket, above.) This is the proper moment to present the briefest of refresher courses in how to devour these invertebrate friends wisely and well. 

  • The snail is the finest garlic butter delivery device known to man. A snail served in its own shell should be eaten with a fork and tongs. A snail served in somebody else's shell should be ashamed of itself for interloping.
  • The mussel that does not open when steamed with dry vermouth and green herbs for 10 minutes is not a mussel that your digestive system is going to be terribly thrilled about. Do not pry into its affairs.
  • The clam is not the only necessity of the clambake, a meal ranking as "America's premier culinary celebration," according to Joy of CookingThe JoC's recipe is a classic, but it's not quite as well organized as it might be. I here offer an addendum listing the required equipment:

Cheesecloth (for making scrumptious packets of littenecks, cherrystones, mussels, sausages, potatoes, onions, etc.)
Canvas tarp
Children (enough to dig a pit 2 feet deep, 2 feet wide, and 3 feet long)
Driftwood ("enough ... to build a large fire")
Fireplace matches (preferably safety matches in case the children get into them)
Rocks, large ("about fifteen")
Sand (to throw on children who, having gotten clever with the safety matches, are flaming)
Seaweed, preferably rockweed ("several bushels")
Shovels, plastic (at least two per child so that you don't have to waste time having to teach them to share and stuff)

  • The oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. This is especially true in the case of lush and plump Shigoku oysters, which continue to gain popularity three years after being described as "the hottest bivalves in Seattle." The Shigoku is grown in floating bags, tumbling with the tides and so growing scoop-shaped. The name supposedly derives from the Japanese 究極, meaning ultimate. I recently overheard a Shigoku enthusiast describe the experience of eating one as kind of like performing cunnilingus. "And, by the way,” she added, “I haven't done that in a while. I could totally go for that."

If you're eating raw oysters with a mignonette or a cocktail sauce, then it is most correct to use an oyster fork, but if you're eating them with just a squeeze of lemon or else undressed, it's fine to take the half-shell in hand and slurp the meat right off it, so long as you do so with nonchalant anti-swagger. Use the back of your nonhalf-shell-holding hand to wipe any real or imaginary dribbles of oyster liquor from your stubbly chin.

The second-best tool for oyster shucking is a stubby flathead screwdriver. (Insert the blade at the hinge and angle it down into the cup.) The best tool for oyster shucking is the oyster knife of the lady or gentleman selling them to you. (Offer a small gratuity.) 

  • The squid is a cephalopod of the order Teuthida, and it is never—despite your naive hopes that things will be different this time—a good idea to order fried calamari for delivery or take out. It always ends up soggy and tepid. Sorry.
  • The octopus is so called because it has four pairs of arms. That's octo- as in the Greek κτώ and -pus as in the Greek πους. Latin doesn't really have anything to do with it; just as so many wonderful summer stews come to us straight from Greece, so does this word, transliterated oktopous. This is all by way of announcing the Gentleman Scholar's second law of maritime grammar: The correct plural form of octopus is octopodes. If you don't like that rule, you can step off like you've got eight feet.

Correction, Dec. 26, 2013: This article originally misstated the release date of Ween's album The Mollusk. It was released in 1997, not 2001. (Return.)

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