The Handing Out of Names
15 November 2022

You could tell he was nervous by the way he carried himself.  His movements seemed stiff, almost robotic, and his eyes darted around the deck of the big ship as he took everything in. Whenever someone walked past him, he squared his shoulders as though to make himself appear bigger.  It was his first time aboard such a vessel and nothing was familiar.  It felt like he had stepped out of the crew van and onto the strange soil of a foreign planet.    After being shown his cabin he quickly stowed his gear, changed into his new work boots and coveralls, and headed back out on deck where a stone load was in full swing.  The first mate introduced him to the bull (lead) deck hand who looked up from his work and cast a stink eye on him.  

‘Shadow him and you’ll figure things out soon enough,’ said the first mate as he handed him a yellow hardhat and a pair of company issue work gloves, ‘Whenever you’re working on deck or in the holds you need to be wearing these. Try not to lose them.’  

He put the hardhat on and tightened the ratchet on the back so it sat snugly on his head.  He pulled on the gloves and opened and closed his hands repeatedly.  

‘Do you have any smaller gloves?’ he asked the first mate.

‘No,’ he replied, pausing briefly before adding, ‘and we’re going to call you ‘Bitch Mittens’.’

Nicknames, just as they are in many male dominated arenas, are almost ubiquitous in the maritime world. Dictionary.com describes a nickname as ‘a name added to or substituted for the proper name of a person, place, etc., as in affection, ridicule, or familiarity.’ The etymological provenance of a nick name aboard a ship is often easily surmised and over the years I’ve encountered many. It can be derived from ones surname, i.e.

Fitzgerald – Fitzy

Traeger – Trigger  

Pandachuck – Panda  

Bell – Bellsy

Other times a name might reference a specific physical attribute, i.e.

The tall guy – Lurch 

Another tall guy – Topshelf  

The overweight guy – Fudge  

The old guy – Father Time 

The guy with the broken nose -Flatface or Flat 

The testicular cancer survivor – Half Sac

The guy from Trinidad – Island Time

Some other notable names I’ve heard of or encountered are:

Lefty – Not for his dominant hand, but because he was discovered after a night on the town passed out in his bunk with his member clutched in said hand.

Summer School – The only just 18 year old deckhand

Cavity – The dentist’s son

Turbo – The slow guy

Chucky Cheeseburger – The diabetic

Toilet Brush or Toilet – The deck hand who used his ‘namesake’ tool to scrub his back clean of coal dust in the shower.

Big Head, Nappy and Half-Job are self-explanatory.  

Butters and Gargamel were named for the cartoon characters that they resembled.

Guys here refer to one another commonly as Dude, Brother or Bro. Then there are classics. Appellations like Dickhead, Fuckface and Asshole which can all be considered terms of endearment. I have a particular fondness for Dipshit.

Homo used to be a perennial but while the maritime world remains obdurately un-PC, in this instance, folks have mostly cottoned on.

In my sailing career I have had more than a few names myself.  There is the obvious ‘T-Bone’ and the inevitable ‘Boner.’  Others have been Big Nose, No Ass, Lil’ Nicky, Ringo, Chopstick and for a brief period the mouthful ‘DJ Snazzy Femme Boy’, which I was given when I worked as a deckhand/DJ on a charter boat in Toronto Harbour.  

When I was sailing in the Caribbean, whatever island I landed on, the locals almost all referred to me as ‘Skinny White Boy.’  

At university in the UK I had the unflattering sobriquet ‘Dickless’ bestowed on me by my philosophy major friend for what he perceived as its rhyme with Nicholas (I never could detect it with my accent but with his British one I suppose it could be justified).  When I visited him at his halls of residence in the centre of campus, I would buzz his flat and his face would pop out a third-floor window.  Heads would turn when he shouted, 

‘AWROIGHT DICKLESS!’ down at me.  I would try to shield my face from passers-by and catch the keys at the same time.  I often missed which did not do me any favors.

18 plus sailors on a ship can generate a phenomenal amount of garbage.  It is stowed in big black bin bags on the aft deck in mesh cages to keep the ravens and seagulls out.  We are not able to dispose of it in just any port.  Either we unload it at our fuel dock or we must order a dumpster to be delivered to whatever port we’re tied up in.  In summer the garbage festers and grows rank almost immediately.  The smell can be over-powering.  One of the few benefits of winter sailing is that the garbage does not fester or smell though it does freeze, but give me a frozen bag of garbage over a festering one any day.  An average garbage unload might be 60 to 100 bags and could take hours depending on our location and the conditions.

It must have been 35 degrees when we tied up at Mazursky’s Fuel in Detroit and the humidity was suffocating.  It had been a while since we had last got rid of garbage and the two cages were overflowing up on the top deck.  You could smell it from 30 feet away.  Some crows had got at it and there was litter scattered about. Maggots squished underfoot and the deck was slippery with offal ooze and whatever other liquids the decomposition process promulgates.  A bulldozer pulled up on the dock below us and the waste was lowered in batches with the provisions crane.  Bitch Mittens and Toilet went down onto the dock to toss the bags into the blade of the idling yellow machine.  Almost immediately Mittens began to retch as he pulled each dripping, fetid bag and tossed it.  Those of us on deck could see his spasms and hear his dry-heaves from 20 feet above.  It became abundantly clear that he had an exceptionally sensitive gag-reflex.  When he looked up at the lowering basket, leaking feculent juice through the mesh floor like a colander, you could see his face was flushed red and his eyes were streaming tears.  Occasionally a bag would burst as he swung it up onto the dozer but to his credit he did not let up. Like a combination of Sisyphus and Prometheus he just kept on tossing those bags and retching, tossing those bags and retching, while up on deck we shouted down words of encouragement through our laughter.