Monday, 28 October 2013

Batten down the hatches

Michael Fish told Sky News' Murnaghan show: "There is certainly a severe storm on the way - and we certainly do need to worry about it. If you draw a line from about Aberystwyth to the Humber - everywhere south of there looks like getting affected by strong winds, to the north of that the problem is going to be heavy rain and localised flooding.". In contrast to 1987, when he was wrong-footed by the winds, this time, he advised to "batten down the hatches"
That's a phrase which means to prepare for pending trouble. It originated as a nautical term. The excellent Phrasefinder website explains how the phrase came about
"'Hatch' is one of those words with dozens of meanings in the dictionary. In this case we are looking at the 'opening in the deck of a ship' meaning. Ships' hatches, more formally called hatchways, were commonplace on sailing ships and were normally either open or covered with a wooden grating to allow for ventilation of the lower decks. When bad weather was imminent, the hatches were covered with tarpaulin and the covering was edged with wooden strips, known as battens, to prevent it from blowing off. Not surprisingly, sailors called this 'battening down'."(1)
What happens without a "battening down" is well described in the account of the "Radiant Med" crossing the English Channel in 1984, described by Bernard Edwards in his book of true sea stories, "Beware the Grey Widow Maker" (which I would highly recommend).:
"On the night of 22 January 1984, the English Channel was in an ugly mood. Storm force winds, whipped up by a deep depression passing to the north of Scotland, were building up, bringing with them very high seas and driving rain. It was not a night for the unwary to be abroad. ship Shortly before midnight the 2,997-ton, Liberian-flag motor Radiant Med, was off Alderney and clawing her way down Channel in the teeth of the wind."(2)
With a crew of 25, the Radiant Med was a 14 year old ship with a dangerous weakness::
"The Radiant Med had one dangerous weakness-one that was to be aggravated by a serious underestimation of the power of the sea. Unlike modern ships, which have tight-fitting, hydraulically controlled, steel hatch covers, the watertight integrity of her two cargo holds was dependent on light steel pontoons, over which were stretched canvas tarpaulins. The whole was designed to be kept firmly in place by steel locking bars fitted athwartships, one bar securing each section of pontoons.Unfortunately, over the years many of the Radiant Med's hatch locking bars had gone missing and those still on board could not be correctly fitted due to alterations recently made to the hatch coamings. As a substitute for the bars, D'Souza had concluded that rope nets, stretched over the hatch tarpaulins and lashed down to the deck, would do just as well." (2)
"The wind had veered more to the west and was gusting force 11 when, at 16.00 that day, Chief Officer Tanwar took over the watch on the bridge. The Radiant Med's engines were still making full revolutions and she was burying her bow deep in the advancing walls of green water, her propeller racing wildly each time her stern lifted high. The air was full of flying spray, torn from the crests of the tumbling waves, and her decks were constantly awash with foaming water, which tugged and plucked with eager fingers at her lightly secured hatches."

With a hatch cover dislodged by the storm, the Radiant Med began taking on water. Very soon, led by Captain D'Souza and Chief Officer Tanwar they had no option but to throw themselves over the side of the stricken vessel into the icy sea.
"Radiant Med rolled over and her after radio mast crashed down on the lifeboat, causing serious damage. Very soon, the boat was waterlogged and floating only on its buoyancy tanks. Fortunately for those of the Liberian ship's crew who were still alive, St Peter Port Radio had been monitoring the emergency from the start. When it became apparent the Radiant Med was sinking and Casabianca was powerless to help, St Peter Port's harbour master took it upon himself to call out the Guernsey lifeboat." (2)
Edwards notes how "in a display of superb seamanship and outstanding courage, the RNLI men snatched Chief Officer Tanwar and eight other half-drowned souls from the grip of the sea." There were no other survivors; exposure to the sheer cold of the sea had killed them.
It is an example of how important it is to "batten down the hatches";the poorly maintained Radiant Med shows how much of a disaster could ensue from not being able to do so properly. Edwards concludes that pressures from by "faceless men of indeterminate nationality, registered in Liberia as a matter of economic expediency, and managed in a country where safety takes second place to productivity" probably caused the Captain to take such risks with his ship.
The earliest version found by Phrasefinder of  batten down the hatches"is the 1883 Chambers Journal: "Batten down the hatches - quick, men."(1). Of course, excepting the weather this morning, the phrase is usually used in a metaphorical sense:
Here comes that contentious Mrs. Jones. Batten down the hatches!
Batten down the hatches, Congress is in session again
When you're coming down with a cold, all you can do is batten down the hatches and wait for the body to fight it off.
There are a lot of phrases suggested as coming from nautical origins, and again Phrasefinder lists those with secure documentary evidence. I've listed ones I am familiar with here; for the full list see the reference (3) below:
A shot across the bows
All at sea
Batten down the hatches
Between the Devil and the deep blue sea
By and large
Close quarters
Cut and run
Edging forward
Get underway
Give a wide berth
Go by the board
Hand over fist
Hard and fast
High and dry
Know the ropes
Loose cannon
Mal de mer
Panic stations
Plain sailing
Push the boat out
Shipshape and Bristol fashion
Shake a leg
Shiver my timbers
Slush fund
Taken aback
Tell it to the marines
The bitter end
The cut of your jib
Three sheets to the wind
Walk the plank
(2)    Edwards, Bernard (2009). Beware the Grey Widow-Maker, available paperback or kindle

No comments: