Is There Any Red Port Left?

“Once, in the wilds of Afghanistan, I lost my corkscrew, and we were forced to live on nothing but food and water for days.”

W. C. Fields, My Little Chickadee 1940

One of the downsides of the current lockdown – well, for some people that is – is the banning of alcohol sales. For those who enjoy a tipple now and then (especially those for who ‘now!’ is the operative word) the weeks must be dragging out a bit as personal stocks of the drops that cheer diminish alarmingly. As a nautical company that is more than happy to dish out cooling beverages on our cruises, we at Waterfront Charters sympathise. After all, it was the Royal Navy’s love of rum that helped them set up the strongest navy on the planet.

True story: after England’s conquest of Jamaica in 1655, rum was introduced as the daily drink for sailors, replacing beer and wine which tended to go off rather quickly at sea – a glass of beer that was half green algae was not a pleasant drink. But the replacement half-pint of rum as served to thirsty matelots in place of beer and wine had a rather more deleterious effect on the crews; to put it in more common terms, they got sozzled. Daily. This led to some serious breaches of discipline, and so the officers decided to water the rum down in a four to one ratio and serve it in two daily doses; half before noon and half at sundown. This also prevented hoarding of the spirit, which had become common and led to some serious below deck parties, behaviour generally not encouraged by the Royal Navy.

But effects aside, it was not a tasty drink. So Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, in 1740, allowed his crews to add lime juice (which did not deteriorate on long journeys) to the rum and water mix. Vernon always wore a coat made of grogram cloth whilst on deck; thus his nickname among all who served under him was ‘Old Grog’. It didn’t take much for the name to leap across to the lime, rum and water mix, and Grog was born. These days, of course, a grog can be anything from a beer to an exotic cocktail, but the name has stuck. You may be wondering at this point just why grog made the Royal Navy such an efficient force rather than reducing them to shiploads of alcohol-ridden tars – an easy answer. It was the lime juice, of course, as this had the remarkable side effect of reducing scurvy – the worst blight in a sailor’s life – to only teetotallers and sailors under the age of twenty who were not permitted to drink. Other more temperate navies were still stricken by the scourge, and fighting a battle at sea with half your men dead, dying or bedridden is not recommended. Adding the lime juice to the drink became official in 1795 once surgeons had made the connection between lime juice and scurvy prevention, and what is even more amazing is that the practice of handing out a rum allocation in the Royal Navy lasted right up until 1970. It is, we believe, sorely missed.

The other alcoholic sounding nautical name – as referred to in the mnemonic-style heading above – is port. This ‘port’, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the Portuguese fortified wine that is beloved of those who dine well, and long. Formally known as Vinho do Porto, it was first produced in the wine-producing Douro region of Portugal in 1756. The nautical port, as in port and starboard, has a far less romantic provenance. It referred to the side of the ship that tied up next to the port, the left hand side. This was a by-product of ‘starboard’; in early English ships, the rudder was not centrally based – it was a long extended steering oar made fast to the right hand side at the stern of the boat, and was moved by hand. This area then became the Old English steorbord, or ‘steering board’, which mutated, as language does, to starboard. With this oar in the way on the right, it made more sense to tie up the left hand side of the vessel to the port. These days ships can tie up with either side to the dock, but the practice of naming the left and right hand sides of vessels ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ has persisted for safety reasons. To quote the official terminology, they are ‘nautical terms of orientation that deal unambiguously with the structure of vessels.’ Port is always left, no matter which way the observer is facing, which cuts out any confusion. The navigation lights that are allocated to port (red) and starboard (green) serve as unambiguous signals as well. For those who can’t remember, the heading above is the ideal way to nudge memory. (We’ll talk a bit more about these lights in an upcoming article.)

So rum and port; two words tied in with seafaring lore. Waterfront Charters are 21st century mariners, steeped in the history and wonder of all things nautical. Keep in touch with us during this strange time of lockdown – it won’t last forever, and we can’t wait to resume our amazing range of cruises. When the sun hits the yardarm on our boats we are certainly looking forward to serving you the odd grog or two, port or starboard, to add just a little extra spice to your adventure!