From Booby Hatches to Pier, Jetty, Wharf or Quay?

Maritime terminology is a subject without limits. It has a lot of universality in basic words, but also suffers from massive regional variations that can be truly frustrating. With clients all over the world, we often engage in discussion in the office about what term to use for a specific concept or piece of equipment.

Even in an all-American office there can be confusions.

When I worked for ABS about a half century ago, a newly hired secretary came to me and held out a letter I had drafted and said: “I suppose this is some type of joke? Once I type it up, you all will make fun of me in some way?”

I was truly mystified and asked what she meant. She said: “Your draft says: Booby hatches on the poop deck need to be watertight, and seacocks need to have extra heavy strength pipe.”

I had never thought of those terms as the subject of a joke, but it was pretty funny to think it was the source of new-hire paranoia. I wonder if she had her guard up because somebody had warned her about Left Handed Monkey Wrench shenanigans.

Just recently we were asked to provide expert testimony on the definition of the term Longshoreman. The legal question related to whether a tank terminal operator was a longshoreman.

To a large extent the issue was decided by our Google search of longshoreman images. It showed all types of longshoring activities but no tank terminal pictures or operations. It was an interesting substantiation of public perception of longshoring.

Please note that this Google image approach does not work as well for Booby Hatches and Seacocks.

This whole rumination started because I came across the below diagram in a Facebook wooden boat group and realized it was an attempt to clear up a confusion that exists with even the saltiest sailors and maritime engineers.

Quite frankly, I am sure I have used the wrong terminology occasionally, and I recognized it as a neat representation of terminology confusion elimination. However, on closer examination I went: “Wait a minute this is not completely true”.

I actually reached for our maritime dictionaries (of which we have quite a collection, some over 100 years old) and discovered that there is very little consistency in the use of the terms Pier, Quay, Wharf and Jetty.

Depending on the source, the terms overlapped, switched, were applied to more than one of the marine structure types in the diagram, or were also used in other contexts.

However, rather remarkably, the use of the terms for the structures noted in the diagram were never clearly wrong. As such, the use of these terms for these structures is a safe approach to preventing the use of clearly incorrect terms, and it made me realize that, at some time in the past, somebody may have put some deep thought in this diagram and came up with a clever solution that works all the time.

At least, it works as long as one knows anything about the structure’s characteristics. If that is not known, and if a vessel can tie up to it, one can call it a berth, and hope that nobody thinks it is a bunk aboard a vessel, or a crew position aboard a vessel. Oh, well.