Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Old Ships Are Gone But Sometimes We Still Must Sail By Ashbreeze

"Alright mates, we're becalmed. Time to man the boats and take the ash."  Other than "abandon ship", these were possibly the closest words to a Nightmare On Elm Street that a sailor on the old wooden ships of yesteryear could hear. Why? Well, humor me a moment and imagine yourself faced with the dreadful task of having to help a few other unfortunate souls push a Toyota Tundra from Miami to Richmond  by hand...with your life depending on whether you keep that truck moving.

Since sailing ships were totally dependent upon the wind, any extended period of dead calm meant serious trouble. Bad things happen when a ship sits adrift at sea; real bad things.  The only known remedy was for the ship to be towed along it's course by sheer muscle power until the winds returned.  Sometimes it was a day or 2. But on other occasions it turned into weeks.  A heavy rope was fastened between the mother ship and a jon boat full of men who would row in 8-12 hour shifts. The oars were typically made of White Ash for strength and durability. Since the men were said to be making their own breeze, this desperate measure naturally came to be called "sailing by ashbreeze."

Language by nature is always on the move so, not surprisingly, "sailing by ashbreeze"  was eventually picked up by the general population as a metaphor for finding a way to keep going even when there just seemed to be no way.  And again not surprisingly, with 175 years or so separating us from the era of the wooden ships, the colorful words they gave rise to have all but faded from our collective memory.  A few echoes such as "dead in the water", had the wind knocked out of my sails," and so forth remain in fairly common usage. But to borrow from a popular T.V. commercial, life still comes at us hard. And when it comes we have to break out our own ash, though we might choose to call our thorny rose by a different name.


  1. Ashbreeze it is, then! I enjoy delving into the origin or words. I penned a piece titled 'Seasoned or Unseasoned' with regard to the seafaring journey of thought. Nice piece.

  2. Thank you Donna. I have enjoyed reading your own posts and I would encourage my readers to check out "Creative By Design" under My Blog List. I have decided that the next time I get writer/photog block that rather than let this blog lie dormant, I shall turn to guest writers to cover for me. Don't be surprised if I come knocking at your door.