Monday, 9 October 2017

Hull down

The title is not a snide shot at the current European City of Culture...

There was a time when English was full of metaphors and sayings from sailing the sea. "Three sheets in the wind," or " "half seas over," for "drunk." "The devil to pay," (lengthy one to explain, do look it up if you're interested) "not enough room to swing a cat," (ditto) and so on.

During the late eighteenth century, the Royal Navy was the largest single industrial enterprise in the world, and a huge proportion of the male population were or had been sailors. Not so nowadays, despite every available creek on the South Coast being jammed with boats (many of which are little-used.) So I guess we can expect the sailing references to gradually fall out of use - to be replaced perhaps by the delights of internet terminology...

One that may be dropping out of awareness and use is "hull down." If you look at the horizon in this (poor quality, sorry!) photo, about a third of the way across from the left, you'll see a white dot. That's the superstructure of a ship "hull down." In other words, the curvature of the earth is hiding the hull from us and only the superstructure is poking above the horizon.

With sailing ships the masts of which could be 140 feet high, this would have been a more easily-visible phenomenon.

In the ancient world, it was generally assumed that the earth was flat, because it appeared so. Pythagoras, then Aristotle, worked out that it wasn't, but news would have spread slowly. By medival times in Europe, it seems that people generally grasped the idea that the planet was not flat. Some historians think that despite the sophistications and splendours of Chinese civilization, it was the 16th or 17 centuries before they wised up.

Sailors and coast watchers could have told them about the curvarture of the earth as soon as boats were large enough to sail over the horizon on a clear day. Logically, if the atmosphere is clear enough to see the masts and sails, why can't I see the hull? Because the earth is curved. If it's curved, why doesn't all the water pour off it? Aha. It must be curved all the way round, i.e. a sphere.

Which is a long-winded way of wondering when it is wise to entirely trust our senses, i.e. an empirical attitude, and when we need more abstract thought, i.e. a burst of reasoning.

Or, as in the example of hull-down sailing ships, both.

 This huge freighter, heading off across the Indian Ocean on a long voyage, isn't hull down, but it soon will be. And at least I got the horizon more or less level in this photo.

Perhaps when I was taking the first shot I was slightly unnerved by a sign painted on the path under my feet:

Indeed they do. A local woman, 75 years of age, was walking this path a couple of years ago and was unfortunate enough to be bitten by a dugite. ("Doogite," for fellow poms.) Her big mistake was to think that since she didn't feel too bad, she'd get home and phone from there. The official advice is immobility and summoning help quickly, since the dugite is "potentially" lethal. When she got home, she said "I think I've made a big mistake." Horrifyingly, one of the symptoms of dugite venom is said to be a feeling of impending doom. In her case, tragically, the feeling was an accurate portent. The medics couldn't save her.

Not all Australian snakes are lethal, of course, but if I see one, I'm pretty soon hull down, from the snake's point of view.

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