What’s a Sea Shanty Anyway?

The most well known type of shanty shantyman-bronze(or “chantey”) is the song that is chanted by sailors and pirates alike!  The mystery and intrigue that surrounds them is vast and deep, like the seas that inspired them.

For example, what are all those lyrics about?  And are there different types of songs?

For the most part, they describe the antics, toils and daily living both at sea and in port, that the seamen would undergo.  The experiences varied greatly, depending on the captain and crew involved, but one thing was for certain – the voyages were most often long and arduous, and the crew had to have something to keep their minds engaged as they coordinated the rhythmic efforts required to haul on the lines of square-rigged ships.

The most important thing about keeping a crew functioning well as a group, was to keep their minds engaged and focused on the business at hand.  There is a certain rhythm to any task, but especially when it is physically intense and requires endurance, the employment of a beat by drum or by shantyman (chant leader) is critical.  

It is sort of like “whistle while you work”, but in a communal, team building sense!  It is said that many a crew refused to lift a finger until there was a good shanty to be sung.

Traditional shanties can be grouped into three types:  

  • Short haul shanties, for quick pull type tasks – intense, but short
  • Halyard shanties, for work requiring more setup time and heavier work
  • Capstan shanties, for tasks that required long-term sustained rhythm – usually not involving working the lines.

Each rhythm paced for a specific purpose.

Enjoy this tribute to Geoff Agisim, a well known Shantyman!

Geoff Agisim Tribute

Check our next post when we will discuss shanties by the sea!

From Sunfish to Schooner…

Sunfish-seashantyI first learned to sail at summer camp when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and I remember how natural it felt to hold the tiller in one hand as I adjusted the main sheet (in fact, the only sheet) with the  other and zipped around in my trusty little Sunfish.  It’s such a bizarre and wondrous feeling of empowerment–to harness the wind through such swift and synchronized movements, maneuvering your vessel as best you could, trying to remember the points of sail while reading the tells near the top of your main, listening for luffing and trying to trim accordingly.

Within years of those initial solo voyages on Long Pond I was crewing aboard a 52 foot yacht in the British Virgin Islands, working with a group of teenagers under the tutelage of veteran sailors and learning the basics of navigation.  What a different experience, I realize now, it must have been to be a young man setting out to apprentice or crew on the schooners and clippers found in Melville and Stevenson’s work.  There was none of the gruffness, no stench of sweat and filth, and aboard my particular vessel there was a lack of whatever bond it is that allows for its crew to indulge in one of the most captivating Maritime traditions: the singing of sea shanties.

Where and how were these songs developed?  How is it that large groups of no-nonsense, saltwater of the earth men ended up singing together, and moreover, developed an expansive repertoire of songs known communally among sailors across the seven seas, which were in fact specific to the many various types of work aboard merchant vessels (and other sorts of vessels, I’m sure)?  Well, I’m not sure I’m going to answer any of those questions, but I do hope to have some fun meandering through all sorts of thoughts related to the experience of sailors and the countless other types of people involved in maritime business endeavours.  Join me!