Rounding the Horn

Mark Nelson

Mark Nelson, 

Rounding the horn is meant to describe the event where a ship goes beneath Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Crossing from Atlantic to Pacific, or vice versa, is a perilous passage due to inclement weather and notorious williwaw winds, which are unexpected gusts that plunge from a mountainous coast to the sea.

In 1520, a Portuguese explorer named Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to attempt the feat, losing a ship, the Santiago, in the process. He never actually rounded the horn as he discovered a passage, now known as the Strait of Magellan, which allowed his ships a safer passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Any sailor who has rounded the horn is awarded the special allowance of placing an elbow on the table at a Naval Mess Dinner, an act that is normally frowned upon. Usually, it is a diner who coyly props an elbow on the table just as the President looks over the gathering, allowing for an admonishment which can be corrected by a glorious retelling of the special day when that diner had rounded the horn.

It should be noted how tales of the sea become more magnificent every time they are retold. The act of telling sea stories is often referred to as swinging the lamp, made about a lamp that might be slung from a deckhead and prone to swinging at sea. Folklore states that as the storyteller increases the embellishment of the story, the lamp increases its swinging.

An allowance for an elbow on the table is also made for those who have transited the southern tip of Africa, denoted as the Cape of Good Hope, a treacherous point of land that lies just beyond Cape Town. Technically, a diner who has traversed Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope could put both elbows on the table.

There are many rules at a Naval Mess Dinner, none stricter than those involving toasts. Most importantly, no toast will be given until the Royal Sovereign is honoured. In the Navy, the loyal toast is given with attendees seated, a custom practised since King William IV. He had served as a naval officer and experienced the discomfort of standing onboard a ship and hitting his head on a low beam. Thus, he authorized all naval personnel to toast him while seated. This practice is still carried out to this day, as long as neither the Sovereign nor any other member of the Royal Family is present, in which case the toast is given while seated only if the royal guest approves.

Once the loyal toast is complete, the Navy traditionally honours the day with a predetermined Toast of the Day: Monday, “Our ships”; Tuesday, “Our sailors”; Wednesday, “Ourselves”; Thursday, “Our Navy”; Friday, “Our nation”; Saturday, “Our families”; and Sunday, “Absent friends.” The most junior member present usually gives the Toast of the Day, and the diners are ever watchful to be sure that an inexperienced person gets it right, even if the President at the dinner alters the day of the toast, as they occasionally do.

You will find over 4,000 examples of Jackspeak in my book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).

The author of Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy and Whiskey 601, Mark Nelson developed a love of the Navy’s language and lifestyle over his 26-year career in the service. After retiring as a Chief Petty Officer Second Class, he now works as a library systems specialist at Red River College Polytechnic in Winnipeg, Man.

Follow Mark on Twitter @4marknelson

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