After a relatively mild winter, the storms of spring recently landed here in Ireland. I’m lucky to be on the East coast (away from the wildest of the Atlantic winds and generally the worst of the weather) but Storm Doris still managed to pop out four of our garden fence panels and blasted trees, trampolines, roof-tiles, and electricity wires down around the village.
So when I read stories this week of windjammers in Breverton’s “Nautical Curiosities” I had to find out how they got their name. Terry Breverton tells me that “windjammer was a derogatory term among steamship crew for any square-rigged sailing ship”. Merriam-Webster adds that the term arose in the 1880s.
Windjammer is a collective name for various types of square-rigged sailing ships built in the late 1800s to carry large amounts of bulk cargo such as timber, grain, or ore, between continents using the prevailing winds. They’re not the same as the earlier sailing ships, the clippers, which carried less and traveled faster. Windjammers had between three and five masts and often circumnavigated the globe on their voyages.
The steamship crews didn’t need to mock the windjammers. Once steam was perfected the days of sail were, sadly, numbered. The steam ships could round Cape Horn (the tip of South America) in 1,000 miles but under sail it would take 1,500 miles. Heading east, with the winds, that would take a week. Heading west, against the winds, that could take two or even three weeks. In 1914 the Edward Sewall took 67 days, twice being blasted back to a position she’d already passed and finally covering 5,000 miles in the trip.
There are two stories about the origin of the word windjammer. The first, and most likely to be true, is that it came from English – the sails “jammed” the wind, i.e. blocked it, because there were so many of them.
The second while less likely to be correct, has a certain romance to it. The idea is that the word comes from Dutch and German verb jammern which means to wail and refers to the sound of strong winds blowing through all that rigging.
Happy wordfooling this week and if the winds pick up, jump on a windjammer,
p.s. I’ve just joined Instagram. I’m posting photos of historic spots in Ireland (and on my travels). If your instagram passion is history – let me know and I’ll follow.
p.p.s. To readers in the UK and Ireland – Happy World Book Day on Thursday!