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Seafaring A-Z Alphabet – “J” is for…


Seafaring “J” is for…

Let’s get this rolling with:

Jack tar

Merchant navy

Jack Tar – Jack Tar was a common English term originally used to refer to seamen of the Merchant or Royal Navy. It was mainly used during the times of the British Empire, and “jolly Jacks” would make themselves known in the far flung vestiges of the world.

Steadily the term began to be used for sailors of whatever nationality, and by World War I the term was used as a nickname for those in the U.S. Navy too. It was a nickname which was popular with the public, and seafarers themselves, unlike many such terms it was in no way offensive, and sailors were happy to use the term to label themselves.

There are several plausible etymologies for the reference to ‘tar’. The most likely involved the use of tar, not just on the ship, but on clothes and hair.

Sailors were known to ‘tar’ their clothes before departing on voyages, in order to make them waterproof. This was long before the invention of waterproof fabrics, so there was little option for them if they wanted to keep the worst excesses of the weather out.

Another possible origin is the fact it was common amongst sailors to plat their long hair into a ponytail and smear it with high grade tar to prevent it getting caught in the ship’s equipment. Also given that hygiene was often a problem, in the time before shampoo it was used to keep the hair free of lice.

The use of tar in the hair explains why naval uniforms had a piece of cloth on the back of their clothing – as this was used to protect their tunic from the tar.



Jetsam – As we discussed in the letter “F” – Flotsam and jetsam are terms that describe two types of marine debris associated with vessels.

Flotsam is defined as debris in the water that was not deliberately thrown overboard, often as a result from a shipwreck or accident. While jetsam describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by a crew of a ship in distress, most often to lighten the ship’s load.

Under maritime law the distinction is important. Flotsam may be claimed by the original owner, whereas jetsam may be claimed as property of whoever discovers it. If the jetsam is valuable, the discoverer may collect proceeds received though the sale of the salvaged objects.

Usually not much attention is paid to the issue as to whether goods are flotsam or jetsam – but when the cargo of “MSC Napoli” began to wash up on the beaches of the southern UK, then all of a sudden people were very interested indeed.

Treasure hunters descended encase to Branscombe beach in Devon – prompted by containers of BMW motorbikes, barrels of wine and sundry other goodies being washed ashore.

The light-fingered beachcombers took what they could – and people even brought vans to ensure they could take whatever they fancied away…that is where the problems came in and the small matter than taking the cargo was potentially illegal.

In the UK, the 1854 Merchant Shipping Act, set out rules on picking up flotsam and jetsam. Salvage, and indeed deliberate wrecking of ships, around the coast has a long history. To discourage the wreckers, it the cargo of a wrecked ship still, basically, belongs to the original owner.

The principles governing ownership and recovery go back at least to the 1300s. If people take cargo which is “flotsam”, then they have to fill in a form and state what they have.

There may be a case for claiming that the effort of taking the flotsam from the beach has saved it, and there may well be a reward for such actions. Hiding such goods and not giving them back is a criminal offence, with a possible fine of up to £2,500 per offence.

Jetsam on the other hand is different – this has been sacrificed, and is no longer wanted. So if found, then it becomes the property of the finder. The word flotsam derives from the French word “floter”, to float. Jetsam is a shortened word for jettison.

Jettison – In order for there to be jetsam, there needs to have been a deliberate act of throwing goods or fittings overboard in an effort to preserve a ship in peril.

In marine insurance and legal terms, to jettison cargo means throwing certain good overboard in order to lighten the load of a ship in emergency situations. It is necessitated to avoid a marine peril. In order to comply with the various requirements, the jettisoning must be done deliberately.

The load to be thrown off is left to the master of the ship. The loss caused by jettisoning is covered under general clause. While there is also a “jettison clause” that may be used in a bill of lading or charter-party and refers to the circumstances under which a master can jettison goods from a ship.

Jolly Roger

Jolly roger

Jolly Roger – Jolly Roger is the traditional English name for the flags flown to identify a pirate ship about to attack during the early 18th century (i.e. the later part of the “Golden Age of Piracy”).

The flag most commonly identified as the Jolly Roger today, the skull and crossbones symbol on a black flag, was used during the 1710s by a number of pirate captains including “Black Sam” Bellamy, Edward England, and John Taylor and it went on to become the most commonly used pirate flag during the 1720s.

Use of the term Jolly Roger in reference to pirate flags goes back to at least Charles Johnson’s “A General History of the Pyrates”, published in Britain in 1724. Johnson specifically cites two pirates as having named their flag “Jolly Roger”: Bartholomew Roberts in June 1721 and Francis Spriggs in December 1723.

While Spriggs and Roberts used the same name for their flags, their flag designs were quite different, suggesting that already “Jolly Roger” was a generic term for black pirate flags rather than a name for any single specific design. Neither Spriggs’ nor Roberts’ Jolly Roger consisted of a skull and crossbones, for instance.

Richard Hawkins, who was captured by pirates in 1724, reported that the pirates had a black flag bearing the figure of a skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear, which they named “Jolly Roger”. The origin of the name is unclear.

Jolly Roger had been a generic term for a jovial, carefree man since at least the 17th century and the existing term seems to have been applied to the skeleton or grinning skull in these flags by the early 18th century.

It is sometimes claimed that the term derives from “Jolie Rouge” (“Pretty Red”) in reference to a red flag used by French privateers. This hypothesis is considered a false etymology, as the phrase “Jolie Rouge” in reference to a pirate flag does not appear in any historical sources.

Pirates did not fly the Jolly Roger at all times. Like other vessels, pirate ships usually stocked a variety of different flags, and would normally fly false colours or no colours until they had their prey within firing range. When the pirates’ intended victim was within range, the Jolly Roger would be raised, often simultaneously with a warning shot.

The flag was probably intended as communication of the pirates’ identity, which may have given target ships an opportunity to change their mind and surrender without a fight. Historically, a pirate ship which was attacking would fly a solid black flag. This would indicate that, so long as no one resisted the attack of the pirates, all would be given quarter. However, upon resistance the flag would be changed to a solid red flag indicating that no mercy would be shown.

The Jolly Roger has entered into popular culture, and is used by many from football teams, the South African team Orlando Pirates has a skull and crossbones badge, as does the German team St Pauli.

There is also now a tradition of using the Jolly Rodger on submarines. This stems from 1901 when Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC said submarines were “underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. … treat all submarines as pirates in wartime … and hang all crews.” Upon learning of this, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton, raised the Jolly Rodger when his submarine was returning to port after sinking the German ships SMS Hela and the destroyer SMS S-116. Thus, the tradition was born that on the completion of a successful mission, the returning submarine should fly the Jolly Roger. This eventually spread into the Jolly Roger being the official emblem of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.

Jones Act – The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 also known as the “Jones Act”, is a United States federal statute that provides for the promotion and maintenance of the American merchant marine.

The law regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. Section 27 of the Jones Act deals with cabotage and requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents.

The act was introduced by Senator Wesley Jones, hence the name. Laws similar to the Jones Act date to the early days of the nation. In the First Congress, on September 1, 1789, Congress enacted Chapter XI, “An Act for Registering and Clearing Vessels, Regulating the Coasting Trade, and for other purposes”, which limited domestic trades to American ships meeting certain requirements.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 has been revised a number of times; the most recent revision in 2006 included recodification in the U.S. Code. The Jones Act prevents foreign-flagged ships from carrying cargo between the US mainland and “non-contiguous parts” of the US, such as Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, and Guam.

Foreign ships inbound with goods cannot stop any of these four locations, offload goods, load mainland-bound goods, and continue to US mainland ports. Instead, they must proceed directly to US mainland ports, where distributors break bulk and then send goods to US places off the mainland by US-flagged ships. Jones Act restrictions can be circumvented by making a stop in a foreign country between two US ports.

Because the Jones Act requires all transport between US ports be carried on US-built ships, the Jones Act supports the domestic US shipbuilding industry. There are criticisms that this means Jones Act vessels tend to be older and not replaced as often, because of the expense involved.

Jacobs Ladder


Jacob’s ladder – The term Jacob’s ladder, used on a ship, applies to two kinds of ladders.

The first is a flexible hanging ladder. It consists of vertical ropes or chains supporting horizontal, historically round and wooden, rungs. Today, flat-runged flexible ladders are also called Jacob’s ladders.

They are used to allow access over the side of ships and as a result Pilot ladders are often incorrectly referred to as Jacob’s ladders – which is not the case. A pilot ladder has specific regulations on step size, spacing and the use of spreaders.

It is the use of spreaders in a pilot ladder that distinguishes it from a Jacob’s ladder. Spreaders are long extended treads that spread out well past the vertical ropes to stop the ladder from twisting. This makes it safer for the pilot when the ship rolls and the ladder is no longer in contact with the ship’s side).

On late 19th-century warships Jacob’s ladders would replace the normal fixed ladders on deck during battle. These and railings would be removed and replaced while preparing for battle the days before. This was done to prevent them from blocking line of sight or turning into shrapnel when hit by enemy shells.

The second applies to a kind of ladder found on square rigged ships. To climb above the lower mast to the topmast and above, sailors must get around the top, a platform projecting from the mast. Although on many ships the only way round was the overhanging futtock shrouds, modern-day tall ships often provide an easier vertical ladder from the ratlines as well. This is the Jacob’s ladder.

The name comes from the biblical tale of Jacob’s Ladder, the colloquial name for a connection between the earth and heaven that Jacob dreamed of during his flight from his brother Esau, as described in the Book of Genesis.

Jump Ship

Jump ship

Jump Ship – To jump ship is the act of seafarers leaving the vessel without permission, with no intention of returning.

There has been a very long history of seafarers deciding that they want to remain ashore – whether in their own country or the port they are visiting. This has meant that many have made the decision to leave the ship.

While there are many historic examples, there are modern ones too. Seafarers have been known to abscond in places such as the Canada, the US and Australia – this is especially true of seafarers from less developed countries who seemingly believe they will be able to start a new life, in this new place.

There are those who believe these actions relate to the standing of seafarers, and the terrible treatment that they were afforded in centuries past. There have even been academic studies into the issue of runaway slaves in the USA and the comparative, and similar treatment meted out to sailors.

In 1790, the US Congress enacted a bill that provided for the summary seizure of labourers fleeing from their work of work.25 The Act also provided for the punishment of anyone attempting to aid a labourer who was fleeing his master.

The labourers subject to the Act were not slaves or indentured labourers, but sailors. Indeed, the Act was not the Fugitive Slave Act, which would later be passed by the Second Congress in 1793, but the Merchant Seamen’s Act.

Seafarers have a long history of suffering appalling treatment – and so often their only recourse was to try and escape – by jumping ship. In more modern times, this is not usually (though sometimes can be) related to poor treatment onboard, but it more likely an attempt to skirt migration rules and laws.

Back in 2000 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 40 Russian seafarers from a factory fishing vessel simply decided that they wanted to remain in Canada, so literally in some cases jumped from the ship.