martes, 11 de junio de 2013
THE DEVIL’S PLANK
It is of an accepted certainty to historians and scholars that no person was ever made to ‘walk the plank.’ This notion is absurd that a crew of busy sailors – aboard a pitching deck on a rolling sea – would haul out a long and heavy plank, somehow affix it to the deck, then force a man to stagger uncertainly to the end before jumping off.
The fanciful if dramatic notion was most probably born in the imagination of Daniel Defoe [or one of his contemporaries] who, while slumming in seaport dives, may have had heard a sailor say, ‘and they dragged him across the devil’s plank and pitched him into the sea.’ It sounds so colorful that a writer would hasten to copy it down, envisioning a board extending out from the side of the ship, something no practical-minded captain would order and no sensible crew would want or agree to do.
The devil’s plank is, in fact, the most outboard plank of the decking, and there is one to each side of the vessel – starboard and port. It is so called because it is the hardest portion of the deck to seal and therefore the most likely to leak. Leakage, of course, meant water in the accommodations, so it isn’t hard to picture sailormen swearing mightily about it.
From this same plank we get the expression “the devil to pay,” shortened from “the devil to pay and no pitch hot.” Caulking was originally done using rough oakum cording soaked in hot pitch [tree sap] and ‘payed’ into the groove between planks. Pitch could not always be heated, especially during the rough conditions when it was most needed, so the wanting plank was given that infamous name: the Devil’s Plank.
 The reason for this has to do with the juncture of a relatively level plane (the ship’s deck – though not all decks were level) with the curving plane of the hull; a good deal of tension and torque built up in the hull when upon rough seas, and this would be the spot that kinetic energy would come to an abrupt halt, creating a fissure betwixt deck and hull.
 In nautical terms, any item of length (line, rope, caulking) was ‘payed’ out, meaning it was placed, freed, uttered or delivered incrementally.
David Hakim is an internationally-published journalist and award-winning author who has run several newspapers – and recently received a commendation for his short story That Man in the London Aesthetica Competition. He can be reached at dhakim at earthlink.net