“Ignorance of the crosscatharpins is not necessarily fatal. Explanation almost certainly would be.”
The cliché goes that there are two types of people – those who believe that there are two types of people and those who don’t. There are no doubt many more than two types of types of readers of nautical fiction. Nevertheless my guess is that as it applies to jargon, there may indeed be only two types.
The first type, and probably the smarter of the two, are those who read the jargon and let the words wash over them like a breaking wave, catching what they can in context but not caring too very much if they understand the finer points of rigging an eighteenth century ship, or, as is often the case in Patrick O’Brian’s books, the lost art of English suet puddings with exotic names like “drowned baby” and “spotted dick”. Their approach is like that of reading the more technical sub-genres of science fiction, where one need not necessarily understand quantum physics to enjoy the story. (Indeed, I suspect too much understanding of the science might get in the way.)
The other type of nautical fiction reader is the jack-tar wannabe, the rigging/sailing/quarterdeck wonk who will take the time to look up the obscure bit of jargon. Unless one plans on sailing on a square rigger (an activity I would encourage if at all possible) there may not be any great benefit in understanding all the terminology. Even if you do plan on sailing on a square rigger, it might not help.
Which brings of to the case of Patrick O’Brian and his crosscatharpins. In several of his books, Jack Aubrey goes on at some length regarding the virtue of crosscatharpins. Despite O’Brian’s warning that an explanation of catharpins might be fatal, I charged ahed. I knew from checking Falconer that catharpins were for tightening the shrouds, particularly the futtocks, to allow the yards to be braced closer to the wind.
For most sane folks we have already traveled far further into arcana than anyone might wish to go. Then again, for a rigging wonk this is just a warm up. I now had a reasonably good idea of where catharpins would be rigged and I was looking forward to seeing for myself. I was sailing as volunteer crew on the replica of the HMS ROSE with a group of fellow Patrick O’Brien afficiandos and would have the opportunity to climb the rigging and to see for myself.
It took only a few minutes aboard to understand that my search for catharpins would come to naught. In the 19th century the rigging of the futtocks, which had been rigged directly to the lower shrouds, were now rigged to an iron or steel futtock band, giving the top greater stability and strength. The shift from iron or steel from hemp shrouds made catharpins unnecessarily. As I looked up at the ROSE’s steel shrouds and futtock stays, I knew my quest for catharpins would be limited to within the pages of books. Even on a replica frigate they were mere relics of the past.