Bill Casselman

A skiff is a light boat, oarworthy, rowable, sailable, carried on board or attached to a larger vessel, to be used transporting small loads to shore or for light duties at sea. Skiff is a doublet of Old High German scif  ‘ship’ which entered French as esquif, Spanish as esquife and had been borrowed into English by the sixteenth century.

In his 1840 sea novel, Two Years before the Mast American writer Richard Henry Dana, Jr. tried to render “the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is.” One passage reads: “We took a little skiff that lay on the beach, and paddled off.” Many who know only the title of this fine sea tale don’t know the precise reference in Dana’s title. The term “before the mast” designates quarters for common sailors — in the forecastle, at the front of the ship where high seas and jolty chop buffet lowly mariners trying to grab a few minutes shut-eye or the earned repose of Neptune’s slumber.

Ernest Hemingway loved the word and put it into the opening sentence of his 1952 novel The Old Man and The Sea: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

The word has a monosyllabic quickness whose zest appeals to writers adept at metaphor, e.g. “The wise men of old have sent most of their morality down the stream of time in the light skiff of apothegm and epigram.”
 (Edwin P. Whipple).

In President John F. Kennedy’s 1955 book Profiles in Courage, JFK may or may not have written: “We have not fully recognized the difficulty facing a politician conscientiously desiring, in Daniel Webster’s words, ‘to push [his] skiff from the shore alone’ into a hostile and turbulent sea.”

Even a love of high sailing adventure in a skiff speaks out as in this testimonial by David Poston: “That feeling when you're flying downwind, the boat goes up a wave and drops stern-first off the top of it, and you know you’ve just gone airborne! Wahooooooo!”

Yes, skiff is here to stay in English. I knew the owner of a wee skiff who named his boat Velox, a Latin adjective meaning ‘speedy, fast,” and indeed it was fleet of bow, its prow an agile cleaver of lake waves, its music the sleek undulant murmur of water purling past the port and starboard gunwales of the little craft.

Once in a long while one might accompany him. But, contrary to current Christian blather, he maintained that some actions were better for the soul when not shared. One of these was to be alone at the helm of Velox. Mellow was the bliss, said he, of such a water-borne solitude. 

Bill Casselman.

May 20, 2016

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