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Rated: E · Essay · Action/Adventure · #2294014
A Sea Scout Skipper designs a crowd-pleasing prank for an exhibition of Scuttlebutt Hoist.
Doc’s Scuttlebutt Cap - by James Fox

In the halcyon days of my youth, I was in the Sea Explorers. This offshoot of the Boy Scouts of America is often called Sea Scouts. So, yes, we had sea scouts in the caveman days!

In the mid-1960’s we cruised aboard a 65-foot former aircraft rescue boat, the SSS Tuolumne, of Modesto, California. But the boat was actually ported in Stockton so we land-locked kids could cruise all the way to San Francisco during our floating summer camp. The vessel's Skipper was "Doc" Van-Valen, a local Podiatrist. Our Sea Scout Post and ship's emblem, (and I don't know how BSA ever approved this,) was a Skull and Crossbones, shaded in a yin-yang black over white. To the delight of every adolescent boy who joined the crew, First Mate Daryl, our "Skipper" for events, had a wooden leg... actually, a prosthetic leg. But that was close enough for our imaginations to see ourselves as rowdy sea-dogs!

One spring there was the annual gathering of scouts and explorers, for the Scout-o-Rama, where various skills are demonstrated for the public. After signing up our post for an exhibit, Doc allowed the Skipper to add an unexpected prank for our demonstration of the Scuttlebutt Hoist. An event usually held at Sea Scout Regattas, the competitive gathering where Sea Scouts demonstrate their nautical skills, is the Scuttlebutt Hoist competition.

To understand the competition, you need to know that the old sailors' term for a large, sealed cask was "butt." A "scuttled butt" or "Scuttlebutt" is a cask with a vent hole drilled into the top and another at the bottom with a spigot installed. This would be the water cask on board a ship. A filled scuttlebutt is quite heavy so often a ship's crew and a shore crew on the dock would work together to hoist that keg safely aboard. News and gossip would be shared among the two crews as they worked, leading to the nautical term "scuttlebutt" meaning rumor and gossip.

The Scuttlebutt Hoist is a timed event at Sea Explorer Regattas. Three 15-foot spars are laid out alongside a 55-gallon barrel filled with water up to within 3 inches of the brim. Rope for lashing and creating a barrel sling, as well as a disassembled block and tackle (rope and pulleys) are also laid out. The crew is lined up in formation. At the start signal the crew scrambles forward and lashes the spars into a tripod, creates a barrel hitch sling, assembles the block and tackle, and then upon the Boson's command they “haul away” on the pulley rope to lift the barrel three feet off the ground. A measuring stick is used to verify the height. The crew lowers the barrel, trying not to lose points by spilling any water. The tripod is tipped, lowered to the ground, lashings removed, and the block and tackle disassembled. The crew rushes back into formation, and "Time" is called. Many crews can complete this task in two minutes or less; seemingly with controlled, silent, chaos!

At a Scout-o-Rama the event is usually not timed but is run every half-hour to showcase the Sea-scouts’ skills. The prank that Doc Van-Valen allowed the Skipper to add as a crowd-pleaser for this event, was to add a Cap. The hoist crew, before each session was to start, would tip the barrel just enough to slide a beaten-up, rust-stained Captain's Cap underneath. The cap was attached to the end of a 15-foot-long lanyard.

When ready to run the Scuttlebutt Hoist, our Boson’s Mate would explain the hoist procedure to the audience and ask for a "time-check volunteer" from the crowd. That clueless soul would be told to hold the knot at the end of the lanyard, its 15-foot length ensuring that they were positioned safely out of the way of the action. The volunteer was told that once the barrel was hoisted and height from the ground verified, they needed to reel in the cap really fast. As soon as the barrel was lowered, tripod tilted and laid on the ground, the gear disassembled, and the crew all lined back up, the volunteer was to wave the cap in the air and call out "Time."

Once the event started, the eager volunteer would watch eagle-eyed, hands gripping the lanyard, reeling it in as instructed, ready to wave the cap and shout, “time!” As soon as the volunteer raised the cap and shouted, the skipper (hat-less) would rush up and growl, "Belay that! YOU don't call time, I call time!" Then his eyes would widen, and he'd grab the crushed, soiled cap and wail, "My Cap! MY CAP! ... What happened to my cap?" Turning, he'd snarl at the crew "All right! Who did this to my cap?" The crew would all look up and down the line, and one by one, silently turn and point at the hapless volunteer!

As the immediate shock wore off and the volunteer realized it was a joke, they received an "Ask me about Scuttlebutt" button. They'd usually rush off to find a friend to "set up" as the next session's "volunteer!" (My, aren't we an odd species?)

I recommend that you don’t miss the chance to see the Scuttlebutt Competition at a Regatta or Scout-O-Rama. With or without Doc’s Scuttlebutt Cap prank, this is an exciting event, as well as a look back into the days of sail and the tall ships.

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