OK, I can hear some of you muttering, what the hell does that have to do with anything? and what is a 'main brace' and why does it need splicing? All good questions and we'll try to sort you out directly.
Today's post came about because I got into a discussion with someone yesterday (British, in the interest of full disclosure) who was advocating Pusser's Rum even after I had told him I only drink Mt. Gay (from Barbadoes)! Pusser's is - or should I say WAS - the preferred spirit of the Royal Navy for generations, right up to what is referred to as "Black Tot Day," 31 July, 1970, when the tradition came to a halt. How sad! However, in the spirit of maintaining a tradition, the Royal Navy still authorizes fleet wide celebrations in honor of a visit from Royalty, New Year's Day, and victories in battle (of which there seem to be a paucity in recent times!). The signal to the fleet, no longer in flags but over the radio, is "splice the mainbrace" and it goes to all ships and even shore units.
But I am getting ahead of myself! Let's see where it started because we eventually have to get ourselves to splicing the mainbrace! The navies of the world, during the Age of Sail, used ardent spirits to fortify their sailors (even been aloft in a blow? Really scary to do it stone cold sober!) and the allowance was a pint of spirits - usually rum in the Royal Navy - per day. It caused some problems - both financially and with accidents aboard ships - so in 174o, Admiral Vernon cut the ration by adding water to it and not allowing the "boys" (under 15) anything but beer.
Needless to say, the sailors were not happy with "Old Grog" - Vernon's nickname due to his habit of wearing a grogham cloak when the weather was up - but the petty officers didn't mind since they got the full allowance, undiluted and an hour before "spirits up" was piped for the crew. Vernon's diluted concoction became known as "grog": 1/2 pint rum, 1 quart water, lime juice, and sugar. The lime juice was, of course, an anti-scorbotic and necessary. The sugar made the mixture more palatable. The mixture was ordered made in front of the crew in a "scuttlebutt" which was then used to distribute the rations.
In bad weather, or when someone or a group (like a gun crew) did something laudable, they recieved and "extra tot" and if the whole crew was particularly heroic, the rum ration was doubled. Conversely, should someone err in some way, the minor punishment was stopping their rum ration. So it worked both ways.
This tradition was adopted by the Royal Navy quickly and remained in effect for over 200 years! Until Black Tot Day, 31 July 1970.
So what about splicing the mainbrace, you say? Ok - the mainbrace was the line - a VERY heavy line - used to control the angle of the mainyard to the wind. Of course, it required a lot of sailors to heave on it to adjust the yard and, should it part, it had to be fixed RIGHT NOW! It was one of the most difficult jobs aloft in a sailing ship and only the most seasoned boatswain's mates were capable of doing it. And it usually occurred in foul weather. But once accomplished, it ALWAYS resulted in an extra ration of spirits being given to the sailor(s) who spliced it. Hence, splicing be the mainbrace became the euphemism for a drink! And when the Queen or other royalty visits a ship of the Royal Navy, the signal is "Splice the Mainbrace" referring not to the heavy brace (the ships don't have yards any more) but to having a pop in celebration.
In the interest of full disclosure, I believe the officers' wardroom is still allowed to have an evening cocktail under certain circumstances.
That's the British Navy's tradition. In the next post, we'll offer the American side.
"Bottoms up!" Toast used when splicing the mainbrace!