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Sea Stories: Cumshaw


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Sea Stories: #39 – Cumshaw


A time-honored Navy tradition and method of getting what you need, when you need it, is the ancient practice known as “Cumshaw.”  This is basically bribery, offering an inducement in goods or services to the provider of something you need who does not have to meet your requirement, but who may then decide to do so.  You provide something of value to someone, who then provides something of value to you. This may work as follows. 

You need something from a particular work center aboard your ship.  They are busy, so aren’t particularly energized about providing your need immediately.  So you offer to send over one of your junior enlisted men to help them in some menial tasks, easing their workload temporarily.  And presto, you get what you need on an expedited basis.  Cumshaw.

In my day, the gold standard of Cumshaw material was ground coffee.  The Navy runs on coffee.  No matter what anyone may say about nuclear power, jet fuel, diesel, or gasoline, ships and shore stations require prodigious quantities of hot coffee to function.  Pretty much every work center, watch station and mess facility has one or more pots going, whenever work or watchstanding is being done.   If some future enemy ever corners the global market on coffee beans and threatens war with the US Navy, capitulation will occur without a shot being fired.  Navy coffee is traditionally prepared about double normal strength to that of a civilian supplier, and each pot has a pinch of salt added “to settle the grounds.”  THAT is what Navy coffee tastes like, at least in my day.  What with the ongoing PC wussification of the fleet, it is possible that Keurig cups of mocha-choka latte soymilk blech have found their way aboard ship, but I sincerely hope not.  Keurig cups won’t win our next sea battle.

Let’s say that your ship is looking a little the worse for wear, and the Captain wants a new sparkling white overhead awning made for the Quarterdeck.  These were traditionally made from white canvas, but today are probably constructed of a thick PVC material called Herculite.   The First Lieutenant (Deck Division officer) passes this requirement on to his Leading Chief Petty Officer (A Chief Boatswain’s Mate,) who directs a less-senior petty officer to put in a work request with the Canvas Shop in whatever shore-side maintenance facility supports the ship.  The word comes back that the Shop is fully booked, and filling this requirement will likely take 1-2 months.  The Captain is not going to be best pleased, and everyone knows what happens when the Captain isn’t pleased.  So the Chief Boatswain’s Mate takes a little walk over to the Canvas Shop with a seabag over his shoulder.  He speaks privately with the Chief Petty Officer who supervises the Shop.  Mystical incantations and secret signs known only to initiated Chief Petty Officers are exchanged, and a couple of #10 cans of ground coffee change hands.  The Canvas Shop guy works a bit longer that evening, on his “personal time”, or perhaps a subordinate is assigned extra duty for some infraction.  Either way, the work gets done, a sparkling new awning appears on your ship within a few days, the Canvas Shop has a supply of hot coffee for the next week or two, and the Captain is pleased.  Cumshaw wins again.

An even older tradition of Cumshaw used to be practiced aboard ships back when daily rum rations occurred. 

From Wikipedia:  “The UK Navy rum ration, or "tot", from 1850 to 1970 consisted of one-eighth of an imperial pint (71 ml) of rum at 95.5 proof (54.6% ABV), given out to every sailor at midday. Senior ratings (petty officers and above) received their rum neat, whilst for junior ratings it was diluted with two parts of water to make three-eighths of an imperial pint (213 ml) of grog.[1] The rum ration was served from one particular barrel, also known as the "Rum Tub", which was ornately decorated and was made of oak and reinforced with brass bands with brass letters saying "The Queen, God Bless Her".

Note that the rum ration was only stopped on 31 July 1970 in the UK Royal Navy, and it lasted until 1990 in the Royal New Zealand Navy!  Spirit rations were important to morale in an age when sea service was arduous, painful, and dangerous.  The alcohol basically helped anesthetize a sailor who spent much of his life cold, wet, sore, hungry and tired.  So a sailor’s rum ration was a valuable commodity which could be traded for other things of value, like standing a watch in his stead, or ironing his uniform, or making him a fancy knotwork lanyard for his Boatswain’s Pipe.  And as all services rendered were not of equal value, the inducement offered was likewise graduated.  A shipmate’s rum ration might be apportioned in several ways: 

“Wetters” – you could just drink enough to wet your lips for a flavor of rum.

“Sippers”  - you could take a sip, but not a full drink.

“Gulpers” – you could take a full gulp of rum or grog, enough to make your Adam’s Apple bob once.

“Halfers” – you got exactly half of the man’s daily ration

Or you might be traded the entire draught of rum or grog. 


Old ways got to be old ways by being effective.  And sailors usually find a way to get the job done.






Edited by Gunboat1
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My ship was stationed in Charleston, SC. A little further up the river was the Charleston Navy Yard.  I use to prowl their dump for electronics newer than what was on my ship.  It was a compelling hobby, electronics.

One trip I found an excellent wooden case with a rope handle.  It was scrap but built well and would serve a useful purpose for storing crap at home.  I lived off the ship when I wasn't on duty.

I threw the wooden case into the trunk of my car. 

The Shore Patrol used to pick random cars to pick apart, to make sure no one was stealing from the US Navy.

This day it was my turn.

I was directed to a special area and told to open the car doors and the trunk and step away from the car.  Of course I knew what was in the trunk, so I moved to the trunk of the car.

 The person looked into the car interior, and then the trunk.  Then he backed up a ways and pulled his pistol and shouted to the others to hold me.

He asked me what was in the box marked, "MK- XXX Grenades".  Being of unsound mind, I quipped "nothing!". and at the same time I flipped the box open.

Everyone except me, fell back a ways.  

The box was empty, as I had told them.

They didn't like me for a few days.  I guess I wasn't "real Navy".

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