Batten Down the Hatches!

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How many of us have caught wind of trouble and said, "Batten down the hatches"? We know we have. It's something we say and hear often, but have you ever thought of where the expression comes from?

Okay, we all know what a hatch is, right? Modern boat hatches have latches, but a batten? A long piece of wood? Where the heck would you put one of those? We see them all the time on sheds, covering the cracks between siding boards, but they don't seem to fit anywhere on a boat hatch.

Board and batten siding Board and batten siding


In days of yore, deck hatches looked like this:

Photo: Don Bendickson Photo: Don Bendickson


Lots of holes in them thar hatches, eh? Like everything on a ship, that's by careful design. The wooden grid provides a surface strong enough for sailors to walk on, and the holes admit light and air belowdecks. These heavy hatches didn't need to be propped open for ventilation, but as you can see, they also weren't designed to keep out water. A little spray would be easy to keep ahead of, but heavy seas and pouring rain would run right through and flood the boat.

So, what about those battens? Some of us wondered if "battening the hatches" meant just nailing boards over all those holes, boarding them up like a broken window. That sounded all right, until we thought about all the extra holes that would be left when the nails were pulled out. That couldn't be right.

This is where the boater's trusty friend, the humble tarp, comes in. In the days before the invention of plastics, tarpaulins were made of canvas. When given the order to batten down the hatches, the sailors would cover the hatches with these heavy canvas sheets and nail battens around the hatches' edges to hold the canvas down. This kept the hatches from flapping in heavy weather, and also made them watertight.

We've got it pretty easy these days, what with modern hatches that include seals to keep out water. Wonder what the old-time sailors would think of that?

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