For years we sailed San Francisco Bay in a boat called Canto del Mare (Song of the Sea). When we started sailing in Italy, we had to master a new maritime vocabulary, starting with the names for various Italian boats (imbarcazioni italiane):
*Rowboat — barca a remi
*Sailboat — barca a vela
*Sailing ship — veliero
*Motor boat — motoscafo
*Cruise ship — nave da crociera
*Ferry — traghetto
*Hydrofoil — aliscafo, from ali for wings
*Steamboat, waterbus (in Venice) — vaporetto
*Raft — zattera
We also had to learn words to use on board. Starboard (to the right) translates as tribordo; port (to the left), as babordo. The bow or front of a barca is called the prua; the stern, the poppa; the helm, the timone. The word cambusa doubles as the name for a boat’s galley and for an on-board cook. Also good to know: giubbotto salvagente (life vest).
During our sailing days in San Francisco, my husband would take the helm (stare al timone or, figuratively, prendere il comando) as capitano and navigatore. The crew (l’equipaggio) consisted of me. Although I’d never make the grade as a sailor, I learned how to hoist (issare) and lower (calare) the sails (le vele)—not always easy in rough seas. These days I’d probably qualify only as a mozzo (ship’s boy).
Even a lupo di mare (sea wolf or expert mariner) needs more than a bussola (compass) to navigate il mar Tirreno (the Tyrrhenian sea). First of all, you need to pay close attention to la marea (the tide), which may be alta (high) or bassa (low). A guide for marinai (mariners) warns of scogli isolati (scattered large rocks) that are poco visibili con mare mosso (barely visible in high seas). Over the centuries many a boat has been shipwrecked (è naufragata) and crews and passengers have drowned (annegati) in these treacherous waters. On dark nights fari (lighthouses), white towers perched upon rocky points, guide ships to safety. Once they were manned by human sentinels; now almost all are automated.
Even on dry land, you may hear una barca di (a boat load or lot of) nautical sayings. You and other travelers might be stranded by a storm and end up nella stessa barca (in the same boat). Be wary of those who tend to promettere mari e monti (promise seas and mountains — or the moon). In hard times, you may have to do whatever you can to mandare avanti la barca (send the boat forward, keep afloat) or barcamenarsi (manage, cope). Sometimes the best solution is tirare i remi in barca (to back down, give something a rest; literally to pull the oars into the boat).
If you’re prone to mal di mare (seasickness) or qualify as a marinaio della domenica (Sunday or fair-weather sailor), I recommend sticking to navigare su internet (sailing the web).
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. Treccani has published an Italian translation, LA BELLA LINGUA: la mia story d’amore con l’Italiano.