The Devil to Pay in a Book About Trees

This month, a book about trees took me to the high seas and the origin of a couple of phrases I’ve heard and, honestly, never wondered about until I was offered explanations.

If you’re coming up short on a job, consequences will follow, and then “there will be the devil to pay”!

I know I’ve mostly seen this phrase in books or movies, or when someone is being melodramatic.

Another phrase, “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”, isn’t used all that often, but it was at least familiar to me when it popped up with the other one.

Reading Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest, I expected a lot about trees and ecology. I expected some history, and hopefully a bunch of science. I hoped for some anecdotes and some connection to the author too, but what I got in that particular chapter was way more than I expected.

The history of one of the largest forests in the southeastern US is the history of 18th century ships.

Pine trees, of the kind that covered nearly a third of the colonial US, made imperialism possible, and was the lifeblood of trading companies that dominated shipping for nearly a century.

While ships of the time were powered by wind in their sails, they were made watertight and weather proof with pitch and tar.

The many types of rope and rigging were tarred to strengthen, bind, and protect the fibers. Thick pitch was packed between the planks of the hull to create a water tight seal. The whole ship, essentially, required a recovering of this nasty stuff every six months to keep things working properly, which was a dangerous job since pitch and tar could only be used after they were heated.

Some types of maintenance were more dangerous than others, and more urgent.

One particular leak demanded immediate attention.

Planks next to the keel, the powerful beam running the length of the very bottom of the ship, are typically under powerful strain, and where they join the keel is called “the devil’s seam”.

This photo belongs to the Jus’ Sail blog, taken during a refit of an older boat, particularly working one of the devil planks. It’s cool to see people with the skill to do that work. Click the image to visit their blog.

There were a couple of ways of handling a repair like this.

First, and ideally, there would be land around. The sailors would run the ship around strategically to where the leak was exposed, and the outgoing tide would beach them. They then had until the next incoming tide to heat pitch from their store and patch the leak.

“The devil to pay” is only part of a larger phrase: “The devil to pay and no pitch hot.”

Should that tide come in before the leak was patched, then the whole crew would be in a bad position.

Now, if there wasn’t any land around, that leak could easily get to be a big one. It still needed fixed.

In this case, either the crew would apply heated pitch in the inside of the hull until they found a better place to repair it, or the ship would be tilted to expose the leak. This could be done shifting the cargo or dropping anchor on a short line. A sailor would then be suspended over the side of the ship with a bucket of heated pitch to patch it alone.

There were obviously a lot of ways this could go wrong. If the waves got the better of them, the sailor would be swept off, if the crew members let go the rope or the anchor, if the tar splashed up and burned them… If the phrase is anything to go by, it was the waves they feared the most, since they were “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”.



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