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(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XI, published 1892)

Passage 177

“I don't see it,” returned the captain drily. “One captain's enough for any ship that ever I was aboard.”

“Now don't you start disappointing me,” said Pinkerton; “for you're talking without thought. I'm not going to give you the run of the books of this firm, am I? I guess not. Well, this is not only a cruise; it's a business operation, and that's in the hands of my partner. You sail that ship, you see to breaking up that wreck and keeping the men upon the jump, and you'll find your hands about full. Only, no mistake about one thing; it has to be done to Mr. Dodd's satisfaction; for it's Mr. Dodd that's paying.”

“I'm accustomed to give satisfaction,” said Mr. Nares, with a dark flush.

“And so you will here!” cried Pinkerton. “I understand you. You're prickly to handle, but you're straight all through.”

“The position's got to be understood, though,” returned Nares, perhaps a trifle mollified. “My position, I mean. I'm not going to ship sailing-master; it's enough out of my way already, to set a foot on this mosquito schooner.”

“Well, I'll tell you,” retorted Jim, with an indescribable twinkle: “you just meet me on the ballast, and we'll make it a barquentine.”

Nares laughed a little; tactless Pinkerton had once more gained a victory in tact.

What does “you just meet me on the ballast, and we'll make it a barquentine.” mean in this context. It seems to be slang or nautical speech but it could mean something like dough as well. I have looked up several sources but couldn't find any fitting explanation.

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  • How many people are talking here? Are the captain, Pinkerton, Nares, and Jim 4 different people, or is it Jim Pinkerton and Captain Nares?
    – Barmar
    Oct 5, 2023 at 16:44
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    Literature might be a better place to ask what this means in context, it's not a common English phrase.
    – Barmar
    Oct 5, 2023 at 16:50
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    Ballast seems in context to be contemptuous slang for supercargo. Jim Pinkerton is trying to get Capt. Nares to allow such an owner's agent to have some authority aboard the schooner that he is hiring Nares to command. Nares does not like it, and also sneers at the vessel's size. Pinkerton proposes to offer a larger vessel if Nares will yield on the supercargo thing. Oct 5, 2023 at 17:10
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    @ Barmar - There are Jim Pinkerton, Nares and Loudon Dodd who is telling the story.
    – philphil
    Oct 5, 2023 at 17:27
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    Meet me on the ballast just means meet me aboard. For a time, a ship, by definition, had square sails. Schooners don't, barquentines do. Meet me aboard and we'll make a ship out of her. It was a clever anachronism that played on the old captain's sense of tradition, I suppose.
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 6, 2023 at 0:06

2 Answers 2

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Captain Nares says disparagingly

... it's enough out of my way already, to set a foot on this mosquito schooner.

But Jim Pinkerton makes a riposte about them creating ballast together to make it a seem like a bigger ship. Merriam-Webster has

ballast
a heavy substance (such as rocks or water) placed in such a way as to improve stability and control (as of the draft of a ship or the buoyancy of a balloon or submarine)

It's a joke, which Nares likes.

Nares laughed a little; tactless Pinkerton had once more gained a victory in tact.

The tactlessness is in implying that Nares is overweight too: but Pinkerton gets away with it.

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  • Thanks.However I wouldn't say Nares was overweight in this situation. I see it as follows: Nares is tactless calling the schooner a "mosquito" schooner. And Jim Pinkerton counterattacks with the riposte “you just meet me on the ballast, and we'll make it a barquentine.” That isn't a tactlessness of Jim but a try to mollify the situation. When the authors say "tactless Pinkerton" it refers to situations and behavior of Jim Pinkerton told earlier. The words 'tactless Pinkerton "had once more gained a victory in tact" confirm it. Pinkerton had "gained a victory in tact" - he didn't drop a brick.
    – philphil
    Oct 5, 2023 at 19:56
  • Perhaps, but the answer says that ballast is meant literally, not like your "It seems to be slang or nautical speech but it could mean something like dough as well." Oct 5, 2023 at 19:59
  • Yes, agreed; I got the message: ballast is meant literally!
    – philphil
    Oct 5, 2023 at 20:17
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    I thought it over again. I think you are dead right - Pinkerton insinuates that Nares is somewhat overweight.
    – philphil
    Oct 5, 2023 at 22:17
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The two lines immediately before this quote are

“Just hold on,” said Nares. “There's another point. I heard some talk about a supercargo.”

“That's Mr. Dodd, here, my partner,” said Jim.

As @BrianDonovan commented, "ballast" is being used here with the implication that the supercargo may be useless weight, despite being the owner's representative on the ship in charge of any goods being carried, acquired or disposed of.

Nares does not want a conflicting source of authority on the voyage. So "meet me on the ballast, and we'll make it a barquentine" is a negotiating offer, saying that if Nares agrees to take Mr Dodd aboard as a supercargo, then Jim will provide a bigger ship.

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