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Glossary of Naval Terminology

This glossary of naval terminology covers language and sayings that have survived from The Age of Sail and are commonly used in Historic Naval Fiction by authors such as Patrick O'Brian, C.S Forrester and of course Roger Burnage. Not only do some of the terms still get used today - both in sailing and commercial shipping, but many phrases are also used in day to day language.


Aback In a position to catch the wind on the forward surface. A sail is aback when it is presses against the mast by a headwind Abaft Toward the stern, relative to some object Abaft the beam Further aft than the beam: a relative bearing of greater than 90 degrees from the bow. Abeam On the beam, a relative bearing at right angles to the centerline of the ship's keel. Able Seaman One who can hand, reef and steer; well acquainted with the duties of a seaman. Absentee pennant Special pennant flown to indicate absence of a commanding officer whose flag is flying. Absolute bearing The bearing of an object in relation to north. Admiral Senior naval officer of Flag rank. In ascending order of seniority, Rear Admiral, Vice Admiral, Admiral. See Admirals for more information Adrift Afloat and unattached in any way to the shore or seabed, but not under way. Afore In, on, or toward the front of a vessel or In front of a vessel. Aft The portion of the vessel behind the middle area of the vessel or Towards the stern of the vessel or Behind the vessel. After cabin The cabin in the stern of a ship used by the captain, commodore or admiral. Afternoon Watch From noon to 4 pm. See The Watch System Aground see: Grounding Ahoy A cry to draw attention. Term used to hail a boat or a ship, as "Boat ahoy!" Ahull Lying broadside to the sea. To ride out a storm with no sails and helm held to leeward. Aide-de-camp An officer acting as a confidential assistant to a senior officer. Alee see: Leeward All hands Both (all) watches on duty. Aloft In the rigging of a sailing ship. Above the ship's uppermost solid structure; overhead or high above. Alongside By the side of a ship or pier. Amidships In the middle portion of ship or along the line of the keel or as a helm order to align the rudder with the keel. Anchor A large metal double hook designed to prevent or slow the drift of a ship by gripping the bottom under water. Anchor buoy A small floating buoy secured by a light line to an anchor to indicate position of anchor on bottom. Anchor watch The crewmen assigned to take care of the ship while anchored or moored and the normal full watch is not on duty. Charged with such duties as making sure that the anchor is holding and the vessel is not drifting. Anchorage A suitable place for a ship to anchor. Area of a port or harbor. Articles of War Regulations governing the conduct of the crew. See Articles of War for more information. Athwart Across from side to side, transversely. Avast Stop, cease or desist from whatever is being done. Aweigh Said of an anchor when just clear of the bottom during raising. Aye, aye Reply to an order or command to indicate that it, firstly, is heard; and, secondly, is understood and will be carried out. Also the proper reply from a hailed boat, to indicate that an officer is on board. Azimuth compass An instrument employed for ascertaining position of the sun with respect to magnetic north. The azimuth of an object is its bearing from the observer measured as an angle clockwise from true north.

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Back and fill To manage the sails of a ship so that the wind strikes them alternately in front and behind, in order to keep the ship in the middle of a river or channel while the current or tide carries the vessel against the wind. Back/Backing Wind changing direction anticlockwise. To turn a sail or a yard so that the wind blows directly on the front of a sail, thus slowing the ship's forward motion. Backed sail One set in the direction for the opposite tack to slow a ship. Backstays Similar to shrouds in function, except that they run from the hounds of the topmast, or topgallant, all the way to the deck. Serve to support the mast against any forces forward, for example, when the ship is tacking. (Also a useful/spectacular way to return to deck for topmen.) Bailer A device for removing water that has entered the boat. Ballast Any heavy material placed in a ship's hold to improve her stability such as pig iron, gravel, stones or lead. Banyan Day Term for a day when no meat is served as part of the main meal Bar Large mass of sand or earth, formed by the surge of the sea. They are mostly found at the entrances of great rivers or havens, and often render navigation extremely dangerous, but confer tranquility once inside. Bar-shot Cannon shot consisting of two half cannonballs joined by an iron bar, used to damage the masts and rigging of enemy vessels. Barbary States Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. All except Morocco were under the nominal rule of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. Captured Christian's and held them in slavery or for ransom. Were paid tribute by many nations with mercantile ships so that they would not be attacked. Barca-longa A two- or three-masted lugger used for fishing on the coasts of Spain and Portugal and more widely in the Mediterranean Sea in the late 17th century and 18th century. The British Royal Navy also used them for shore raids and as dispatch boats in the Mediterranean. Barge A ship's boat carried by larger warships such as frigates and ship's of the line and mainly used to convey the captain or Admiral ashore or to other ships. A frigate's barge was probably only 28' long and was smaller, lighter and quite a bit narrower than the ship's launch. Bark see: Barque Barkie/Barky (Slang) Seaman's affectionate name for their ship. Barky (Slang) A seaman's affectionate name for their vessel Barometer A device to measure the barometric pressure. A rising barometer suggests good weather whereas a falling barometer indicates increasing storms. Barque A three-masted vessel with the foremast and mainmast square-rigged, and the mizzen fore-and-aft rigged. Barquentine A sailing vessel with three or more masts; with a square-rigged foremast and all other masts fore-and-aft rigged. Batten down the hatches To prepare for inclement weather by securing the closed hatch covers with wooden battens so as to prevent water from entering or to secure an enemy crew below. Beaching Deliberately running a vessel aground to load and unload, or to prevent a damaged vessel sinking, or to prevent it's capture by an enemy. Beakhead The protruding part of the foremost section of a sailing ship. It served as a working platform by sailors working the sails of the bowsprit and located directly underneath was the figurehead. The beakhead also housed the crew's toilets (head) Beam The width of a vessel at the widest point, or a point alongside the ship at the midpoint of its length. Beam ends The sides of a ship. "On her beam ends" may mean the vessel is literally on her side and possibly about to capsize; more often, the phrase means the vessel is listing 45 degrees or more. Bear Large squared off stone used with sand for scraping clean wooden decks or, derived from bearing, a direction as in "How does she bear". Bear away Turn away from the wind Bear up To put the helm up (or to windward) and so put the ship before the wind Bearing The horizontal direction of a line of sight between two objects on the surface of the earth. Beat to quarters Prepare for battle Beating Sailing as close as possible towards the wind in a zig-zag course (tacking) to attain an upwind direction to which it is impossible to sail directly. Becalmed Unable to move due to lack of wind. Beetle headed (Slang) Dull, Stupid. Before the mast Term to describe common sailors. Before the wind Sailing with the wind directly astern. Belay To secure a running rope used to work the sails. Also, to disregard as in "Belay that last order" Belaying pins Pins set into racks at the side of a ship. Lines are secured to these, allowing instant release by their removal. Sometimes used as a handy weapon to throw at or club someone. Bell see: Ship's bell Bend To make fast. To bend on a sail means to make it fast to a yard or stay or A knot used to join two ropes or lines Berth A location in a port or harbour used specifically for mooring vessels while not at sea or A safety margin of distance to be kept by a vessel from another vessel or from an obstruction, hence the phrase, "to give a wide berth" or A bed or sleeping accommodation. Best Bower see: Bower Between wind and water The part of a ship's hull that is sometimes submerged and sometimes brought above water by the rolling of the vessel. In action if enemy shot enters this area when the ship is heeled it will take on water when it rolls back and this area is therefore a priority for the ship's carpenter. Bight Loop made in the middle of a line or an indentation in a coastline. Bilboes Leg irons, or iron garters secured to a deck below and used to restrain seamen who have offended. Bilge The area at the bottom of the hull of a ship or boat where water collects and must be pumped out of the vessel. Binnacle Cabinet on the quarterdeck that houses compasses, the log, traverse board, lead lines, telescope and speaking trumpet Biscuit Hard Tack Also small hammock mattress, resembling ships rations. Bitter end The very end of an anchor cable. Bitts Stout horizontal pieces of timber, supported by strong verticals, that extend deep into the ship. These hold the anchor cable when the ship is at anchor. Also Jeer bits Blab (Slang) Gossip. Block Article of rigging that allows pressure to be diverted or, when used with others, increased. Consists of a pulley wheel, made of lignum vitae, encased in a wooden shell. Blocks can be single, double (fiddle block), triple or quadruple based on the number of pulley wheels. Blockade/Blockading The act of patrolling an enemy port to stop enemy ships, or war materials in neutral vessels, arriving or leaving. Blue Peter A blue and white flag (the flag for the letter "P") hoisted at the foretrucks of ships about to sail. Boat fall Line that raises or lowers a ship's boat. Boat hook A pole with a hook on the end, used to reach into the water to catch buoys or other floating objects or to secure a ship's boat alongside a larger vessel. Boatswain (pronounced Bosun) The petty officer who is in charge of the seamen and superintends the sails, rigging, canvas, colours, anchors, cables and cordage, committed to his charge. He is also responsible for the stores of spare cordage etc.. Bobstay A stay which holds the bowsprit downwards, counteracting the effect of the forestay. Bollard A short post on a ship or quay for securing a rope. Bolt rope/line Line sewn into the edge of a sail, at the bolt. Bonnet A strip of canvas secured to the foot of the course (square sail) to increase sail area in light airs. Boom Lower spar which the bottom of a gaff sail is attached to. Booms Masts or yards, lying on board in reserve. Bootnecks (Slang) Marines. Bore The diameter of the inside of a firearms barrel. Bore up/away Past tense - see: Bear up or Bear away Bosun see: Boatswain Bow The front of a ship. Bow chaser A gun placed in the bows of a ship in a position where it can fire directly ahead when in pursuit of an enemy vessel. Bower The name of the ship's two largest anchors located in the ship's bows. The 'best bower' to starboard and the 'small bower' to larboard. Bowline Line attached to the middle of the leech that keeps the leading edge of a sail forward when sailing close to the wind or a type of knot, producing a strong loop of a fixed size Bowse To pull or hoist. Bowsprit A spar running out from the bow of a ship, to which the forestays are fastened. Box-haul To put a vessel on a new tack by bracing the head yards aback and backing onto the new heading. Brace A rope attached to the end of a yard used to adjust the angle between the yard and the fore and aft line of the ship. Mizzen braces, and braces of a brig, lead forward. Brace up To bring the yards closer to fore-and-aft by hauling on the lee braces. Brail up To haul up the foot or lower corners of a sail by means of the brails, small ropes fastened to the edges of sails to truss them up before furling. Breach rope/line Heavy line to stop the recoil of a cannon, (7" for 32 lber). Breech The rear closed end of a cannon's barrel. Brig Two masted vessel square-rigged on both masts, having an additional fore-and-aft sail on the gaff and a boom on her mainmast. Brig sloop A two masted warship. Brigantine A two-masted vessel, square-rigged on the foremast, but fore-and-aft-rigged on the mainmast. Brightwork Exposed varnished wood or polished metal Bring to Cause a ship to be stationary by arranging the sails. Bristol Fashion Shipshape, neatly. Broach/Broach-to When running down wind to veer, or inadvertently to cause the ship to veer to windward, out of control bringing her broadside to meet the wind and sea. A potentially dangerous situation where the ship may roll over, usually due to the ship being driven too hard, carrying too much canvas. Broad pennant A pennant flown from the masthead of a ship to indicate the presence of a commodore on board. Broadside All the guns on one side of a warship or the simultaneous firing of all the guns on one side. Bulkhead A wall or partition within the hull of a ship. Bulwark The planking or wood-work around the sides of a vessel, above the level of the weather deck, forming a barrier to falling overboard. Bumboat (Slang) A shore based vessel that approaches large sea going ships to sell luxuries etc. Often contains money lenders (who will give a mean return in cash for a seamen's pay ticket). Frequently crewed by large masculine women, who employ far more fetching girls to carry out the bargaining with the seamen. Bunt Middle upper part of a sail, next to the mast. Bunting Material from which signal flags are made. Buntline A line for restraining the loose centre of a sail when it is furled. Buoy A floating object anchored to the seabed to mark a position or to which a ship can be moored. Burgoo Meal made from oats, usually served cold, and occasionally sweetened with molasses Button Button Top of a mast or extreme end of a cannon, (on Blomefield model, carrying a loop to take the breach rope). see: Cascabel. By the board Anything that has gone overboard.


Cabin An enclosed room on a deck Cable A strong, thick rope to which the ship's anchor is fastened. Also a unit of measure equalling approximately one-tenth of a sea mile, or two hundred yards. Cable-tier A place in the hold where the cables are stored. Camboose A term of Dutch origin adopted by the early US Navy to describe the wood-burning stove used in food preparation on a warship. Also the general area of food preparation now called the Galley. Camels Loaded vessels lashed tightly, one on each side of another vessel, and then emptied to provide additional buoyancy that reduces the draught of the ship in the middle. Canister Type of shot, also known as case. Small iron balls packed into a cylindrical case. Capsize To list or roll too far and turn over exposing the keel. Capstan A broad, revolving cylinder with a vertical axis and bars that can be inserted at the top for the crew to push on to wind a rope or cable, such as when weighing an anchor. Captain's servant A member of the crew who looks after the Captain. Also where a captain wished to have aboard more midshipmen than were allowed to the ship he would enter them in the ship's books as a captain's servant. Caravel built A vessel whose outer planks are flush and smooth. Careening Intentionally grounding a ship on a sandy or muddy shore, after it has been emptied of stores, so that it can be pulled down onto one side enabling cleaning or repair of the hull at low water. Carpenter A warrant officer responsible for the hull, masts, spars, and boats of a vessel, and whose responsibility was to sound the well to see if the vessel was making water. Carronade Short cannon firing a heavy shot. Invented by Melville, Gascoigne and Miller in late 1770's and adopted in 1779. Often used on the upper deck of larger ships, or as the main armament of smaller vessels. Mounted on a slide or swivel platform. Cartel A vessel authorised to visit an enemy port in time of war to facilitate negotiations, exchange of prisoners, etc. Cartridge A case made of paper, flannel or metal that contains a measure of gunpowder for a firearm or cannon. Cascabel Part of the breach of a cannon. Case see: Canister Casting the log The act of measuring the ship's speed using a log line. Cat See: Cathead or Cat o' nine tails Cat o' nine tails/Cat A multi-tailed whip used to punish crew members Cat the anchor To hoist the anchor to the cathead and pass the stopper securing it. Catharpings Small ropes that brace the shrouds of the lower masts. Cathead/Cat A horizontal beam at each side of a ship's bow angled outward at roughly 45 degrees used to support the anchor during raising or lowering and to which it is secured when not in use by the cat stopper. Caulk (Taking a) (Slang) to sleep. Caulking A process to seal the seams between strakes or deck planking with oakum and tar. Centreline An imaginary line down the centre of a vessel lengthwise. Chafing Wear on line or sail caused by constant rubbing against another surface. Chafing gear Material applied to a line or spar to prevent or reduce chafing. Chain shot Cannon balls linked with chain used to damage rigging and masts. Chain-whales. see: Channel Chains see: Channel Change/Changing tack see: Go-about Channel A horizontal ledge projecting from a ship's side, abreast a mast, used to widen the base of the shrouds which are affixed using deadeyes, originally chain-whales (or chains). Channel Gropers The Channel Fleet, when under blockading duties. Chronometer A timekeeper accurate enough to be used to determine longitude by means of celestial navigation. Clap on To add on, as in more sail or more hands on a line. Cleat A retaining piece for lines attached to yards, etc. Clew The lower corners of a square sail or the lower aft corner of a fore and aft sail. Clew up To raise the courses or lower square sails up to the yards using tackle when they are being furled. Clewgarnet Tackle used to clew up the courses or lower square sails when they are being furled. Clewlines Lines used to haul up the lower corners of a sail prior to furling. see also Clew up Clinker built A vessel whose outer planks overlap. Close hauled Sailing as near as possible into the wind. A square rigged ship could usually sail no closer than 5 to 7 points to the wind. Club-haul The ship drops one of its anchors at high speed. When the anchor bites the forward momentum causes the ship to swing round the anchor. As the ship comes on to the required bearing the cable is cut allowing the ship to sail away on the new heading. A tactic used in an emergency to avoid the ship running aground when there is insufficient room or time to tack or wear. Coaming A ridged frame about hatches to prevent water on deck from getting below. Commission To formally place a naval vessel into active service, after which the vessel is said to be in commission or a document appointing an officer to a rank or post. Commodore The senior captain within a squadron of ships appointed to their overall command Companion An opening in a ship's deck leading below via a companionway. Companionway A staircase or passageway. Compass Navigational instrument showing the direction of the vessel in relation to the Earth's magnetic poles. Compass points A compass is divided into 32 points, each of 11.25 degrees. The points are named, such as WNW for 'West North West', the point half way between 'West' and 'North West'. Convoy A group of ships traveling together for mutual support and protection. Cordage Ropes or lines, especially those used in the rigging of the ship. Corsair Any privateer or pirate or a ship used by them. Corvette A warship, smaller than a frigate, with a flush deck and a single tier of guns. Counter The lower part of a ship's stern. Counter The part of the stern above the waterline that extends beyond the rudder stock culminating in a small transom. Course A large square sail, hung from the lowest yard on a mast, with sheets controlling, and securing it. Specific sail may be referred to by adding the relevant mast such as Main Course Or The direction that the ship is to sail in. Coxswain The helmsman or crew member in command of a boat. Crimp (Slang) A person who procures pressed men for the service. Cringle A rope loop, usually at the corners of a sail, for fixing the sail to a spar. Cro'jack see: Crossjack Crossjack A square yard used to spread the foot of a topsail where no course is set, such as on the foremast of a topsail schooner or above the driver on the mizzen mast of a ship rigged vessel. Crosstrees A pair of horizontal struts attached to a mast to spread the rigging, particularly at the head of a topmast. Crown and Anchor A popular shipboard dice game. Crows of iron "Crow bars" used to move a gun or heavy object. Cut and Run When wanting to make a quick escape, a ship might cut lashings to sails or cables for anchors, causing damage to the rigging, or losing an anchor, but shortening the time needed to make ready by bypassing the proper procedures. Cutter Fast small, single masted vessel with a sloop rig. Also a seaworthy ship's boat, broader in proportion compared to the longboat Cutting out The act of taking an enemy vessel while it is in a supposedly safe harbour or anchorage. Cutwater The forward edge of the stem or prow that divides the water before it reached the bow.

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