The best source for the definition of nautical
terms is the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. For those into
the Napoleonic age, find A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for
Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales.
The following glossary covers the simpler expressions. It was written
for young adult readers, so the explanations may be a bit too basic for
adults interested in the era. Please email me at email@example.com
with any corrections or suggestions.
Behind, or toward the stern.
Towards stern of ship.
Standing rigging from the mast to the deck behind the mast.
A short piece of rope intended to hold something.
Before the mast
The area aft of the mainmast was the quarterdeck; ordinary seamen could
enter the quarterdeck in performance of duty. Hence, to serve "Before the
mast" means service as an ordinary sailor.
To hold fast.
Cabinent on deck near the wheel that holds the compass.
Deck timbers used to belay large ropes.
A pulley enclosed in a wooden shell. The shell keeps the rope from flipping
off the pulley.
Standing rigging from bowsprit to very point of stem, underneath bowsprit.
Front of ship.
Spar in bow of ship pointing forwards, carries the jib, and flying jib.
Also carries the spritsail.
A two-masted vessel with both masts square-rigged.
The person in charge of the ship, or in fact, in charge of any particular
function: Captain of the waist, gun captain, etc. Also a naval rank; however,
the term is also used to refer to a ship's commander regardless of his
actual rank. The ship's Captain might hold only the rank of Lieutenant.
Stretcher for moving wounded men down hatches.
timbers jutting from the side of the ship above the hausehole. Used to
help support the anchor.
Metal straps or chains bolted to the ship's side to which the standing
rigging to support masts is attached.
Flat plates jutting out from ships's side to give the chains more leverage.
Usually just referred to as the 'chains'.
Not level, crooked.
Covered stairway between decks.
Lowest and largest sail on each mast. Called "Fore Course" or "Main Course,"
depending upon the mast the sail is on.
Attach point for topmast and t'gallantmast.
Wooden covers for openings.
What landsmen call the ceiling. To really throw you off, the "ceiling"
in a ship is the planks on the inside of the hull.
Floor, also describes the "levels" of the ship's hull. A typical frigate's
decks are (from the uppermost): Spar or weather deck, gun deck, berth deck,
orlop, and the hold, which is the very bottom of the ship. Other "decks"
were named by convention, such as the "quarterdeck."
A small banner to show the relative direction of the wind.
V-shaped boom pointing downwards at intersection of bowsprit and jib boom.
Arranged in an organized fashion, sometimes with artistic touches.
Forecastle; forward part of ship. Originally "Fore Castle."
Rope under the yards that sailor stand on while making sail.
Prefix refering a component of the foremast... foretop, forechains, fore
Wind directions not suited for the direction the ship is trying to go,
i.e., very slow traveling
Wind getting stronger
Shrouds underneath the top (see) from the mast to the top rim, or edge.
Start, move, etc.
Men with handspikes used to physically move guns for aiming.
Warrant officers and Midshipmen living quarters.
Top surface of a hull or boat, above the side members above the deck.
Very front of ship; the bow. The sanitary facilities were located at the
head, hence the nautical nickname for toilets.
Spar attached to bowsprit, pointing forwards.
Sails carried on stays between bowsprit/jib and foremast.
Timbers that support bowspirit.
Left. The term "Port" was used for helm commands to eliminate confusion
with the similar-sounding "starboard." Eventually, the term "larboard"
was completely eliminated.
To the side away from the wind.
Lee, make a
Use the ship as a windbreak to produce calm area downwind of ship.
A commissioned rank. In the Navy, the term "First Lieutenant," "Second
Lieutenant," etc, refer to their position aboard ship, and is not an official
rank. However, these positions were assigned on the basis of seniority;
the highest ranking lieutenant became the First Lieutenant, etc.
Rod with slow match to fire guns without flintlocks.
Sickbay attendant, assisted doctor during surgery.
Hole in the tops to provide access from below.
Centermost, and generally highest, mast.
Prefix refering a component of the mainmast... maintop, mainchains, main
Officer charged with physically sailing the ship.
Warrant officers assisting the master.
Vertical spars that carry the yards. From the bow, they are the Foremast,
Mainmast, and Mizzenmast. Each was composed of a lower mast, a topmast,
and a t'gallant mast.
Men grouped for feeding purposes. The "Officer's Mess" was the wardroom.
Groups of eight or so seamen were grouped as a "mess," and one designated
the "mess cook." At mealtimes, the mess cook would fetch the food for his
The lowest rank of officer aboard ship. Service as midshipman for a number
of years was required before applying for a commission.
Aftmost mast, often the smallest of the three.
Prefix refering a component of the mizzenmast... mizzenchains, mizzen backstay,
Left, used for helm commands only. See Larboard.
To forcibly recruit. The Royal Navy made up shortages of seamen by pressing
experienced hands from the merchant service. Technically, they were only
allowed to press Englishmen with sea experience; in practice, desperate
British captains settled for any able-bodied men.
A group of sailors, led by a commissioned or warrant officer, sent to scour
port towns for seamen.
Captured ships were sold at auction, and the money divided among the officers
and crew of the victorious ships.
Captured enemy ship.
Area aft of the mainmast on the main deck. See "Before the Mast."
Horizontal ropes between shouds to allow rapid climbing.
Rattan: Short bamboo cane.
Light line on a sail to assist in reefing. Several rows, allow single,
double, or treble reefing.
Blocks and ropes used to reef sails.
Midshipman. Their duty at sail-making station was supervising on the yards.
To partially furl a sail. Done in strong winds to reduce strain.
General term for ropes leading aloft for support or control.
Rope Yarn Sunday
A day off.
A thread of hemp, which twisted together with others forms a rope.
Get out or get up.
Lines that controlled yards and sails.
Openings, for instance, to let air and light into lower decks.
Water barrel. Since the water barrel was a meeting place, the term was
also used for gossip exchanged there.
Generally refered to a three-masted vessel. Also, to attach or erect.
Rigging that prevents masts from moving from side to side.
Blocks and ropes on either side of gun to help swivel it from side to side.
Greasy residue from boiling salt beef or salt pork. Used as lubricant.
Lowest sail on mizzenmast; rigged somewhat fore and aft (between boom and
gaff), rather than the general crossways arrangement of the rest of the
General term for masts and yards, or any long wooden member such as bowsprit.
Yard attached to bowsprit.
Rigging which mechanically supports the masts.
Standing rigging that prevents fore-and-aft movement of the masts.
Extra sails fitted to the stays without the addition of a yard.
Forward part of hull.
Rear of ship.
Strike the Colors
To lower the flag, to surrender. "Nailing the colors to the mast" would
prevent this, of course.
Studding Sails (Stuns'ls)
Extra sails added at the far end of the yards, on the studdingsail boom.
Extra length of yard attached at the end of a yard.
To hoist up or down using ropes and slings.
Small cannon attached to rail via a swivel mounting.
Blocks and ropes used for various purposes, such as "reef tackle."
Candle that burns grease.
Rail on the spar deck around the stern.
Topgallants or T'gallants
Third sail from deck. Also T'Gallant Mast, above topmast
Topsails... second sail from the deck.
Platform between the lower mast and topmast. The two mast sections are
Holes in gun where spark or flame can reach powder to fire the gun.
Cannon which fired an iron ball of approximately 24 lbs. The gun itself
weighed about 4,000 lbs.
To move the ship by other than sails.
Officers who do not hold official commissions. They are given "warrants"
by the Captain or local Naval admistration to define their authority. Examples
are midshipmen and master's mates.
Wind direction changes counterclockwise.
Wind direction changes clockwise.
Slang term for "empty"
Horizontal wooden boom to which sail is firmly attached.
Very end of a yard.
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