MID-EIGHTEENTH CENTURY NAUTICAL TERMS
The following is a concise glossary of nautical terms as they are used in the middle of the eighteenth century. It is intended as a work of reference to accompany the Carlisle & Holbrooke series of naval adventure novels.
This glossary is not exhaustive; a more complete list can be found in Falconer’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine, first published in 1769. I have not counted the number of terms that Falconer has defined, but he fills 328 pages with English terms, followed by a further 83 pages of French translations. It is a monumental work.
Click on the image below to see an online version of The Universal Dictionary (which unfortunately does not include all the excellent diagrams that are in the print version):
Some of the usages of these terms have changed over the years, so this list should be used with caution when referring to periods before 1740 or after 1780.
Aback: Referring to a sail when the wind is striking it from the wrong side and its surface is pressed against the mast. This can be caused deliberately to manoeuvre the vessel or can occur accidentally when the vessel is likely to be out of control.
Abaft: A relative term meaning towards the rear part of a vessel.
Abeam: Perpendicular to the centreline of the vessel.
Acockbill: An anchor is said to be acockbill when it is at the cathead or bow and ready to be dropped. A yard is said to be acockbill when one yardarm is higher than the other.
Admiral: There are four grades of admiral, in order of seniority: admiral of the fleet, admiral, vice admiral and rear admiral. In addition, each admiral is distinguished by the colour of his flag, in order of seniority: red, white, blue. Thus, an officer is styled (for example): Admiral of the Blue. Officers progress through the grades of admiral by strict seniority as officers above them die or leave the active list.
Admiralty Court: Courts exercising jurisdiction over maritime matters, particularly the condemnation of prizes.
Aft: Has the same meaning as abaft.
Afterguard: Those men who are stationed in the aft part of the vessel to manage the aft sails.
Afore: A relative term meaning towards the forward part of a vessel.
Aground: The situation of a vessel when it is resting on the seabed. Usually, but not always, unintentionally.
A-hull: The situation of a vessel when all her sails are furled to reduce the impact of the wind. Like lying-to but with no sails set.
A-lee: The situation of the helm when it is moved to the lee side of the vessel, usually to put the vessel about or turn to windward.
Aloft: A relative term meaning anywhere above the lower rigging.
Alongside: Fastened parallel to another vessel or a jetty.
Amidships: The middle part of a vessel, either bow to stern or side to side.
Articles of War: Regulations drawn up to govern the conduct of the navy. Originally issued in 1653, the latest amendments in force for the Seven Years War were issued in 1749.
Astern: A relative term meaning anywhere behind a vessel.
Athwart: Across the centreline of a vessel or across an imaginary line extending ahead or astern of the vessel.
Aweigh: The state of the anchor when it is being raised and has broken free of the seabed.
Aye-aye: A conventional response to an order from a superior officer. This term is still in common use in the 21st century Royal Navy.
Back: When referring to sails, the action of using the sails to reduce the speed of a vessel, cause it to move astern or otherwise manoeuvre it. Also used to describe the wind direction changing in a counter-clockwise movement.
Backing and filling: Keeping a vessel more-or-less stationery by alternately backing the sails and filling them.
Ballast: Heavy material (typically stone, iron or gravel) placed low in the vessel to keep her upright when she has insufficient cargo for that purpose. A merchant vessel is said to be in ballast when she is without a cargo.
Banyan Day: A meatless day.
Bar shot: Elongated iron shot used to destroy the rigging of an enemy.
Falconer: Plate VII.11 – Bar Shot
Barbary coast: The part of North Africa now comprising Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
Barca-Longa: A two or three-masted lugger found on the coasts of Spain and Portugal and more widely in the Mediterranean Sea. Often used for fishing, carrying dispatches and coastal freighting.
Bastion: In military engineering, a projecting part of a fortification built at an angle to the line of a wall, so as to allow defensive fire in several directions.
Barge: A light boat carried by larger men-of-war, often used as an admiral’s or captain’s personal boat.
Battery: A row or tier of cannon. In the case of a man-of-war, it refers to the cannon on one side of a vessel. In the case of a shore fortification, it refers to all the cannon on one face of the fortification.
Beakhead: The triangular area in front of the fo’c’sle, particularly in vessels with two or more gun decks.
Beam: A relative term meaning perpendicular to the fore-and-aft line of the vessel.
Bear away: To alter course away from the direction from which the wind is blowing.
Bear up: The same as bear away. There is much confusion over these two terms.
Beat: The act of moving to windward by taking a zig-zag course with the wind first on one bow then on the other, so that the vessel is always sailing close-hauled but never attempts to sail directly into the wind.
Beat to quarters: Beating a drum to command the crew to go to their allocated stations in anticipation of action against the enemy. Beat to quarters is still an appropriate term even when there is no drum available.
Belay: An order to make a rope fast. Also, a general order to cease an action.
Belaying Pin: A wooden or metal pin, vertically positioned in a hole in a pin-rail, to which a rope is made fast.
Bells: The vessel’s day is divided into watches of four hours or two hours. These watches are divided into 30-minute periods at the end of which the vessel’s bell is struck, one bell for each elapsed half hour. Thus, one hour into a watch is denoted by two bells. The end of a watch is always denoted by eight bells even if the watch is only two hours long.
Bilander: A small coasting merchant vessel with two masts, originally Dutch.
Falconer: Plate XII.7 – Bilander
Bilboes: Iron shackles fixed to the deck for confining prisoners.
Bill of Lading: A legal account of the goods carried in a merchant vessel.
Binnacle: A wooden cabinet in front of the vessel’s wheel holding a compass, a lantern and (sometimes) other navigational equipment.
Bisquine: A lug-rigged fishing vessel typical of Normandy.
Falconer: Plate I.4 – Binnacle
Bitts: A strong wooden frame in the forward part of a vessel used to secure the cable when the vessel is riding at anchor.
Block: A sailor’s term for a pulley. There are very many varieties of block.
Board: The distance that a vessel sails between tacks when beating to windward. Also to attempt to capture an enemy ship by assaulting her with a boarding party.
Boat’s Compass: A small compass enclosed in a box for occasional use in boats, for example when surveying shallow waters.
Falconer: Plate II.19 – Boat’s Compass
Bosun: A commonly used abbreviation of Boatswain. The warrant officer responsible for the rigging, sails and boats of a vessel.
Bosun’s Call: A whistle used by the bosun and his mates to relay commands and salutes.
Boom: A long pole to extend the bottom of a sail, usually hinged at the mast.
Boot-Topping: The upper part of the vessel’s bottom that lies immediately under the waterline. Also the act of cleaning the upper part of a vessel’s bottom.
Bow: The forward part of a vessel’s hull.
Bow chaser: A cannon in the fore part of a vessel positioned to fire forward.
Bower Anchor: The main anchor or anchors of a vessel, carried permanently attached to their cables on each side of the bow, always ready to be let go in case of an emergency.
Bowline: A rope fastened near the leech of a square sail to haul it taught when sailing close hauled.
Brace: A rope used to adjust the angle of the square sails upon the mast.
Brail: A rope used to truss the mizzen sail and yard up to the mizzen mast.
Brail up: The action of trussing the mizzen sail and yard up to the mizzen mast.
Break: The edge of a deck where it falls to the next lower deck.
Bream: To burn off the growth of weed and shells from the bottom of a vessel.
Breast-Hook: Curved pieces of timber in the shape of horizontal knees used to strengthen the fore art of a vessel where the planking meets the stem.
Breeching: A rope used to secure a cannon to the side of the vessel to constrain its recoil.
Bridle: A generic term for a rope that is in two parts, such as a rope stretched across a boat to receive a towing hawser.
Brig: A vessel with two masts with square sails on each mast.
Bring-to: The action of stopping a vessel by use of the sails, the result is a vessel lying-to.
Broach: To fly up into the wind suddenly. Or in a boat, to be turned sideways by a wave.
Broadside: The firing of all the cannon on one side of a vessel.
Bulkhead: A partition within a vessel, particularly a transverse partition.
Buntline: Rope fastened to the lower edge (the foot) of a square sail, used to draw the sail up to the yard.
Burgoo: A dish made of oatmeal seasoned with salt, butter and sugar. Often served for breakfast
Bunt: The middle part of a sail.
Burthen: The size of a vessel expressed as the weight of merchandise that a vessel can carry.
Buss: A vessel with two masts used by the English and Dutch in their herring fisheries, normally from fifty to seventy tons.
Cable: A large, strong rope used to connect an anchor to a vessel. Also, a unit of distance: 120 fathoms or one-tenth of a nautical mile.
Cable tier: The compartment in the vessel where the cable is stored when not in use.
Canister shot: Anti-personnel ammunition for cannon. It consisting of a number of (usually) musket balls packed into a canister. Sometimes called case shot
Falconer: Plate VII.14. – Canister Shot
Cap: A strong block of wood used to secure an upper mast to a lower mast.
Capstan: A vertically mounted winch used for heaving in an anchor cable.
Captain: A commission officer who is appointed to command a man-of-war. Captain is an appointment rather than a rank. Not to be confused with the rank of post-captain.
Careen: Sailing vessels had to have their bottoms cleaned regularly to preserve their speed and to prevent boring worms weakening the hull. In the absence of a dry dock this is achieved by careening: emptying the vessel and hauling it over onto its side by strong ropes led to a capstan ashore.
Falconer: Plate I.5 – Careening
Cat-o’-nine-tails: A nine-stranded whip commonly used for punishment.
Cat: An anchor is said to be catted when it is drawn up to the end of the cathead.
Cathead: Strong timber beams projecting on either side of the bows of a vessel used for working the anchor cable. The end of the cathead is commonly carved into a cat’s head. Whether the carving acknowledges the name of the beam or the beam is named after the carving is lost in the mists of nautical history.
Falconer: Plate II.14 – Cathead
Ceiling: The inside planking on the sides of a vessel.
Chains: Iron links used to connect the shrouds to the hull: fore chains, main chains, mizzen chains relating to their respective masts.
Chain Shot: A type of munition consisting of two balls chained together, intended to destroy the masts, sails and rigging of an opponent.
Falconer: Plate VII.12 – Chain Shot
Channel: Corruption of chain-wale: Broad planks used to extend the shrouds of a vessel beyond the breadth of the vessel’s hull.
Chart: A map of the sea or the regions where the sea meets the land.
Checking: The act of easing away gently, particularly on the sheets of a sail, or of slowing a vessel’s progress.
Chops of the Channel: The western end of the English Channel when approaching from the Atlantic. Chops can refer to any area where tides meet to create an irregular sea or where the depth of water changes rapidly.
Class System: The French way of providing men for their navy. The equivalent of the British Impress Service, although using different methods.
Clear for action: The action of preparing the fabric of a vessel to go into action against an enemy.
Cleat: A piece of wood or metal, usually with two arms, to which ropes can be made fast.
Clew: The lower corners of a square sail or the furthest aft lower corner of a fore-and-aft sail.
Clewline: Ropes used to draw the clews of square sails up to their yards.
Close hauled: The course of a vessel when it is sailing as close as possible to the direction from which the wind is blowing. See Haul The Wind.
Close quarters: Concealed or strongly defended compartment in a merchant vessel used as a refuge when the vessel is boarded by an enemy.
Cockpit: The compartment beneath the lower deck of a vessel where the surgeon treats wounded men during a battle. Also, the accommodation for midshipmen and other gentlemen volunteers.
Colours: Flags that distinguish vessels of different nations.
Coming Off: A term used to indicate that a person is coming from the shore to a vessel.
Commander: A rank between lieutenant and post-captain, having the command of men-of-war under twenty guns. Also, a general term for an officer who commands a naval or military unit.
Commission: The written authority for commission officers. Also, a vessel is said to be in commission when a captain has been appointed.
Commission officer: An officer who holds the sovereign’s commission. In the British Navy of the mid-eighteenth century, it referred to the ranks of lieutenant, commander, post-captain and the various grades of admiral. During this period the term commission officer is used rather than today’s commissioned officer.
Commodore: A temporary appointment for a post-captain given command over other vessels.
Conn: The act of directing the steering of a vessel.
Corsair: Vessels from the various states of the Barbary Coast that prey upon merchant vessels.
Corvette: A sloop-of-war (French).
Course: The compass course to be steered. Also, the lowest of the sails on fore and main masts of a ship: fore course, main course.
Course to steer: The compass course to be steered.
Crank: When a ship is too light for the size of her masts and yards so that she heels excessively to the wind, she is said to be crank.
Crimp: A person who provides seamen for the impress service in exchange for a fee.
Crossed: Refers to the yards of a vessel; a vessel is said to have her yards crossed when the yards for her square sails have been set on the masts. A vessel with her yards crossed is in a high state of readiness for sea.
Crosstree: Pieces of timber set horizontally at the tops of the upper masts.
Cruiser: A vessel smaller than a ship-of-the-line that is used against the enemy’s commerce. typically ships of the fourth, fifth and six rates and sloops-of-war.
Cutlass: A short, heavy sword particularly useful at sea.
Cutter: A small, single-masted vessel rigged as a sloop, typically commanded by a lieutenant. Also, a small, light boat used by men-of-war.
Falconer: Plate XII.14 – Cutter
Dead reckoning: Derives from Deduced Reckoning. In navigation, the reckoning of a vessel’s position by use of the course steered and the estimated speed, corrected by known winds, tides and currents.
Deadeye: A wooden block used at lower ends of the shrouds.
Deep-Sea Lead-Line: A line (longer than a hand lead-line) marked at intervals and with a lead weight at the end. Used for sounding in deep water
Demi-batterrie: A small battery of two guns on each side of the lower deck of a frigate. This is an outmoded design but a few ships with demi-batteries remain in service.
Dirk: A short sword used by all ranks of officers, particularly in fighting on board vessel where a longer sword is an encumbrance. Much later, in the mid-nineteenth century, it will become the official sidearm of midshipmen.
Dividers: A two-armed, hinged instrument used for measuring distances on a sea chart.
Dogwatch: The pair of two-hour watches running from 4.00 pm to 6.00 pm (the first dogwatch) and from 6.00 pm to 8.00 pm (the last dogwatch). They are intended to break up the four-hour watch system so that a man has a different sequence of watches each day.
Dogs: Shortened form of dogwatches.
Dog-Vane: A small, light wind-vane placed on the quarterdeck to show the direction of the wind to the helmsman.
Doubling: In navigation, the act of sailing around a cape or point of land.
Draw: A vessel is said to draw a certain number of fathoms or feet. This is equal to the depth of water in which it will run aground. Also known as the vessel’s draught.
En Flute: A vessel is said to be armed en flute when it has had some or all of its guns removed or struck down into the hold to provide extra accommodation for stores or troops. The term originates from the Dutch word for a small supply vessel – a fluyt.
Enfilade: A formation or position is ‘in enfilade‘ if weapons fire can be directed along its longest axis vessel.
Engage: The act of applying force at sea, typically by firing guns at an enemy.
Engagement: A battle at sea.
Ensign: A flag used to distinguish ships of different nations and of different squadrons within the navy. It is usually hoisted on an ensign staff at the stern of the ship. There are three colours of ensign: red, white and blue. A vessel flies the appropriate colour of ensign for the admiral in command of the squadron. Thus: a ship in a squadron commanded by a rear admiral of the blue flies a blue ensign. Vessels not attached to a squadron, sailing on Admiralty orders, fly a red ensign.
Entry-Port: Ports cut into the lower or middle gun decks of two and three decked ships to allow persons to enter or leave the ship.
Establishment: The authorised number of men that make up the crew of a man-of-war. Also, the authorised dimensions and fitting of particular classes of man-of-war.
Fake Out: To lay out a cable so that its coils (also known as fakes) are able to run freely without interfering with each other.
Fall: The loose end of a tackle.
Fascine: A bundle of sticks used by land forces to fill ditches or provide temporary shelter. See also Gabion.
Fashion Piece: The aft-most timbers of a vessel that form the shape of the stern.
Fathom: Six feet, a measure used for depth of water or length of rope or cable.
Fetch: To fetch a wake is the act of steering a vessel to follow another. Also, the distance of ocean that a swell has been able to run in building its size.
Fiddle: A rack to prevent items falling off tables in bad weather. So called because originally it was made of a wooden frame with cordage strung between, like a stringed musical instrument.
Fife rail: A rail fitted with belaying pins to fasten the vessel’s halyards at the base of a mast. It may be preceded by the name of the mast to which it is associated, such as main fife rail.
Fill: The act of a sail filling with wind. Also, a vessel is said to fill when the sheets of the sails are tightened, and the vessel starts to move forward.
First lieutenant: The appointment held by the most senior lieutenant in a man-of-war. He is the second-in-command after the captain.
First Lord: A colloquial term for the president of the board of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. The political head of the navy. He can be either a sea officer or a civilian.
Fish: The act of strengthening a mast or yard by lashing a piece of timber to it, rather like a splint for a broken limb.
Flag: Usually refers to the distinguishing banner of any of the grades of admiral. It is either red, white or blue, depending upon the squadron that the admiral is assigned to and is flown at a masthead. Not to be confused with an ensign.
Flagship: A vessel carrying an admiral or a commodore. It is identified by a special flag for an admiral or a pennant for a commodore.
Flambard: A fishing vessel typical of Cherbourg.
Fore-and-aft: Referring to anything that lies in the long dimension of the vessel, from bows to stern. Particularly fore-and-aft sails.
Fo’c’sle: Shortened form of ‘Fore Castle.’ A short deck in the forward part of the vessel above the upper deck.
Forlorn Hope: A group chosen to lead an assault on a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high
For’rard: Shortened form of forward; refers to the front part of a vessel.
Frigate: A fifth or sixth rate ship with between twenty and thirty-eight guns on a single deck. A frigate is not sufficiently strong to serve in the line-of-battle but is used for a variety of tasks including scouting, convoy protection and commerce raiding.
Freight: A vessel is said to be carrying freight when she is conveying money from one port to another on behalf of a commercial interest.
Full and By: Sailing as close to the wind as possible without the sails shivering and losing efficiency.
Furl: The action of wrapping or rolling a sail close to a yard, stay or mast.
Futtock shrouds: A corruption of foot-hook shrouds. The short extension of shrouds under the top or crosstree. As a matter of professional pride, sailors climb to a top via the futtock shrouds rather than the easier lubber’s hole.
Gabion: A large wicker basket used in siege work or defence. Once placed in position it is filled with earth providing a strong shelter against missiles. See also fascine.
Gaff: A type of spar, hinged to a mast, used to extend the upper edge of a mizzen sail from the mast.
Galliot: A small Dutch trading vessel with a bluff, rounded bow, leeboards and a single mast rigged fore-and-aft.
Falconer: Plate XII. 10 – Galliot
Gammoning: The turns of rope used to bind the inboard part of the bowsprit to the vessel’s stem.
Falconer: Plate IV.6 – Gammoning
Gangway: A narrow range of planks adjacent to the sides of the vessel joining the fo’c’sle to the quarterdeck.
Gang-board: A board or plank for boarding or disembarking to or from a boat.
Gasket: A plaited cord used to secure a furled sail to a yard.
Gig: The smallest of a vessel’s boats.
Glass: Refers to either a telescope or a sand-glass.
Gondola: A small armed sailing vessel used on the Great Lakes of North America in the eighteenth century. Not to be confused with the more familiar boats of that name used on the canals of Venice.
Grape Shot: A group of smaller iron balls enclosed in a canvas container, used as an anti-personnel weapon or to inflict damage upon lighter structures.
Falconer: Plate VII.13 – Grape Shot
Grapnel: A small anchor with four or five flukes, used to secure a boat or small vessel. Also used to secure one ship to another when boarding.
Falconer: Plate IV.5 – Grapnel
Grating: Removable covers for hatches made of crossed strips of wood to allow a flow of air for ventilation.
Great cabin: The principal cabin in a vessel, used by the captain; or by a commodore or admiral if embarked.
Grego: A warm and waterproof coat commonly available in Mediterranean ports.
Gripe: The tendency of a vessel to turn to windward.
Gudgeon: The brackets on a rudder that fit into the pintles on the stern of a vessel to make a hinge upon which the rudder turns.
Gun deck: A deck upon which guns are placed in a man-of-war, except in a frigate in which (counter-intuitively) the guns are placed on the upper deck leaving the gun deck available for the crew’s hammocks.
Gun Money: A bounty that was paid in addition to prize money at the rate of £10 for each gun in the captured vessel.
Gunroom: The place in a vessel where junior officers are accommodated.
Gunwale: The upper edge of a vessels side.
Gun Captain: The seaman in command of a gun’s crew.
Gybe: The act of shifting any boom-sail from one side of the mast to the other, usually when putting the stern through the wind.
Hail: The calling from one vessel to another at sea or in a harbour.
Halyard: A rope for hoisting and lowering sails.
Hand: The act of gathering in a sail by hand.
Hand Lead-Line: A line (usually twenty fathoms in length) marked at intervals and with a lead weight at the end. Used for sounding.
Handspike: A Wooden pole with a metal tip used as a lever for pointing guns.
Hard Lying: Uncomfortable living conditions — more so than usual.
Haul the Wind: To sail closer to the wind. See Close Hauled.
Hawse Hole: Holes in the bows of the ship on either side of the stem to take allow the anchor cable to run without friction.
Headsails: Triangular sails at the front of a vessel, they are rigged fore-and-aft.
Head Money: A bounty that was paid in addition to prize money at the rate of £5 for each crewman in a captured man-of-war.
Helm: The rudder, tiller and wheel in a vessel. Helm orders refer to the rudder, not the wheel, so a helm put to starboard will turn a vessel to larboard, while a wheel order will achieve the opposite effect.
Hoist: The act of raising: for example; a sail, a boat, a flag.
Hollow Sea: A wave formation in which the rise from troughs to crests is very steep, typically following a strong blow.
Holystone: A block of soft sandstone about the size of a bible, used in scrubbing the decks of a vessel.
Hoy: A small vessel used to carry goods to and from vessels at sea or in exposed anchorages where smaller vessels may not be appropriate.
Hull down: The situation of a vessel as seen from the deck of another vessel where its hull is below the horizon and only its masts and sails are visible.
Impressment: The state authority to demand the service of a subject for the navy. Impressment was carried out by Press Gangs.
In Irons: A vessel is said to be in irons when it’s head is into the wind and it is temporarily unable to bear away and fill her sails. Often the result of missing stays.
In Stays: The act of tacking. A vessel is said to be ‘slow in stays‘ when she takes a long time to tack.
Inboard: Refers to an object that is inside the line of the vessel’s hull or more towards the centre than another object.
Interest: Like patronage. The sum of the political or family influence that a sea officer can call upon to assist in promotions and favourable appointments.
Jib: A fore-and-aft sail that is fastened to the jib boom. It is the furthest forward of the sails of a rated ship in the mid-eighteenth century.
Jib Boom: An extension of the bowsprit, used to secure the tack of the jib and the stay for the fore topgallant mast.
Jetsam: goods cast overboard deliberately to lighten a vessel or improve its stability in an emergency.
Jettison: To cast items overboard to lighten a vessel or to improve its stability in an emergency.
Jigger: A tackle used to hold a cable when it is being heaved in by a windlass.
John Company: A colloquial name for the Honourable East India Company.
Jollyboat: A small boat belonging to a vessel.
Keel: The principal piece of timber in a vessel which forms its backbone. It runs the length of the vessel. Generally, the lowest part of a vessel.
Keelson: A piece of timber laid immediately over the keel.
Kill-Devil: A particularly potent type of West Indian rum.
Knot: A measure of speed; one knot equals one nautical mile per hour.
Knightheads: A pair of stout timbers that support the inner end of the bowsprit.
Labour: A vessel is said to be labouring when she is pitching or rolling heavily in a turbulent sea so that the masts and the hull are endangered.
Land breeze: A wind blowing from the land to the sea, caused by the rapid cooling of the land in the evening, particularly in warmer climates.
Lanyard: A short length of light line used for a variety of purposes in a vessel. Particularly to connect the shrouds to the chains.
Larboard: The left-hand side of a vessel when facing forward. In the mid-eighteenth century, the term port is starting to be substituted for larboard in helm orders to avoid confusion with the word starboard.
Large: Sailing with the wind abaft the beam. This is the point of sailing where studding sails will start to draw.
Lasking: Sailing large with a quartering wind.
Lateen: A loose-footed sail set fore-and-aft on a diagonal yard. Until the late eighteenth-century all men-of-war had a lateen mizzen sail. This is a simple way to date eighteenth-century paintings of men-of-war; a lateen mizzen in a British man-of-war means it is probably pre-1780s, a gaff mizzen is post-1780s.
Langrage: A type of shot made up of scrap metal bound together to fit the bore of a gun. It is used to disable a vessel by destroying its rigging and sails.
Lazaretto: An area set aside for vessels or persons that are quarantined.
League: Three nautical miles.
Lee: Refers to the side of the vessel opposite that from which the wind is blowing.
Leeward: Towards the lee side.
Letter of marque: A commission granted to the commander of a merchant vessel or privateer to attack and capture the enemy’s vessels.
Levanter: A strong easterly wind in the western part of the Mediterranean.
Lieutenant: The lowest rank of commission officer.
Line-of-Battle: The order in which a fleet or squadron is disposed to engage an enemy.
Lying-to: A vessel is lying-to when she is stationary. This is normally achieved by backing the topsails.
Lighter: A small vessel used to carry goods to and from vessels in sheltered anchorages.
Loblolly Boy: A man who attends the surgeon and his assistant.
Log: A device used to measure a vessel’s speed, consisting of a knotted line that is trailed behind a vessel.
Falconer: Plate v.14 – Log
Log slate: A slate used to record the vessel’s speed and course during a watch.
Longboat: The heaviest of a vessel’s boats, used for all heavy work including laying out anchors and transporting stores.
Loose: To unfurl or cast loose a sail.
Lubber’s hole: A square hole in a top that allows access from the shrouds to the top. It is considered un-seamanlike to use the lubber’s hole rather than the more difficult futtock shrouds.
Luff: The leading edge of a sail. ‘Watching the luff’ is a useful means of determining whether the vessel is sailing as efficiently as it can be, particularly when a vessel is sailing close hauled.
Luffing match: The contest between two vessels who are both attempting to sail as close to the wind as possible.
Lug sail: A square sail set fore-and-aft.
Lugger: A small vessel lug-rigged on two or three masts.
Make and mend: A day or part of a day that is set aside for the seamen to make new clothes or to mend their existing clothes. By the mid-eighteenth century, it has become a euphemism for a free day for recreation.
Man-of-War: Any vessel commissioned under the authority of the sovereign and commanded by an officer commissioned by the Admiralty.
Marine: A member of the body of soldiers employed in the sea service under the direction of the Lords of the Admiralty.
Marlinspike: A pointed wooden or metal tool used for opening the strands of rope for splicing.
Mast: This may sound an obvious definition, but it is important to know that masts in anything larger than a boat or a small coasting vessel are built in sections. The lower is called (in sequence from forward to aft) the foremast, mainmast, mizzen mast. Above them are the topmasts (foretopmast, main topmast, mizzen topmast.) Above the topmasts are the topgallant masts (fore topgallant mast, main topgallant mast, mizzen topgallant mast). Some ships have royal masts above the topgallants but that is unusual for men-of-war of this period.
Mast Ship: A vessel specially built or modified to carry the long lengths of timber for making masts.
Master: A colloquial term for the sailing master.
Master Gunner: A courtesy title for a gunner, an officer appointed by warrant to take charge of the armament in a vessel.
Master’s mate: A subordinate officer appointed to assist the sailing master of a vessel. masters mates are either senior midshipmen on their way to a lieutenant’s commission or other seamen or midshipmen aiming for a master’s warrant.
Midshipman: A trainee officer appointed by the captain of a man-of-war to assist in the management of the vessel and learn the skills required to be a lieutenant.
Miss Stays: A vessel is said to have missed stays when it has attempted to tack but failed to put its bows through the wind and is either forced back onto her original course or held in irons.
Mistral: A cold, dry, northerly wind common in the northern part of the western Mediterranean.
Mizzen: The furthest aft of the masts in a three-masted vessel.
Nautical mile: A unit of distance, equivalent to the average length of a minute of latitude. In practice, it is equal to 1.15 statute miles.
Naval officer: An officer of the Navy Board employed ashore. An officer employed at sea is referred to as a sea officer.
Nippers: Short lengths of flat, braided cordage used to fasten the cable to the capstan’s arrangements to weigh the anchor.
Ordnance: A general term for the armament of a vessel.
Off the wind: The term used for a vessel sailing with the wind behind her.
Offing: At sea, away from the shore and its dangers, generally in water too deep to anchor.
On a bowline: The term used for a vessel sailing close hauled, when the bowlines haul the luff of the square sails to windward.
On the wind: See close hauled and on a bowline. The term used for a vessel sailing close to the wind.
Oppo: Short for ‘opposite number;’ a man who has the same station as yourself in another watch, another gun crew etc.
Painter: A rope used to secure a boat to a jetty or a larger vessel.
Palisade: In military engineering, a fence or defensive wall made from wooden stakes.
Partners: Stout planks used to reinforce the apertures in the deck through which the masts and the spindle of the capstan pass.
Patronage: Like interest. The sum of the political or family influence that a sea officer can call upon to assist in promotions and favourable appointments.
Pawls: A mechanism to prevent a capstan or windlass from winding backwards.
Pay: To apply a preservative to timber to prevent its deterioration.
Paying Off: To let the ship’s head fall away from the wind and drop to leeward. Particularly used to describe the action after the ship’s head has passed through the wind when tacking. Also; paying off a ship’s company at the end of a commission and removing the ship from service.
Peak: The upper corner of a sail that is secured to a gaff or a yard.
Pennant: A long narrow flag. All vessels in commission fly a pennant to identify themselves as King’s ships. Additionally, commodores fly a broad pennant as a distinguishing flag.
People: The crew of a man-of-war. It implied a paternalistic approach to the welfare of the people that reflected to social relationships in the mid-eighteenth century.
Petty officer: An inferior officer not holding a warrant. Petty officers are appointed by the captain and held that rank in that vessel only.
Pintles: The counterpart to a gudgeon. The vertical pins on the stern of a vessel onto which the rudder’s gudgeons fit to make a hinge upon which the rudder turns.
Pipe: The whistle used by a bosun or his mates to direct the crew. It is also used as a naval salute particularly when the captain of a vessel is embarking or disembarking. Also called a Bosun’s Call.
Pink: A ship with a very narrow stern.
Pirate: A crewman of an armed vessel without a commission that roams the sea preying on other vessels. The vessel is often also called a pirate.
Point: In navigation, a point is an angular measurement of one thirty-second of a circle or eleven and a quarter degrees. It is generally considered the smallest unit of angular measurement that is practical to use when ordering a course-to-steer.
Portage: An overland route to carry a boat or its cargo between two navigable waters.
Port commissioner: A sea officer or naval officer appointed to command at a naval port.
Portfire: A slow-burning composition used to carry fire from one place to another.
Post-captain: A naval rank between commander and rear-admiral. Post-captains command rated ships and are promoted from commander (or occasionally directly from lieutenant) by a combination of merit, interest and patronage. Not to be confused with the courtesy title of captain which can be applied to any rank of officer when commanding a vessel of any size and is often used for sailors or petty officers in charge of shipboard functions, such as gun-captain or captain of the fore-top. Being ‘posted’ is an important step in a naval career as promotion to rear-admiral from post-captain and all the subsequent ranks of admiral is by seniority and not merit, interest or patronage.
Powder: A colloquial term for gunpowder.
Privateer: A vessel cruising under the authority of a letter of marque, specifically to attack the merchant vessels of an enemy state.
Prize: A vessel taken from the enemy by a man-of-war, privateer or a merchant vessel holding a letter of marque.
Prize Court: A court or an individual authorized to consider whether prizes have been lawfully captured. A prize court may order the sale or destruction of the seized ship. It may also order the return of a seized ship to its owners if the seizure was unlawful.
Prize money: The reward for taking a prize. In principle, the value of the prize after it has been condemned by an admiralty court or vice-admiralty court or a prize court is divided among the crew of the capturing vessel.
Puddening: A thick wreath of cordage fastened about a mast to prevent its yards falling if the ropes from which they are suspended are shot away in battle.
Purser: An officer appointed by warrant to take charge of the provisions of a man-of-war. ‘Pusser,’ in common usage as it is to this day.
Quadrant: In navigation, an instrument used for measuring angular distances, most commonly between the sun and the horizon to determine a vessel’s latitude at noon, although it can also be used to measure angular distances of any heavenly bodies. Some types of quadrants are also called octants and they all eventually evolved into sextants later in the eighteenth century.
Quarantine: The state of a person confined to the limits of a vessel or lazaretto until the expiration of a certain amount of time (originally forty days, hence ‘quarantine.’) Typically applied to persons who have visited ports on the Barbary Coast.
Quarter: The part of a vessel’s side towards the stern. Also used as a direction of items outside the vessel, e.g. ‘A ship is in sight on the quarter.’
Quarter gunner: A petty officer under the direction of the gunner.
Quarter gallery: A small balcony on the quarter of a vessel, usually enclosed and communicating with the stern gallery.
Quarterdeck: A short deck in the aft part of the vessel above the upper deck.
Quartering breeze: A wind coming from the quarter.
Quartering sea: Waves or swell that are coming from the quarter.
Quick-Match: A length of fuse that burns very fast, used to fire a charge of powder rapidly (see also slow-match)
Quoin: A wedge used to raise a cannon when aiming at a target.
Rate: A classification of men-of-war of twenty guns or more. First-rate ships are the largest with 100 guns, whereas sixth rates carry between twenty and twenty-eight guns. All smaller vessels are unrated. The rate of a ship determines its complement of men.
Falconer: Page 237 – Rates
Ratline: Small lines that are fastened horizontally to the shrouds to provide a sort of ladder for reaching the masthead.
Ravelin: In military engineering, a triangular fortification or outerwork.
Reef: A portion of a sail that can be furled to reduce the size of the sail.
Reefpoint: A series of lines fastened to the sail that are used to reef it.
Remark Book: A record of hydrographical observations kept by the sailing master. It was instituted by the Admiralty in 1959 to be submitted at the end of each voyage.
Revetment: In military engineering, a retaining wall or facing of masonry or other material, supporting or protecting a rampart or wall.
Riding: A vessel is said to be riding when she is at anchor.
Rigging: A general term given to all the ropes that support the masts and the sails.
Ringbolt: An iron bolt with an eye at one end. They are secured wherever required but particularly to provide fixing points for the tackles of guns.
Ring Stopper: a stout length of cordage that holds the anchor fast to the cathead in preparation for letting the anchor go.
Road: A bay or place of anchorage on a sea coast.
Round shot: Cannonballs.
Rouse out: To remove something from its stowage position to the place where it is needed to be used.
Rudder: The vertically-mounted board at the stern of a vessel used to turn the vessel. See Gudgeon, pintle, helm.
Rule of 1756: A British Order-in-Council that effectively outlawed the carriage of cargoes for enemy nations by neutral vessels. It is the legal basis upon which much of the privateering and commerce warfare was carried out in the seven years war and after. It was a contributory factor in the causes of the war of 1812 between Britain and the USA.
Run: A vessel is said to be running when the wind is directly behind it.
Running rigging: The rigging that is frequently pulled in or let out to manage the sails.
Sail: The diagram below shows the principal sails used by a ship-rigged vessel in the middle of the eighteenth century. Many other sails were used on specific occasions and the sailing rigs of the early and late eighteenth century had significant differences to this era. The square sails are shown in light shading and the fore-and-aft sails are shown in dark shading. See the definition for ship below.
After Falconer: Plate IX.2 – Ship-Rigged Vessel
A: Foresail or Fore Course.
B: Fore Topsail.
C: Fore Topgallant Sail
D: Mainsail or Main Course.
E: Main Topsail.
F: Main Topgallant Sail.
G: Mizzen Topsail.
I: Jib or Fore Topmast Staysail.
J: Fore Staysail.
K: Main Topgallant Staysail.
L: Main Topmast Staysail.
M: Main Staysail.
Sailing master: An officer appointed by warrant to take charge of the navigation of a vessel. Colloquially called the master.
Sap: In military engineering, a trench to allow besieging forces to advance towards the enemy defensive works and forts, over ground that is under the defenders’ musket or artillery fire of.
Schooner: A small vessel with two masts (occasionally three) who’s principal sails are rigged fore-and-aft.
Falconer: Plate XII.8 – Schooner
Scuppers: Square holes in the sides of a vessel at the level of a deck, provided to drain away water from the deck.
Scuttle: A small hatchway cut for some purpose through a deck, a hatch cover or the vessel’s side.
Sea breeze: A wind blowing from the sea to the land, caused by the rapid heating of the land in the morning, particularly in warmer climates.
Sea officer: A commission or warrant officer whose principal function is to serve at sea.
Secure: In its nautical sense; to cease operations or work and to stow all the weapons or gear.
Seniority: A commission officer’s seniority is determined by the date of his commission in his present rank. Seniority determines the relative order of command among commission officers of the same rank.
Sheet: A rope fastened to one or both lower corners of a sail, used to control the sail when it has been set upon the mast.
Sheerleg: A framework of spars used to lift heavy weights. Particularly used to remove and replace lower masts.
Ship: A three-masted vessel with square sails on each mast. All rated vessels in the mid-eighteenth-century navy are ships. The term ship is often loosely used to refer to any large water-borne vessel.
Falconer: Plate ix.2 – A Ship-Rigged Vessel
Ship-of-the-line: A ship of the first, second, third or fourth rate. The term implies that a ship is strong enough to stand in the line-of-battle, but during the mid-eighteenth century, the smaller fourth rates of less than sixty guns become excluded from the line-of-battle.
Shot: The ammunition fired from a vessel’s guns. There are various types: round shot, grape shot, canister, bar shot, chain shot.
Shroud: A range of heavy ropes extending from the mastheads to the sides of a vessel to support the masts.
Skylarking: Physical recreation in the masts and rigging. Sometimes refers to mischievous behaviour.
Sloop: A small vessel with one mast, principally rigged with fore-and-aft sails.
Sloop of War: A man-of-war below the sixth rate, rigged either as a ship or a snow. Often (confusingly) merely called a sloop. Among men-of-war, only cutters are smaller.
Slop chest: The stock of clothing held in a man-of-war under the control of the purser.
Slow match: A fuse that burns slowly, principally used as a source of ignition for cannon or when setting a charge with a time delay (see also quick-match).
Small-Stuff: Any light cordage used for general purposes at sea.
Smart Ticket: A certificate recording a wound or injury. It could be used to secure a payment from the Chatham Chest, a pension or a place at Greenwich Hospital.
Snow: A large two-masted European vessel that carries a gaff sail on a vertical pole fastened abaft the main mast. Apart from the gaff sail attached to the pole, it is superficially like a brig.
Snubbing: A vessel is snubbing when it is surging awkwardly forwards and backwards against the constraint of its anchor.
Soldier’s Wind: A fair wind not requiring much seaman like ability.
Sounding: The action of establishing the depth of water and the type of bottom using a deep-sea lead-line, a hand lead-line or a sounding pole. The lead at the end of a lead-line has a hollow in the bottom that is charged with tallow in order to obtain a sample of the sea bottom at that point. The leadsman stands in the main chains when heaving the lead-line. Soundings are reported in fathoms as follows:
‘By the mark five,’ indicates that the marking on the lead-line is exactly on the waterline of the vessel; in this case five fathoms
‘By the deep four,’ indicates that the depth is being estimated because the depth is between the marks; in this case four fathoms
‘And a half five,’ indicates an estimated depth that is half a fathom more than a whole fathom; in this case five-and-a-half fathoms.
‘And a quarter five,’ indicates an estimated depth that is a quarter fathom more than a whole fathom. In this case five-and-a-quarter fathoms.
‘A quarter less five,’ indicates an estimated depth that is three-quarters of a fathom less than a whole fathom; in this case four-and-three-quarter fathoms
Sounding Pole: A pole used for taking soundings in a boat in shallow water. It is generally fifteen feet in length but can be any convenient length.
Spirketing: That range of planks that lies between the waterways and the lower edge of the gun ports inside of the ship.
Spar: A generic term for any mast, yard or gaff.
Spring: A rope attached to an anchor cable and led back to the stern of the vessel, used to turn the vessel while at anchor.
Sprit: A spar used to extend the upper edge of a fore-and-aft sprit-sail in a boat.
Squall: A sudden, dangerous strong gust of wind.
Square away: A vessel squares away when it turns to place the wind at its stern or nearly so.
Square sail: A sail set on a yard that is perpendicular to the fore-and-aft line of the vessel.
Stand by: A precautionary instruction to await an imminent order.
Standing rigging: The rigging that is not frequently adjusted, principally used to hold up the masts. Stays and shrouds are both examples of standing rigging.
Starboard: The right-hand side of a vessel when facing forward.
Stay: A large, strong rope used to prevent a mast falling backwards or forwards. Usually a forestay or backstay. Some examples:
Fore Topmast Stay
Main Topmast Stay
Falconer: Plate ix.10 – Stays
Steeve: The angle that a bowsprit makes with the horizontal.
Stem: The timber at the front of a vessel into which the two sides of the vessel are fixed, it is fastened to the keel.
Step: The position on the keel of a vessel into which the base of a mast or capstan is fitted.
Stern: The back part of a vessel.
Stern chaser: A gun positioned in the stern of a vessel, particularly used to fire upon a vessel in pursuit.
Stern Gallery: a balcony at the stern of a vessel.
Stern sheets: The stern section of a boat.
Sternway: A vessel has sternway when it is moving astern.
Stow: The act of putting something into its stored position.
Strake: One of the fore-and-aft planks that make up the hull of a vessel
Stretcher: A removable length of timber fixed athwartships in the bottom of a boat for the oarsman to brace his feet against when rowing
Stuns’ls: The Colloquial form of ‘studding sail.’ Light sails used in moderate breezes to extend the area of square sails beyond their normal width.
Superannuated: An officer is superannuated when he is retired on a pension.
Swell: A regular series of waves that are generated by winds that are not blowing at that time in that location, as opposed to waves that are generated immediately by the present wind. A swell can be present when the wind is very light or completely calm.
Tack: To change the course of a vessel by turning the bows through the wind, such that the wind blows from the opposite side to that which it did before the manoeuvre. Its counterpart manoeuvre is the veer. Also the forward lower corner of a sail.
Taffrail: The upper part of a vessel’s stern, usually ornamented.
Tartane: A coasting vessel in the Mediterranean, usually single-masted with a large lateen sail and sometimes a square topsail.
Tender: A small vessel attached to a man-of-war. Used for many purposes such as dispatch duties or to receive volunteers or pressed men.
T’gallant: The Colloquial form of topgallant. Refers the mast above the topmast or to the associated sail.
Tholes: Pins placed vertically into holes on the side of a boat to take the oars when rowing.
Thwart: A seat for rowers placed perpendicular to the fore-and-aft line of the boat.
Tiding: To navigate by anchoring when the tide is contrary and sailing when it is favourable. Particularly used in the English Channel. when proceeding down-channel against the prevailing westerly wind.
Tiller: A wooden bar attached to the rudder for steering a vessel.
Timber: The ribs of a vessel, branching out from the keel.
Told Off: The act of allocating men to a task
Top: A platform surrounding the head of the lower masts, used to extend the topmast shrouds and provide a place for light weapons to be sited. Usually qualified by the mast to which it is attached: foretop, main top, mizzen top.
Topmast: The mast immediately above the mainmast.
Topsail: The square sail that is associated with the topmast.
Train: The act of turning a gun left or right to aim at the target.
Train tackle: The tackle used to prevent a gun running out of the port while loading and for running it in after it has fired.
Tramontane: A cold north to northeast wind in the northern part of the western Mediterranean.
Transom: The vertical board at the stern of a boat.
Traverse Board: A board kept on the quarterdeck upon which is marked the courses and speeds kept during a watch..
Truck: The wheels of gun carriages or the block of wood at the head of a mast.
Trysail: A small triangular sail used in heavy weather.
Trunnions: The two short arms on the side of a cannon used to support it in its carriage.
Tumble-Home: That part of the ship’s side that falls inward above the extreme breadth, making the ship gradually narrower from the lower deck upwards.
Tween decks: The areas of a vessel below the upper deck.
Underway: A vessel is said to be underway when she is moving through the water. The term is often used at sea to describe any action that has been commenced
Upper deck: The highest continuous deck in a vessel.
Van: The foremost division in a squadron or fleet (Van, Centre, Rear). The first ships in an order of sailing.
Victualling: The act of providing a vessel with food and drink for a voyage.
Vice Admiralty Court: A juryless court located in British territories that is granted jurisdiction over local legal matters related to maritime activities, such as disputes between merchants and seamen and the condemning of prizes. It often acts as a prize court.
Veer: To change the course of a vessel by turning the stern through the wind, such that the wind blows from the opposite side to that which it did before the manoeuvre. Its counterpart manoeuvre is the tack. Later in the 1750s, the term wear started to be used in place of veer. Also used the describe the wind changing in a clockwise direction.
Waist: The part of a vessel that is contained between the fo’c’sle and the quarterdeck.
Waister: A seaman or landsman whose station for sail handling is in the waist. Generally older men or those not sufficiently skilled for more complex stations.
Warm The Bell: Do something earlier than scheduled.
Warp: To move a vessel in a harbour by using heavy cables called warps.
Warrant officer: An officer who holds a warrant. The principal warrant officers in a man-of-war are sailing master, bosun, gunner, carpenter, purser, surgeon.
Watch: At sea, the day is divided into seven watches of four or two hours each: 8.00am to 12.00am is called the forenoon watch, 12.00am to 4.00pm is called the afternoon watch, 4.00pm to 6.00pm is called the first dog watch, 6.00pm to 8.00pm is called the last dog watch, 8.00pm to 12.00pm is called the first watch, 12.00pm to 4.00am is called the middle watch, 4.00am to 8.00am is called the morning watch. The dog watches of two hours each are designed to ensure that each day each man has a different watch sequence. Watch also refers to the group of men who are on duty for a watch.
Wear: See Veer above. By the late 1750s Wear was used more frequently than Veer.
Weather: Refers to the side of a vessel from which the wind is blowing. The opposite to the lee side.
Weatherly: A ship is said to be weatherly when she makes little leeway when sailing close-hauled.
Weather Cloth: A piece of canvas or tarpaulin used to protect hammocks when they are stowed on the upper deck, or to protect personnel, particular the steersmen,- from waves and spray.
Weather Gage: In tactics, a vessel is said to have the weather gage when it is to windward of the enemy. This is an important consideration in manoeuvring before an engagement.
Wherry: A light boat used in rivers and harbours for passengers and small freight.
White Stuff: A mixture of tar, sulphur, fish-oil and tallow that inhibits the growth of weed and the infestation of barnacles. A vessel’s boot-topping is payed with white stuff.
Williwaw: A sudden violent gust of wind coming down from high ground.
Windlass: A horizontally mounted winch for working the anchors or other heavy lifting. Most commonly used in merchant vessels.
Windward: A vessel is said to be to windward of another vessel, land or object when the wind blows from the vessel to the other vessel, land or object.
Whip: A small tackle with one or two single blocks.
Woolding: A rope wrapped tightly around a mast or spar to keep it in place or to make a repair.
Xebec: A fast three-masted vessel in the Mediterranean, particularly used by corsairs of the Barbary Coast.
Falconer: Plate XII.8 – Xebec
Yard: A long piece of timber suspended from a mast from which a sail is hung.
Yardarm: The extremities of a yard.
Yaw: The movement by which a vessel turns to either side.
Yawl: A smaller boat.