Sailing ships had their own language and terminology. Some words, like ‘aloft’ and ‘pinrail’, have a clear and easily discernible meaning. Other words, like ‘binnacle’ and “bulwark” are more obscure. This glossary is by no means complete (Admiral W.H. Smyth’s “The Sailor’s Lexicon” has more than 15,000 entries!) but should help you with some of the language the sailors in book Marigold’s End.
Aft -Short for “after”, it means the rear part of the ship. If you walk aft of the mainmast, you are going towards the back end of the ship. Uncle Neville’s cabin is at the very rear of the ship, and is referred to as the aft cabin.
Ahead -In front of the ship. If your ship was behind another ship, you would say that the other ship was ahead of you. Likewise, you would be astern of that other ship.
Aloft – Above the deck, up in the rigging. “Get you aloft” is a command for you to get up into the masts.
Armorer – See Gunner.
Astern -A nautical term meaning “in back of.” The Grace towed her boats astern when they entered the “right blow”.
Backstay -The rope, part of the standing rigging, which pulls on the back of the mast to keep it upright. The backstay is easily one of the longest pieces of rigging in the ship, as it stretches from the chains, down by the waterline, all the way to the top of the mast. It passes near the rear of the top, the platform at the top of the lower mast.
Phineas would have seen sailors standing on the top reach out and grab hold of the backstay. They would then wrap their legs around it and slide the fifty feet or so down to the deck.
Baldric -A belt, worn over the shoulder, which held the scabbard for a sword. Baldrics could be simple pieces of leather or cloth, or they could be extremely ornate works of fashion. They often had small leather loops worked into them into which one could stuff one’s pistol. They invariably ended with a ring from which to hang one’s scabbard.
Beam -A directional reference in a ship, meaning the side. The port beam is the left side, opposite the starboard beam.
Beam also refers to the heavy timbers used in shipbuilding. If you turned a ribcage upside down so that the spine rested on a table, the spine would be the keel, and the ribs would be the ship’s frames. The beams reach across the ship from one frame to the next to support the decks. When a ship rolls in a heavy sea, it is sometimes said she rolls to her beam ends.
Beak head – A horizontal extension at the very front end of the ship to protect the bowsprit. The bow of the ship rises out of the water at a place called the cutwater. The beakhead rises forward and up from the cutwater. At the end of the beakhead is where you’ll find the ship’s figurehead.
Becalmed – In Phineas’ day, ships were powered by the wind. When there was no wind, the air was calm. A ship stuck on a day without wind was becalmed. In certain parts of the ocean it is possible to sit for weeks, even a month, without so much as a cat’s paw of a breeze. A becalmed ship is in grave danger. What happens when their food and water runs out? The legend of the Flying Dutchman tells about the captain who makes a deal with devil to get his ship moving again. Sailors took becalming very, very seriously.
Belay -When used as a command, it means “stop what you are doing!” A sailor at home might yell “belay that racket” to his noisy kids.
It also means to end something. A rope coming down from a sail was belayed at the deck, around a piece of wood called a “belaying pin.”
Belaying Pin – A smooth, round piece of wood, usually a foot or so long, with a round collar on it about ¾ from the end. The collar kept the pin from falling through the wooden rack that held the belaying pins. Belaying pins were used as a temporary tying-off point for the ship’s running rigging. The pin fit through a wooden rail, resting on its collar. The rope was looped around the top and bottom of the pin across the front of the wooden rail, and tied in a knot. To release the rope, all the sailor had to do was lift up the pin and all of the loops would come loose.
In a pinch, the belaying pin also became a handy club.
Below -Under the deck. You go below to get from the quarterdeck to the main deck, and below again to get to the hold. An order of “Get you below” means you should go downstairs.
Binnacle –A wooden box that contains the ship’s compass and a small lantern for use at night.
Boatswain – He was the man responsible for the mechanical running of the ship. He would fix the hinges that broke on the door, and direct the re-rigging of a spar. If it was broken, it was most often the boatswain’s (pronounced bosun’s)job to fix it. Mr. Sturgis was the Kathryn B’s boatswain.
Bow -Rhymes with cow. The forward part of the ship. The forward section was often called the “bows” as well. The forward corners of the ship were called the port and starboard bows. A man would climb up into the bows of the ship, meaning he was making his way forward.
Bowsprit -A heavy, horizontal mast that points out of the forecastle to support the forestays of the foremast. There was a small yard that hung underneath it, call the spritsail yard, which carried a sail, called the spritsail.
Braces -The sails hung from yards, which hung from the masts. At each end of the yard was a long rope, called a brace, which reached down to the deck. By pulling on one of the braces, a sailor could turn the yard around the mast to catch the wind.
“Hands to the braces!” was the call the sailing master used to get the men to pull on the ropes to turn the yards.
Sailors would hear this call when the ship was moving from one tack to another.
Breeching – The ropes at the back end of a gun, designed to hold it firmly in place.
Bulwark -If you were standing on the quarterdeck of the Kathryn B and looking over the side, you’d see the blue sky, the blue sea, and the gunwale, the rail at the top of the side of the ship. Between the gunwale and the deck of the ship is a section called the bulwark. It’s the side of the ship above the deck as seen from the inside.
Cabin -A room inside the ship. Most of the crewmen lived in the forecastle, and therefore didn’t have their own rooms. But the captain, his officers, and the sailing master most often got cabins. In a small ship like the Kathryn B, the captain’s cabin was small… no bigger than your bedroom.
In big warships the aft cabins were huge. In trade for his big cabin, though, the captain had to put up with two big twenty-four pounder cannons, one on either side of the room. Worse, when the ship went to quarters to prepare for battle, all of the captain’s stuff, his books, his furniture, his clothes, everything was packed away down in the hold. The crew would even take down the walls of his cabin so that they could work the guns. When the battle was over, his cabin would smell of powder smoke for days.
Capstan -This was a marvelous device. It was a big drum, about the size of a big barrel. On top, it had a flat disk with fist-sized holes drilled evenly around it. The sailors took long poles and stick them in the holes. Then they would push the poles, causing the capstan to turn. Below the deck, the capstan was connected to a series of cables that pulled the anchor in.
They could hook up the capstan to just about any rope. They could tie the ropes to shore, and use the capstan to pull the ship into towards the shore.
There was a big loop of rope under the deck that was wrapped around a pulley and the bottom of the capstan, like a giant “O”. It was called the messenger cable. To pull in the anchor, the anchor cable was tied to the messenger with little bits of rope. As the cable came into the ship, it was the job of a sailor to cut the little bits of rope, to “nip” them, just before the cable was passed down to the cable tier. The pieces of rope were then rushed to where the cable was coming in at the hawsehole to be tied again. The job was often given to the ship’s boys to do. It was not uncommon to refer to them as “little nippers.”
Capstan Bar – a heavy wooden pole, measuring as much as fours inches thick and up to six feet long. The outer end of the bar was round and smooth, while the inner end was usually square. Capstan bars served as handles for the men that turned the capstan. When not in use, they were stored nearby. To use them, sailors lifted them from their storage place and thrust the square end into the holes drilled into the capstan. Sailors then lined up, two or three men to a bar, and pushed on it, marching in a circle around the capstan. As they pushed on the bars, the capstan turned, pulling in the anchor cable.
Captain – the number one man in the ship. In merchant ships, the captain often owned the ship as well. In the Navy, some captains began as a midshipman at around age 16 and worked their way up through the ranks to command a ship. Other captains gained their commands by performing bravely or valiantly in battle, while still others got appointed through political favors.
A ship’s captain had to be very smart. He had to understand how to navigate, and how to work a ship in harsh weather. He also had to know how to get the members of his crew to work together like a team. It was a very demanding job.
In merchant ships like the Kathryn B, the captain also had to be a good businessman, watching out for the profit in his voyage. In Navy ships, the captain had to know the king’s will regarding all of the political circumstances of the globe, as he was the projection of the king. When calling on a foreign port, a Navy ship’s captain spoke for the king, and his word was binding.
A captain’s word was final. He was the boss, and nobody on board ever refused to do his bidding. If a sailor did, he could be imprisoned, he could be beaten, even killed. Refusing to obey the captain was considered mutiny, and was dealt with most harshly.
Chains -A ship had a variety of ropes that helped to keep the masts upright, collectively known as stays. There was a forestay, which pulled on the mast from forward, and a backstay, which pulled on the mast from behind. Several ropes pulled on the mast from either side, and these were called the shrouds. There were usually at least three shrouds on either side of the ship for each mast.
A platform protruded from the side of the ship to support the shrouds. It was called the chainwale, or channel. The individual ropes of the shroud extended down from the top of the mast and ended at the chainwale in a pair of blocks called a deadeye. At the bottom of the deadeye was a chain, which passed through a hole in the chainwale and was bolted into the side of the ship. As there were usually four or five ropes in the shroud for a mast, there were four or five chains bolted into the side of the ship. The chains for the mainmast were often placed low on the hull, not too far from the waterline. A boatman could tie his rope around the chains to secure his boat when he was boarding the ship.
Chainwale – The platform extended from the side of the ship to support the shrouds and chains (see chains).
Companion-Ladder -Ladders, often very nicely carved, that connected the main deck to the quarterdeck. Every other ladder in the ship was simply called a ladder – only those communicating with the quarterdeck were companion-ladders.
Counter -A section of the stern of the ship immediately above the rudder but below the transom (see).
Cutlass -A broad naval sword, favored by pirates for its ease of use and lack of required training. Gentlemen were trained in the use of sabers, which were longer, more elegant swords. But anybody could hack away with a cutlass!
Cutwater – the part of the keel at the very bow of the ship where she first meets the sea.
Deck -The floor of a ship. The Kathryn B had three decks;
The Main Deck stretched from up in the bows all the way to the stern.
The Quarterdeck, which extended aft from the waist to the taffrail.
The Foredeck, which stretched forward from the waist into the bows and formed the primary structure of the forecastle.
Like everything else, the decks were made of wood: long planks laid over deck beams. The seams between the planks were plugged with pitch (made from pine tree sap), to keep them from leaking.
Fenders – Pieces of old rope or cordage or other material hung over the side of a ship when in port to keep her from rubbing against the dock.
Figurehead – All the way back in the days of the Greeks and Phoenicians, ships were carved with images thought to bring them luck. By Phineas’ day the art had evolved into a sophisticated and beautiful form of expression. Practically, since most sailors couldn’t read, they could tell which ship was the Pelican, for example, by the beautifully carved pelican figurehead at the end of her beakhead.
The Kathryn B’s figurehead was the bust of a woman who was in real life so beautiful that the ship’s builder just had to carve her image into the figurehead and name the ship after her.
Forecastle -The raised forward part of a ship. In the Kathryn B, the foredeck stretches over the main deck at the bow of the ship. The area encompassed by the foredeck makes up the forecastle. The word itself dates back to the first days of shipbuilding, before guns, when warships were used like floating fortresses. Ships in those days had two castles, one in the front and one in the back. These wooden castles had high walls with parapets through which archers could shoot their arrows at enemy ships. The name for the front castle, called the forecastle, lived on long after ships stopped fighting that way. The forecastle was usually the home for most of the sailors in the ship. The pantry was up there, along with the galley. An officer who had started off his career as a regular sailor was said to have made his way aft from the forecastle. As the forecastle was forward of the mainmast, he could also have started “before the mast.” Just so you know, nobody pronounced it “fore-castle.” It was most often pronounced “FOKE-sull”.
Forward -The forward part of the ship. You walk forward from the mainmast to the foremast.
Frames -The ribs of the ship, rising horizontally from the keel and ending at the gunwale.
Freeboard – The side of the ship below the sails that is exposed to the wind. In some cases, such as close maneuvers in a harbor, a sailing master can use the ship’s side as a sort of sail to help in maneuvering. As often as not, though, the ship’s high sides tended to counteract the sails, and made sailing difficult. As a ship traveled forward under the pressure of the sails, she often traveled slightly sideways as the wind blew on the freeboard, gently shoving her off course.
Frigate -Sailing warships came in a wide variety of sizes and designs. Frigates were three masted ships mounting between 28 and 50 guns. They were fast sailers and powerful warships. It was said that a frigate could outrun what she couldn’t outgun. Frigates ranged the oceans, projecting naval might to every corner of the globe.
Gratings – At the center of most decks lay hatches, rectangular holes that led down to the deck below. These big, center hatches were used to let air and light down inside the ship, so their covers were built with an open latticework, like a big screen. These were called the gratings. They were made of oak, and were quite sturdy. It was not uncommon to tie the ship’s boats down to the gratings to store them. The corners of the gratings were open to allow access to the ladder that led down below. When large cargo was to be placed in the hold the gratings could be removed.
Gun -In the day, cannons were referred to as guns. Guns were rated by the weight of the cannonball they fired. The Kathryn B mounted six-pounders, meaning that the guns fired six-pound cannon balls. A merchant captain like Uncle Neville could buy guns of almost any size for his ship, from tiny two-pounders all the way up to great, thundering thirty-two pounders. But guns were heavy, and the heavier the cannonball, the bigger and heavier the gun was, which meant less space for carrying cargo. Uncle Neville, with Mr. Lourdburton’s help, wisely chose the six-pounders as a good combination of hitting power in a relatively light gun.
In this day, the barrels of smaller guns like Kathryn B‘s were cast in brass. The barrel was set in a carriage about the size of a baby carriage, albeit only about two feet tall, made of oak. The carriage sat on four wooden wheels, called trucks, one at each corner, and was held together with iron bolts and bands. Each six-pounder gun in its carriage weighed around seven hundred pounds.
To load the gun on the Kathryn B, a salami-shaped powder cartridge was shoved down the barrel using a ramrod. Next, a cannonball about the size of a big orange, was rolled down the barrel. Finally, a wad of oakum or cloth was shoved down the barrel and pressed against the ball with a ramrod. The wad of cloth, called wadding, kept the ball from rolling out of the gun.
The gun captain poked a goose quill down a small hole drilled at the top of the cannon near its rear end. The quill would tear a hole in the powder cartridge. Next, he would stuff a small fuse down the hole, making sure it poked down into the cartridge.
The two men manning the gun pulled on the ropes looped between the gun and ship’s side to roll the cannon on its trucks up to the gunport. Then the gun captain would touch his slow-match, itself a slowly burning fuse, to the fuse crammed in the top of the gun. The fuse quickly burned down to ignite the powder cartridge, causing the gun to go off.
The gun leapt backwards under the force of the explosion, rolling as fast as it could on the little wooden trucks. A piece of rope as thick as your forearm, looped between the rear end of the gun and the ship’s side, stopped the cannon from tearing across the deck and down through the grating.
A good gun crew could repeat this entire exercise in just 45 seconds, getting out three shots in two minutes. Experienced officers like Mr. Lourdburton took great care to make sure the men got a lot of practice handling the guns.
Gun Captain – The man in charge of pointing and firing the gun and of directing the crew in its management. He was the one to make sure that his crew had stepped to safety before the gun went off, to make sure it was pointed at the enemy, and to make sure that all of the steps required in firing the thing were performed in the proper order. It was a very responsible position.
Gunner – In a small ship like the Kathryn B, the gunner, sometimes called the armorer, would be the man responsible for anything and everything to do with the guns. He would make sure that the guns were cleaned and always ready for action. He would make sure that the cannonballs themselves were free from rust. He would make repairs to the guns as needed. Most importantly, in battle he was the person who handled the deadly gunpowder down in the ship’s hold, filling the canvas cartridge bags.
In a larger ship the gunner would handle the powder, but the job of repairing and maintaining the guns was given to the ship’s armorer. In smaller ships he was the same fellow.
The boatswain often took over the job of managing the location of the guns. He worked with the gunner to make sure the weapons were properly located and tied down.
Gun port – A square hole cut in the side of a ship through which a gun could be fired. Most often, the gunport was fitted with a lid that kept the weather out. Prior to firing the gun, obviously, the gun captain would raise the port-lid.
Gunwale -The topmost rail on the ship. The frames rise up from vertically from the keel. Around the frames are bands of wood, called planking, which make up the sides of the ship. At various places up the side of the ship are placed reinforced bands, called wales. The topmost wale is where a sailor might lay his musket to fire at an enemy. It is called the gunwale.
Hawsehole -The thick ropes that hold onto the anchors were called hawsers. The hawsers were passed through a hole cut in the bows of a ship. The hole, logically enough, was called a hawsehole.
Hold -The lowest part of the ship, just above the keel. The ship’s cargo and supplies were stowed down in the hold.
Hulk – A ship that has reached the end of its usefulness. Old ships were sometimes turned into floating prisons, called prison hulks. Old ships could also be used as barges to carry and fit masts into new ships. These were called sheer hulks. It’s a derogatory term to apply to one’s ship.
Kedge – The process of moving a ship by dropping an anchor and pulling the ship up to it. Kedging was done when the ship was becalmed, or, as in the Kathryn B’s case, run aground. The power of the ship’s capstan was used to move the ship closer to the anchor.
Keel -A thick beam that served as the ship’s backbone. It lay at the very bottom of the hold, and stretched from stem to stern. It was an enormous piece of wood, often eight or nine inches wide and over a foot thick.
Larboard -Like Port, larboard refers to the left side of a ship. A ship can turn to larboard or starboard, left or right.
Malkin – A pole with a sponge on the end, used for cleaning the burning fragments of cartridge and wadding from a cannon’s barrel.
Marlin Spike – a curved metal spike with a very sharp, needle-like point on one end. The marlin spike was a very large sewing needle, designed to puncture the heavy sail cloth. The ship’s sailmaker used it to repair the torn canvas.
Mast -The posts that stand up out of the deck of the ship. They are massive. In Phineas’ time they were often made out of the trunk of an oak tree. The job of the mast was to hold the yards, which hold the sails. On the Kathryn B there were two masts, a foremast and a mainmast. Larger ships like the Pelican and Williwaw had three masts, foremast, mainmast, and a mizzen mast. The masts were held upright by an enormous number of ropes, called stays. The bowsprit was another mast that stuck at an angle out of the front of the ship. When counting the number of masts on a ship, the bowsprit is not included: almost every ship had one.
Mutiny – When the crew takes control of the ship away from the captain, it is called a mutiny. Mutinies were most often bloody events, with shooting or stabbing, because, logically, the captain didn’t often wish to give up his post. In a merchant ship, it was often the captain’s own ship. In the Navy, the captain had been appointed by the king to command it.
An unhappy crew would usually make their discontent known to the officers long before they would mutiny. A good officer would report their unhappiness to the captain, and the problem would be worked out. If the captain didn’t work it out, though, he was setting himself up for trouble.
A crew that took over a ship, however, didn’t do it lightly, either. Once a crew took over a ship, no matter what the reason, they could never go back to their friends and families. They were labeled as mutineers, and could be hanged on the spot if they were caught.
Oilskin – Fabric that has been treated with oil to make it waterproof.
Paint Pot -A brightly painted ship. Warships of the day were most often painted black. But merchants could paint their ships whatever color they liked.
Pinrail – Also called pinracks and simply rails, these were the wooden railings into which belaying pins were thrust. You would normally find pinrails surrounding the base of a mast and lining the sides of the quarterdeck.
Pinnace – A small boat.
Pistol– In Phineas’ time, pistols fired only one shot at a time. There were several styles of firing mechanism, but the ones favored by the characters in this story were flintlocks. Pistols consisted of a wooden handle, called the stock, a steel barrel, a trigger mechanism and the flintlock.
Loading the pistol was much like loading a cannon: first, powder was dumped down the barrel, then a ball was rolled down, and a cloth wadding was tamped down to hold everything in place. Pistols actually came with a tiny ramrod fitted into the stock. The hammer mechanism was pulled back with the thumb to the first click. This was known as half-cocked. In this position, a little more powder was poured into a pan-shaped protrusion on the side of the gun. The shooter then closed a lid over the pan and gently un-cocked the pistol. The half-cock position opened the gun for loading, but, if the trigger was accidentally pulled, the gun couldn’t fire.
Firing the gun was pretty exciting. The shooter pulled the hammer past the first click of the half-cock position and back into the second click, the fully cocked position. He then pointed it at the target and pulled the trigger. The hammer, which held a little piece of flint, would smack against the cover of the little pan. The cover had a sandpaper-like surface that scratched the flint as it popped open and made a spark. The spark would ignite the powder in the pan, and the flame from the powder would shoot down a little hole into the barrel itself. The powder in the barrel would explode, blowing the ball out of the gun.
There were lots of things that could go wrong with such a design, and pistols were far from reliable. For sailors, the most common problem was keeping the powder in the little pan dry. A common saying was “keep your powder dry.” Another problem was remembering to pull the hammer all the way back to the second click. Red Suarez was so excited in his fight with Mr. Lourdburton he pulled the hammer only to the first click and pulled the trigger. The hammer didn’t fall with enough force to set the powder off, and the gun fails to fire. Red Suarez went off half-cocked!
Sometimes the flame from the pan on the side of the gun wouldn’t make it down the touchhole to ignite the main powder in the barrel. The gun would appear to fire at first, but nothing would happen. This was called “a flash in the pan”.
As a rule, pirates didn’t use pistols very much. They were cumbersome and heavy, and prone to misfire. When you see a pirate with a bunch of pistols in his baldric, you will see that he also carries a cutlass.
Port -The left side of a ship, or of anything, really. To go to the left is to go to port. Also, a harbor.
Quarter -If you drew a line down the center of a ship from bow to stern, and then another across the midships, you’d divide her into four equal parts. The left front part is the port bow; the right front is the starboard bow. The left rear part is the port quarter and right rear the starboard quarter.
Quarter was also a term for mercy. If a pirate took a ship, they might “show no quarter”, which meant they would kill the entire crew. A crewman might fall on his knees, begging “quarter.” If he was lucky, they would let him live.
Quarter was also a term for the place where sailors were supposed to go when the ship went into battle. The marine drummer would beat a specific rhythm on his drum while the officers would shout “hands to quarters!” This was the signal for the crewman to prepare the cannons and the ship for war.
Reef – A hump of coral or rock, even sand, that sticks up from the bottom of the ocean, making the water shallow. Corals tend to grow on top of and around each other, building small mountains on the ocean bottom. They can sometimes grow all the way to the surface. A ship could survive hitting a reef, as the Kathryn B did, only if she hit it at a relatively slow speed. Under full sail, ships have been known to lose their entire underside, scraping it off on the rough coral. Reefs were not a sailor’s friend!
A sailor could also reef his sail, which meant partially rolling it up to make it draw less wind. This would have been useful to the Grace during the “right blow”. Later sails had small strips of canvas on them, called reef points, to which a sailor could roll and tie the bottom of the sail.
Rigging -Rigging is a collective term for the various ropes that were used on a ship. There were two kinds of rigging:
Standing Rigging: This was rope most often made of hemp that was used to support the masts. The stays and shrouds were considered standing rigging. Because standing rigging had to withstand strain and weather, the sailors most often coated it with a healthy layer of sticky black tar. The English referred to their sailors as “jack tars.”
Running Rigging: This was the rope that was used to manage the sails and yards. This rope was pulled and coiled and tied often, so it wasn’t coated with tar.
Ringbolt – An iron device with a screw on one end and a ring on the other. The screw had very coarse threads so that it would hold on tight to the wood into which it was driven. The ring was about as big around as your fist. Once it was screwed into the deck, it became a very secure anchor for whatever rope was tied to it.
Rudder – A tall, vertical plank at the rear end of the ship. The rudder was used to steer the ship.
Most small ships in Phineas’ time employed a simple tiller – the long bar attached to the top of the rudder. The helmsman pushed on the bar to turn the ship. The bar was long, however, and took up a lot of deck space
A ship’s wheel, like the one in the Kathryn B, was a pretty expensive option for a ship of her size. The wheel hung on the front of a cylinder from which ropes stretched through the deck to the tiller. The tiller was attached to the rudder at the other end. If you turned the wheel one direction, the cylinder would pull on the rope, which would pull the tiller and turn the rudder. The ship’s wheel was relatively small, and therefore much preferred over the cumbersome tiller bar.
In the early days of ships the rudder was actually an oar they hung over the right side of the ship. It was referred to as the steering board. When a ship was in a port, they didn’t want the steering board bumping against the dock, so they turned the ship’s left side to it. This left side, then, was the side that faced to port, and eventually became known as the port side. The term ‘steering board’ eventually contracted into the word ‘starboard’, meaning the right side of the ship.
Sailing Master – In merchant ships, he was the number-two man in the ship. In Navy ships, he was the man in charge of getting the ship where she was going. Mr. Lourdburton was the sailing master in the Kathryn B. His job was to know everything there was to know about the ship and how to sail her. The captain would tell him where to sail, but the sailing master’s job was to get them there. A good sailing master like Mr. Lourdburton was worth his weight in gold.
Scupper -Ships were always wet. If it wasn’t raining, there was spray from the sea falling on the decks. To keep things dry, there were holes drilled into the sides of the ship at a place just above the deck to let the water out. These were called scuppers. You would find them at the base of the bulwark, just above the deck.
Scurvy – A dreaded disease, common among sailors and pirates. It was caused by a lack of fresh food, although in Phineas’ time this was not commonly known. There are many symptoms, but they often include the loss of teeth, the opening of old wounds, and a severe loss of energy. In Phineas’ time a sailor who came down with scurvy was certain to die from it.
Shorten Sail – Reduce the number of sails in use. Shortening sail slows the ship down.
Shot – Balls fired from guns. Shot ranged in weight from just two pounds all the way up to enormous sixty-four pound mortar balls. While shot was most often made up of a single piece of iron cast into the shape of a ball, the big sixty-four pound balls were actually hollow spheres, into which any manner of things could be placed.
The weight of the shot determined its hitting power. The six pound shot carried by the Kathryn B was very effective at close range, but of little use when fired from far away. The twelve-pound shot of the Pelican and Williwaw, however, hit harder from a farther distance. When Sir Edward triple-shotted the guns, the gun’s range was reduced but the effect of the shot was tripled to eighteen pounds.
Iron shot was devastating to wooden ships. The ship’s hull was built of dry wood that tended to splinter under the ball’s impact. Indeed, splinters caused far more casualties onboard a ship than the actual impact of the iron balls. When you think of splinters, though, don’t think of that tiny little black thing stuck in your finger. Think instead of a jagged spire two feet long and three inches thick and needle sharp and traveling at two hundred miles an hour. As often as not, that’s what could be knocked loose by the impact of a cannonball.
Shrouds -The lateral stays for a mast. Single or doubled lines might make up the fore- and backstays, but the shrouds were usually single lines grouped together in sections of three, four, or more lines, spreading in a pyramid shape down from the top to the chains at the side of the ship.
Ropes used as footropes for sailors climbing up to the top of the mast were tied between the shrouds. These smaller ropes were called ratlines.
Spars -A spar is a long piece of wood, tapered at both ends. Lying on the deck, the piece of wood was called a spar. But when it was used to hold a sail, the spar was referred to as a yard. Spars could also be stood on end to replace masts that might have been lost.
Spring – A rope laid out to a fixed object to allow the crew to turn the ship. In the Kathryn B they used the rope leading to their kedge anchor in combination with the wind to turn the ship’s broadside against the approaching Williwaw.
Also, a crack in a yard or mast that renders it incapable of carrying weight. Developing such a crack in a mast is called ‘springing a mast’, and you can say that the cracked mast is sprung.
Stand Fast -Stop moving this instant. Stand fast, there, you scoundrel!
Starboard -The right side of things nautical. The right side of the ship is the starboard side, as a right turn is a turn to starboard.
Stem -The very front most part of the ship. The keel is a wide plank, stood on its edge, which runs along the very bottom of the ship. The keel rises at the bow of the ship as the stem. The point at which it rises is the cutwater.
Stern -The very rearmost part of the ship. Stern is a collective term that refers to the back end of the ship.
If you sailed your ship backwards, you’d say she was sailing stern-first.
Tack -Sailing ships moved by tilting their sails across the wind. It was easy when the wind was blowing the direction they wanted to go. But when the wind blew in the opposite direction, the ships had a maneuver they called tacking.
Say that you wanted to sail north, but the wind was blowing from the north. You can’t sail directly into the wind. So you sail the ship to the west, and just a tiny bit to the north. As the wind is coming over the side of the ship, you move forward. This is called the port tack, as you have turned your ship to port to head west. But you want to go north, not west. So you turn the ship around to the east, and just a tiny bit north. Now the wind is coming over the other side of the ship, and you are moving forward. This is called the starboard tack.
Sure, you’ve traveled a long way to the east and west, but each time you’re also traveling just the littlest bit north. A ship might have to sail 200 miles to the east and west just to move 20 miles to the north. But it was better than waiting for the wind to change!
Captain Bligh in the HMS Bounty tacked back and forth in fierce gales off of the coast of South Africa for a solid month and gained not a mile of forward distance. He eventually had to turn around and find another route to Tahiti!
Tackle – The collective term for the assembly of ropes and blocks used to move or control heavy objects. Guns had three sets of tackle associated with them; training tackle on either side and a breeching tackle at the back. The training tackle was used to aim the gun from side-to-side, while the breeching tackle was used to pull the gun away from the gunport for loading and maintenance.
Taffrail -At the very rear end of the ship, the gunwale becomes the taffrail. It’s from a Dutch word meaning painting, and refers to the fact that Dutch ships often had a portrait painted on the flat rear end of the ship. The word eventually came to mean the rear-most railing on the ship.
Top -The mast is broken into two parts, the mast and the top mast. At the place where they break, there is a platform. This is called the top. On the foremast, it’s called the foretop, while it’s the maintop on the mainmast.
This was a working platform for men maintaining the forestays, the topmast shrouds, and the main yard, which was suspended directly below it.
In the very early days of sail, it was referred to as a fighting top. It had walls around it, behind which would crouch archers and musketeers.
Eventually the walls went away, but it was still used as a platform from which to make war. In fact, it was a marksman firing from the maintop of a French ship of the line that killed Horatio Nelson, England’s most famous admiral.
Transom – A somewhat generic term to describe the flat structure across the stern of the ship. Essentially, the transom was a wall that sealed off the after end of the main deck.
The counter seals off the end of the hull below the main deck, and curves gently out to meet the transom. The transom may contain the windows for the aft cabins, may have ornate carvings, or, in a small ship, may simply be a flat wall of wood.
In small boats, the transom refers to the panel across the stern.
The ship’s name is almost always written across the transom.
Yards -These were long poles, tapered at both ends, which were suspended from the masts. The ship’s sails were hung on the yards. They were named for their mast and their position on it. The lowest yard on the main mast was called the main yard. The yard on the top mast was called the main topmast yard.
They could be turned around the mast to capture the wind, and could be lowered to the deck to remove or replace the sails.
Sailors would walk out along these yards, suspended as high as a hundred feet above the sea, barefoot, sometimes in the dark in a raging sea without anything to hold onto to change the sails. These men were called topmen, and theirs was the most dangerous job aboard ship.
Vittles – A commoner’s word for food. Food on board ships of the day varied greatly between merchant ships and those of the Navy. Most captains would try to provide the best food they could for their crew. While specific nutritional values were not yet understood, many captains and ship’s surgeons had made the connection between bad food and disease.
While Uncle Neville, with Ellis Duffy’s guidance, tried to always provide fresh fruit and vegetables for his men, a long journey out of sight of land would require the crew to rely on stored foods, like dried peas, salt pork, and ship’s biscuit. While the ship’s cook kept his own supply of daily-use items in the galley, many of these food items were stored in casks down in the hold.
The cook tried to bake fairly often, rather than use pre-baked biscuits stored in kegs. The biscuits soon turned hard as rock, and the biscuit kegs were often invaded by bugs called weevils.
Many ships had mangers, live animal pens in which they might keep a pig or two, a goat, and chickens. Larger ships sometimes carried cows.
On long voyages, the ship’s cook would have to get creative as supplies ran low. There was pudding, made from the last bits of flour, dried peas, dried fruit, and sometimes bits of meat, called duff. Porridge was a common food item.
Salt pork was the meat of pigs dried and salted and stored in a cask. Straight from the barrel, salt pork could be so dry and stiff that it could be carved like wood. The ship’s cook would boil the pork in water to make it edible. As the pork boiled, most of the fat would rise to the surface of the kettle, where it could be scraped off by the cook. He gave half of the fat, which they called “slush”, to the ship’s boatswain as a lubricant for the many blocks and moving parts aboard the ship. The cook was allowed to sell the other half. The money from the sales was kept in a fund… it’s where we get the term slush fund.
Food on land at this time wasn’t always better. Sometimes men would sign up for the Navy just to get regular meals. In the Navy, your meal was served on a square tray, and you got three of them a day. Hence the term “three square meals.”
Fresh drinking water was stored in massive kegs in the hold. It would last about a month before it turned green with algae and became undrinkable. Officers often drank tea, and sometimes coffee, and wine when they could afford it.
On a long voyage, the crew often drank beer instead of water, as it didn’t go bad as quickly.
They also drank rum. In the Navy, the ship’s purser mixed the rum with water so that it would last longer. They called this mixture grog. If a sailor drank too much, he would wake up the next morning feeling groggy.