|Glossary of Nautical Terms
(As used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries)
Aft: at or towards the stern or after part of a ship, the opposite of bow.
Aloft: overhead, or above.
Bank: a rising ground in the sea, differing from a shoal, because not rocky but composed of sand, mud or gravel.
Becalmed: to halt through lack of wind.
Bow: the foremost end or part of a ship, the opposite of stern.
Bowsprit: a large mast or piece of timber which stands out from the bow of a ship.
Burthen: the older term used to express a ship's tonnage or carrying capacity. It was based on the number of tuns of wine that a ship could carry in her holds, the total number giving her burthen.
Dead reckoning: a system of navigation where the position of a ship is calculated without the use of any astronomical observation whatever.
Fair wind: a wind favourable to the direction a ship is sailing.
Fathom: a measure of six feet, used to divide the lead (or sounding) lines in measuring the depth of water; and to calculate in the length of cables, rigging, etc.
Fore: the forward part.
Hail, to: to call to another ship.
Helm: the instrument by which the ship is steered, and includes both the wheel and the tiller, as one general term.
Jib: a triangular sail set by sailing ships on the boom which runs out from the bowsprit.
Jury-mast: a temporary makeshift mast erected to replace a mast that has been disabled or carried away.
Jury-rudder: a makeshift arrangement to give a ship the ability to to steer when she has lost her rudder.
Keel: the lowest and principal timber of a wooden ship - the single strongest member of the ship's frame.
Knot: the nautical measure of speed, one knot being a speed of one nautical mile (6,080 feet) per hour. As a measure of speed the term is always knots, and never knots an hour.
Landfall: the discovery of the land.
Land-locked: sheltered all round by the land, so that there is no view of the sea.
Lead: an instrument for discovering the depth of water, attached to a lead-line, which is marked at certain distances to measure the fathoms.
Lee: the side of a ship, promontory, or other object away from the wind; that side sheltered from the wind. It is the opposite side to windward.
Lee shore: a coastline on to which the wind blows directly - consequently it can be dangerous as the wind tends to force the sailing ship down on it.
Leeward: with the wind; towards the point to which the wind blows.
Letter of Marque: a commission issued in Britain by the Lord High Admiral or Commissioners of the Admiralty authorizing the commander of a privately owned ship to cruise in search of enemy merchant vessels. The letter of marque described the ship, her owners and officers, the amount of surety which had been deposited and stressed the necessity of having all prize vessels or goods seized condemned and valued at a Vice Admiralty Court for the payment of 'prize money'.
Lie-to: to prevent a vessel from making progress through the water - achieved by reducing sail in a gale. The objective is to keep the vessel in such a position, with the wind on the bow, as to ensure that heavy seas do not break aboard.
The Line (or 'Crossing the Line') Sailing across the Equator. Nautical tradition where seamen celebrate the crossing of the equator by dressing up and acting out a visit by King Neptune. Those who have not previously crossed the line are summoned to the court of Neptune for trial, followed by a ritual ducking (in a bathing tub of seawater) and sometimes lathered and roughly shaved.
Mainsail: the principal sail of a sailing vessel.
Mizzen (or mizen): the name for the third, aftermost, mast of a square-rigged sailing ship or of a three-masted schooner.
Muster-book: the book kept on board a vessel in which was entered the names of all men serving in the ship, with the dates of their entry and final discharge from the crew. It was the basis on which victuals were issued and payment made for services performed on board.
Pintle: a vertical metal pin attached to the leading edge of the rudder; it is fitted into the metal ring or 'gudgeon' bolted to the sternpost of a vessel. This provides the means for hinging the rudder on the sternpost and allows a rudder to be swung or turned as desired (by use of the tiller); where necessary (ie. when the rudder needs to be removed or repaired) the pintles can be unshipped quickly and the rudder detached.
Port: the left-hand side of a vessel as seen from the stern; also a harbour or haven.
Privateer: a privately owned vessel armed with guns which operated in time of war against the trading vessels of an enemy nation. Each privateer was given a a 'letter of marque' which was regarded as a commission to seize any enemy shipping as a 'prize'. The name 'privateer' has come to refer to both the ship and the men who sailed in her.
Prize: name used to describe an enemy vessel captured at sea by a ship of war or a privateer; also used to describe a contraband cargo taken from a merchant ship. A 'prize court' would then determine the validity of capture of ships and goods and authorize their disposal. 'Prize' in British naval history always acted as considerable incentive to recruitment with many men tempted to join the navy in anticipation of quick riches.
Prize Court: Captured ships were to be brought before prize courts where it was decided whether the vessel was legal prize; if so, the whole value was divided among the owners and the crew of the ship.
Road or Roadstead: a stretch of sheltered water near land where ships may ride at anchor in all but very heavy weather; often rendered as 'roads', and does not refer to the streets of a particular port city but rather its anchorage, as in 'St Helens Roads', the designated anchorage for shipping located between St. Helens (Isle of Wight) and Portsmouth, or 'Funchal Roads' at the island of Madeira. (see Elizabeth Macquarie's 1809 Journal).
Quarter: (1)the direction from which the wind was blowing, particularly if it looked like remaining there for some time; (2)the two after parts of the ship - strictly speaking a ship's port or starbord quarter was a bearing 45° from the stern.
Ship: from the Old English scip, the generic name for sea-going vessels (as opposed to boats). Originally ships were personified as masculine but by the sixteenth century almost universally expressed as as feminine.
Shoal: a bank or reef, an area of shallow water dangerous to navigation. Sounding: the of operation of determioning the depth of the sea, and the quality of the ground, by means of a lead and line, sunk from the ship to the bottom, where some of the sediment or sand adheres to the tallow in the hollow base of the lead.
Stern: after-part of a ship or boat.
Tide of Flood: the flow of the tidal stream as it rises from the ending of the period of slack water at low tide to the start of the period of slack water at high tide; its period is approximately six hours.
Trade Winds: steady regular winds that blow in a belt approximately 30 N. and 30 S of the equator. In the North Atlantic the trades blow consistently all year round, from the north-east; in the South Atlantic they blow from the south-east, converging just north of the equator. The meeting of the trade winds just north of the equator created the infamous 'doldrums', where sailing ships could be becalmed for days or weeks waiting for a wind to carry them back into the trades.They were known as trade winds because of their regularity, thereby assisting sailing vessels in reaching their markets to carry out trade.
Voyage: a journey by sea. It usually includes the outward and homeward trips, which are called passages.
Watch: (1) one of the seven divisions of the nautical day; (2) one of two divisions of the seamen forming the ship's company.
Wear: the nautical manouevre of bringing a sailing vessel on to another tack by bringing the wind around the stern.
Weather: in a nautical sense (rather than a meteorological) this is the phrase used by seamen to describe anything that lies to windward. Consequently, a coastline that lies to windward of a ship is a weather shore; the side of a ship that faces the wind when it is under way is said to be the weather side a ship, etc.
Weigh: to haul up.
Weigh anchor: the raising of the anchor so that the ship is no longer secured to the sea or river bottom.
Windward: the weather side, or that direction from which the wind blows. It is the opposite side to leeward.
Yard: (1) a large wooden spar crossing the masts of a sailing ship horizontally or diagonally, from which a sail is set. (2) a shortened form of the word 'dockyard, in which vessels are built or repaired.
JEANS, Peter D. Ship to Shore: a dictionary of everyday words and phrases derived from the sea. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1993.
The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea. (ed.) Peter Kemp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
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