Short URL for this page:
Barnacle. It looks like an oversized, very dirty oyster. By means of a long fleshy foot-stalk it attaches itself to the bottoms of vessels at sea. This cuts speed; and privateers, dependent as they were on speed, had to have their bottoms scraped more often than most other vessels.
Binnacle. The box, usually round and about waist-high, in which the compass is kept. It used to be called the bittacle.
Bittacle. See binnacle.
Claw off a lee shore, to. Square-rigged vessels, which could only sail about 90 degrees into the wind, had a hard time of it when that wind was squarely abeam and pushing them toward a beach. They had to make a series of clumsy yaws or tacks. This was known as clawing off a lee shore, and it was a delicate and dangerous operation. Fore-and‑aft-rigged vessels, such as schooners, could sail about 45 degrees into the wind. This gave them a substantial advantage over the square-rigged vessels off a lee shore, in the event of a chase.
Counterscarp. A fortifications term. The counterscarp was the wall on the enemy side of a ditch or moat surrounding a fort. The wall on the fort side, part of the rampart proper, was the scarp.
p164 Covered way. A narrow walk along the top of the counterscarp. It was lower than the scarp, so that the fort's cannons shot over the heads of musketeers or grenadiers stationed there to check the first rush of the enemy. These men were protected by an earthwork.
Donnybrook. A brawl. A free-for‑all fight. It was named after the Donnybrook Fair in Ireland, which used to be notorious for its every‑man-for‑himself fist battles.
Falling off. Turning a vessel downwind, in order to run.
Fleche. In French this means "arrow." In siegecraft it was a small earthwork shaped like the head of an arrow and open in the rear.
Forecastle. Pronounced "f'c'sul" in two syllables, and sometimes spelled focsul. The earliest oceangoing vessels (not counting those of the Vikings) were protected by two high fighting towers. The one in the bow was called the forward or forecastle, the one in the stern was the after castle. Traditionally the forecastle was the sleeping quarters of the crew, while the officers were berthed in the stern, the afterdeck or poop or quarterdeck being the place from which the vessel was controlled, since it contained the helm. The forecastle was an uncomfortable place, especially on clipper ships with their narrow bows. Today ordinary and able-bodied seamen are usually berthed amidships, but their quarters are still called the forecastle.
Guineaman. A slave ship. Most of the slaves taken to the West Indies and to continental America came from the Guinea coast of Africa. The vessels that carried them were highly malodorous, and "stinks like a Guineaman" or "stinks like a slaver" were common expressions of the time.
Gunnels. The word was originally gunwalls, and that's just what they were — stout wooden walls that ran around the upper deck or decks to protect the guns and the gunners there. Today we call this the rail.
p165 Gun ports. Most of the fighting vessel's guns were belowdecks and were fired through ports, which were always square and which were kept closed in dirty weather. A strange vessel's might show many gun ports but fail to have a gun behind each. On the other hand, the ports often were "masked" — that is, painted and perhaps planed to look like part of the side of the vessel, which because of this might be thought unarmed. The ports were opened from the inside, of course; and it was one of the tests of a good gun crew that it could get its port up and its gun run out almost simultaneously.
Half-moon. Another siege fortification, whether of earth or stone or some other material. It took its name from its shape, like the fleche.
Helm. The steering apparatus of a vessel, whether it was a jackstaff, a whipstaff, a tiller, or a wheel. To put up one's helm was to turn sharply into the wind. It was the opposite of falling off, and it was a common trick when two vessels approached one another for purposes of fighting. Each sought to get the weather gage.
Hermaphrodite. A brig with the mainmast fore-and‑aft rigged like that of a schooner. It was popular with some sailors, who playfully called them "morphodites," but it was not beloved by privateers.
Hole, to. To shoot a cannonball through the side of a ship, preferably "between wind and water" — that is, near the water line where it will do the most harm.
Hook. A seaman's name for an anchor. These, by the way, never were "cast," as landlubbers like to have it. They were much too heavy for that. They were "dropped" or "let go."
Hot shot. Cannonballs heated red‑hot before being fired.
Hull, to. See hole, to.
Jibs. The small, triangular sails in the forward part of a vessel, usually rigged between the foremast and the bowsprit. With other small sails, the skysails and the topgallants p166 and topsails, these comprised a warship's "fighting canvas." They were sufficient to keep way on the ship, so that she would answer her helm, yet they were small enough and remote enough so that they would not interfere with the working of the top deck guns if they were cut down by chain shot or set afire by hot shot.
Jolly boat. A clincher-built ship's boat, smaller than a cutter, with a bluff bow and very wide transom, usually hoisted at the stern of the vessel and used chiefly as a hack-boat for small work.
Jury‑rig, to. To make temporary, emergency repairs after a storm or a battle.
Kedge, to. To move a grounded vessel or one caught in a calm by means of a kedge anchor, which is different from an ordinary anchor in that it is shaped not like a hook but like an opened umbrella. The kedge anchor is carried some distance by a small boat, and dropped; and the vessel is worked painfully toward it by sailors walking the capstan.
Layer. That member of a gun crew who was assigned to "lay" the gun — that is, to raise or lower the muzzle — as distinguished from the man who actually aimed it. This was a very important post on a warship, and the rougher the weather the more important it was.
Linstock. A rod •about three feet long, with one end pointed so that it can be stuck upright into the deck, while the other ends holds a match, or piece of lighted fuse, by means of which the gun is actually fired. The word comes from two Dutch words meaning "match stick," which is just what it was. Though the flintlock for muskets was known as far back as the middle of the 16th Century, it was not until more than two centuries later that the principle was applied to cannons at sea. Most of even the later privateers used the linstock.
Long boat. A vessel's largest smallboat. It might take as many as forty‑odd men, and was used for towing, for cutting‑out p167 operations, etc., rather than for mere ship-to‑shore errand running, for which the Moses boat or the jolly boat would be preferred. The long boat often was equipped with a mast, and sometimes was decked over, or partly decked over. It was usually towed astern, being too big to haul aboard.
Long tom. A generic name for any long-barreled, long-ranging cannon, as distinguished from the stubbier carronade.
Match tub. A tub partly filled with water, in which was floated a piece of wood or of cork supporting a lighted fuse, called the match. The linstock could be relit from this. There was usually one match tub to each gun, and it was an important part of the preparation for battle to see that these tubs were all out and in place — and lighted.
Moses boat. A jolly boat. A small boat for ship-to‑shore work. It was much used in the West Indies, but the name was common in New England too, and indeed the boat is said to have been named for Moses Lowell, a famous shipbuilder at Salisbury, Mass.
Orlop. The lowest deck of a warship, just above the hold.
Pierced. A vessel was said to have been pierced when her gunnels and part of her bulwarks had had gun ports cut out of them. It was one of the first steps in converting a merchantman into a privateer.
Powder monkey. A boy whose battle assignment it was to keep bringing gunpowder up from the magazines. Some of them were only 11 or 12 years old.
Rammer. That member of a gun crew who rammed the powder home, then rammed the plug and the ball and the wad on top of it. Also, a rammer is the device with which he performs this task.
Redan. A field fortification with the back open, much like a fleche.
Rope-walk. A long barnlike building in which rope for ships' rigging is manufactured and sold.
Sea anchor. This is not an anchor at all in the ordinary sense p168 of the word. It is a large square of canvas of tarpaulin with a rope tied to each corner, and it is thrown off the stern in a very bad blow. When it is not safe to spread any sail at all this serves to keep the vessel headed up into the wind.
Skysails. The highest sails on a full-rigged ship, usually square, always high, spread just above the topgallants on the foremast and mainmast.
Springs. Ropes or hawsers attached to the anchored cable of an anchored vessel. Sometimes these are for the purpose of preventing the vessel from swinging around and perhaps fouling another anchored vessel, and sometimes they were to make it easier to cut the anchor cable in case the vessel wished to get out of there in a hurry, leaving her anchors behind.
Studding sails. This is always pronounced and sometimes spelled stunsails. They were fair-weather sails set out on spars on either side, temporary extensions of the fore and main booms, when the ship was driving right before the wind. They made for an ounce of extra speed. When a vessel had her studding sails spread she was said to have "everything on but the cook's shirt."
Swabs. These were sometimes called sponges, and the man who used one was a swabber or a sponger. The instrument was like a broomstick with a long sponge mounted at one end. After a cannon had been fired the swabber dipped this into a bucket of water — there was always plenty of water standing around during a battle, for fear of fire — and then thrust it into the barrel of the gun, thus putting out every last little spark, an act that quite possibly saved the rammer's life. Firing made the barrel hot enough to evaporate the water almost as soon as it had done its job, so that the next charge of powder, put in with an instrument called a ladle, was not wetted.
Teredo, or teredos. An animal about as big as your littlest fingernail. It fastens itself to the bottom of wooden ships p169 in tropical waters, especially in the West Indies, but unlike the barnacle it doesn't hang on — it bores, it drills. Like the termite on land, the teredo within a few short months can make a good stout oak timber look like a wedge of Swiss cheese. It used to be called the teredo or teredos worm, but we know now that it is not properly a worm but a mollusk.
Terreplein. Originally the sloping ground on the inside of a fort's rampart, later the level land just below that, the place where the guns were mounted.
Topgallants. The sails mounted on the topgallant masts of full-rigged ships. This mast was the third one up, and the topgallant was just below the skysail.
Topsails. Just below the topgallants. The third sails down from the top.
Trunnel. Originally and properly treenail. There was very little metal in the American colonies, or even in the American states just after the Revolution, and ships were customarily built and furniture made with wooden nails or pegs. These were trunnels.
walking the capstan (originally capstern). The capstan was a revolving pillar with a ratchet, turned by means of fitting‑in bars that men pushed. This was the heaviest kind of work, such as kedging the vessel off a reef or fetching up the anchor.
Weather gage. The windward side of an enemy you were just about to tackle. Having the weather gage was extremely important, as it allowed you to pick the time and angle of your attack, and whether in single vessel duels or big fleet actions hours and sometimes even days were spent in jockeying for this position.
Wormer. An iron double screw, sometimes on its own stick, sometimes mounted on the upper end of the swab or sponge. It was used from time to time after explosions to work out bits of old wadding or unburned scraps of the linen powder bag.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 20 May 13