The Anatomy of a Wooden Ship: Part 3- The Ropes


Built in Galicia in 1460, La Santa Maria de Inmaculada Conception was a carrack that served as Christopher Columbus’s flagship on his monumental 1492 voyage. While the carrack was slower compared to the Nina and Pinta, it did well on its Atlantic voyage, it ran aground and sank near what is present day Haiti in December of that year.

So now we have the sails and masts, we move onto the ropes. While the sails propel the ship and the masts carry the sails, the ropes hold the masts and sails together in the rigging. Now the rigging is a system of ropes, cables, chains supporting the ship’s masts and sails. There’s standing rigging including shrouds and stays which adjust the sails’ position and poles they’re attached to. Then there’s the running rigging which consists of halyards, braces, sheets, and vangs. The ropes also put the sails in working order, which can be lifted, reefed, and furled in whenever the windy conditions permit.

The Ropes:

Backstay- stay extending from the ship’s mastheads to its side and provides lateral support to the mast in a fore-and-aft rigged ship.

Becket- a rope with a knot on one end and an eye on the other. Used to secure loose ropes, spars, or oars.

Bight- the loop or double part created in a rope or strand of a rope when folded. Often used in creating complex knots.

Bitter End- the inboard end of a rope or anchor cable.

Block or pulley- a wooden or metal case in which one or more sheaves (rollers) are fitted through which lines can run to either increase purchase or change direction. In the 17th and 18th centuries, block pins were often made of greenheart.

Bobstay- rope used on ship to steady the bowsprit.

Boltrope- strong rope stitched to a sail’s outer edges to prevent tearing.

Bowline- rope used to keep a square sail’s weather leech to haul it forward, allowing the ship to point as high into the wind as possible.

Brace- a rope by which a yard is swung around and secured to shift a sail into a favorable position to the wind and the course of a square-rigged ship.

Brails or leech lines- ropes on a sail’s edge for hauling up.

Breeching Rope- a thick and heavy rope used to secure a cannon to the ship’s side for controlling and limiting gunfire recoil. Often wound around the cannon’s cascable and looped through both of a gun carriage’s sides. Both ends had an eye-splice which connected the gun to heavy ringbolt attached to the ship’s side. As a rule of thumb, it was 3 times the length of the gun barrel and could be 6 ½ inches in diameter for a large gun like a 32 pounder.

Bull Rope- rope used for hoisting the topmast or topgallant mast in a square-rigged ship.

Buntline- rope attached to a square sail’s foot to haul it up to the yard while keeping it from opening up. Normally there were multiple evenly-spaced buntlines leading through blocks on a yard to the foot of a square sail bent to that yard.

Buntline Hitch- a knot used to tie a buntline to a square sail’s foot.

Cable- a heavy rope or chain for mooring or anchoring. Can also be a naval unit of distance.

Catblock- block with 2 or 3 sheaves and with an iron strap and hook attached, used to draw the anchor the catshead.

Chip Log- a wood piece tied to a knotted cord. A ship’s speed was measured by counting the number of knots passing over the stern while being timed.

Clew Line- a line used for hauling up the clews when furling sail.

Clove Hitch- a knot used to tie and secure ratlines to the shrouds.

Cordage- ropes in a ship’s rigging.

Crowfoot- rigging to even the pull or load on the spars, stays, and leeches. Often more decorative than purposeful. Used on the mast tops until 1800.

Dandy-Rig- name used a for a variety of rigs, most often a ketch or yawl-rig.

Deadeye- a round or triangular hardwood block with one or more holes and a grooved perimeter. Used to set up a ship’s stays and shrouds. Most common thought of variety was said to have 3 holes.

Double Block- a tackle block with 2 sheaves located side by side.

Downhaul- rope for holding down or hauling down a sail or spar.

Earing- rope used for fastening a square sail’s top corners to its yard. Can also be an eye spliced into a sail’s boltrope for reefing purposes.

Eye- a circular loop at the shroud or stay’s end.

Fack- a full circle of any rope or cable.

Fisherman’s Knot- a not used to secure a line’s end to a ring or spar. Made by 2 turns with end passed back under both.

Footrope- a rope in a square-rigged ship suspended below a yard on which the topmen stood while furling or reefing sails.

Forestay- stay leading from the foremast to the ship’s bow.

Futtock Shroud- a shroud used to brace and support the topmast’s base, running downward and inward from the futtock base on the topmast base sides to the futtock band around the mast or directly to the lower shroud.

Gammoning- a heavy rope for securing the bowsprit to the ship’s stem.

Girtline- a rope passing through a block hung from a mast or masthead for hoisting relatively light loads such as a flag, tools, and weapons.

Halyard- a line used to hoist a sail, spar, or flag.

Hank- a series of rings or clips for attaching a jib or staysail to a stay.

Hawser- a heavy cable or rope that’s used for tying up or pulling a ship.

Hogging Truss- a rope or chain running front to back and tightened by a Spanish windlass and fastened to prevent stem and stern from sagging.

Jack-Block- a pulley system for raising topgallant masts.

Jeer- heavy tackle used for hoisting lower yards in square-rigged ships.

Jib Sheet- sheet or line controlling the jib sail.

Jigger- a 5ft long rope piece with a block at one end and a sheave at the other. Used to pull back tension at the cable’s hind part, when it’s pulled aboard ship by a windlass.

Jumper- a stay leading from the jib-boom’s outer edge to the dolphin striker.

Jury Rig- a temporary rig used to replace a damage mast or spar.

Lanyard- a short rope used on a ship for fastening things such as sails.

Lift- a rope in a square-rigged ship leading from the masthead, crosstrees, or cap to a yard’s either end for support.

Limber Rope- a rope threaded into the limber holes running the ship’s length. Pulled back and forth to keep the limber holes from plugging.

Line- rope.

Main Sheet- the rope controlling the angle at which a main sail is trimmed and set.

Main Stay- stay extending from the foremast’s main-top to its foot.

Man Rope- rope used as a ship’s handrail.

Martingale- a stay running from the jib-boom end to the dolphin striker, holding the jib-boom down against the fore topgallant mast stay’s pull.

Masthead Knot- a knot around the jury-rigged masthead intended to provide for stays attachment points.

Nave Line- a small tackle used to keep the parrel directly opposite to the yard, particularly while raising or lowering, (as it would otherwise hang under the yard), and prevent it from being sufficiently braced.

Nipper- a short length of rope used to bind an anchor cable.

Oakum- small old rope pieces used for filling holes in ship’s sides.

Outhaul- rope used to haul a sail taut along a spar.

Painter- a rope attached to the ship’s front used for tying it to a post. Used to control a smaller boat while loading or unloading from a beach.

Parrel- an arrangement of rollers and flat wood pieces held together with rope. Used to hold a yard against a mast while allowing it to be raised and lowered. Sometimes all the yards or some of the lighter, upper yards were held to the mast with ropes called parrel lashings.

Preventer- a rope backing-up another line or rope under extra strain to prevent the latter from breaking or giving way.

Quail- coil.

Quarter Netting- netting along the quarter rails.

Ratlines- horizontal lines running along the shrouds to create a ladder for the crew to use in getting to the rigging, tops, and yards.

Reef Points- short tapered rope lengths located across and reeved through the sail which can be tied together or hauled onto a yard to keep part of the sail out of use in strong winds. Reinforced with reef bands to keep sail from tearing.

Reef Tackle- a tackle for hauling up reef bands onto a yard and thus lessening the effective sail area in strong winds.

Rigging- all the ropes, chains, wires, and tackle used to support the masts and yards for hoisting, lowering, or trimming sails.

Roband- yarn piece used to fasten a sail to a spar.

Rode- an anchor length or chain.

Rolling Hitch- a knot to secure and attach one rope to another.

Rope- any flexible heavy cord to over an inch in diameter. Tightly intertwined fibers used in ship ropes were hemp, manila, sisal, and coir.

Running Rigging- name given to all the lines, ropes, and chains controlling sails, yards, and masts or all the rigging except for the shrouds and stays.

Sail Burton- a block and tackle extending from the topmast’s head to the deck of a square-rigged ship. Used for hoisting the sails aloft when they were bent to the yards.

Sheepshank- a knot shortening a line. Should remain under tension to be secure.

Sheet- rope running from the bottom aft the corner of a sail that’s used for controlling the sail on a ship and can be adjusted to the wind.

Shroud- standing rigging giving lateral and aft support to the masts.

Standing Rigging- name given to all the ropes and chains used to support the yards and bowsprits like the shrouds and stays.

Stay- part of the standing rigging supporting a mast in a fore-and-aft rigged ship. Forestays provide forward support while backstays provide support from the rear.

Tackle- a system of ropes and blocks for raising and lowering weights of rigging and pulleys for applying tension and gaining mechanical advantage.

Timber Hitch- a knot used for fastening around a spar to be hoisted. Tightens under strain and releases easily when slackened.

Timenoguy- rope stretched from one place to another on a ship.

Toggle- a fastener consisting of a peg or crosspiece inserted into an eye of a rope end in order to attache it to something.

Topping Lift- a rope running from the back boom end through a masthead block and down to the cleat at the mast’s foot. Used for holding up the boom when the main sail isn’t used.

Triple Sister- a pulley block with 3 sheaves side by side in the same housing.

Turk’s Head- a knot resembling a turban. Worked on a rope with a small line piece.

Tye- a chain or rope hoisted onto a yard on a mast. One end passed through the mast and was secured to the yard’s center. The other end was attached to a tackle for hoisting.

Voyol- a looped rope used to unmoor or hoist the ship’s anchor. Since it was a thinner, lighter, and more pliable than an anchor cable, it was easier to wind around the capstan and more convenient to use the voyol to hoist in the larger, stiffer, anchor cables by seizing thin, removable lines called nippers.

Wale Knot- a large knot created by untwisting the rope end strands and interweaving them.

Warp-Anchor Rope- rope reserved for attaching the anchor. Usually made of hemp and normally 3 times the water depth.

Whipping- a binding on a rope end to prevent it from unraveling.

Woolding- a rope around a mast or yard, often where it’s been fished or scarfed in order to strengthen it.

Yard Horse- ropes slung under a yard from the lift to the yardarm on which sailors or top men stood while reefing or furling sails.


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