The Anatomy of a Wooden Ship: Part 5- The Bow and Stern


Originally launched in 1577 as the Pelican, the privateer Sir Francis Drake would rechristen it as the HMS Golden Hind during his epic circumnavigational voyage in 1578. After he returned with a hull full of Spanish booty from capturing a Spanish ship 1580, the galleon remained on dock for public exhibition for 80 years until it was broken up in 1650 due to rot.

Of course, I couldn’t describe the hull in one post in this series. Nonetheless, a couple of important hull parts consist of the bow and the stern. The bow is the ship’s front that’s designed to reduce the hull’s resistance cutting through the water. On a ship, its bow should be tall enough to prevent water from easily washing over its top. On wooden ships, you might find a long spar on it called a bowsprit that’s designed for holding the front sails as well as a wooden figure head and surrounding decoration. Though some warships did have a sharp piece on their bowsprits for ramming purposes. Not to mention, the bow usually contained the ship’s anchor. The stern is the ship’s back which contains the rudder used to help steer the ship as well as the officers’ quarters. Nonetheless, most wooden ships had a square transom stern which somewhat resembles a decorative floating house. As for rudders, most wooden ships had a pintle and gudgeon type that originated in the Middle Ages. While earlier rudders were mounted on the stern via rudder posts and tackles, the pintle and gudgeon rudder was attached to the entire sternpost’s length with iron hinges and controlled by the ship’s wheel. But the pintle and gudgeon rudder’s potential couldn’t be fully realized until the introduction of the vertical sternpost and a fully-rigged ship in the 14th century. Yet, once it caught on, European ships would use the pintle and gudgeon rudder to sail the seven seas.

The Bow:

Aberdeen Bow- a type of sharp bow developed in the 19th century leading to better performance and speed.

Anchor- a large hook attached to the ship which is cast overboard and digs into the sea bed to keep the ship from moving. Usually a cast iron shank with 2 arms and 2 flukes and a wooden stock perpendicular to the arms. Stock consisted of 2 long oak pieces tapered toward each end and held together with treenail iron hoops. Only in the 19th century did the anchor become an all-iron construction, including the stock.

Apron- curved piece continuing the foremost keel end and behind the stem. Scraped to the fore deadwood and strengthens the stem. Also, a rectangular metal piece mounted over a cannon’s touch hole to keep the charge covered and dry.

Beakhead- a projection in front of the bow. Located below the bowsprit and often highly decorated.

Bee- hardwood on the bowsprit’s sides through which forestays are reeved. Or a block attached to any other spar for changing or holding its position.

Billethead- an alternative bow decoration to the figurehead. Usually carved flowing shapes. Often flowers or leaflike curls, ending in an upward or downward spiral below the bowsprit.

Bluff- a ship’s bow with a full rounded or flat shape.

Bow- the ship’s front, which is generally sharp. Designed to reduce the hull’s resistance cutting through water and had to be tall enough to prevent water from easily washing over the hull’s deck.

Bowsprit- the slanted pole on a ship’s prow sticking out from its front. It’s usually used as a lead connection for a small navigational sail. Carries stays for the foretopmast and from which the jibs are set. Common in square-rigged ships where it’s used to attached the outer or flying jib. A standing bowsprit is in a fixed position while a running bowsprit is movable.

Bower- anchor carried at ship’s bow.

Breasthook or Fore-Hook- a roughly triangular piece of wood fitted horizontally onto the bow and used to connect the stem. On larger ships, a breasthook was located below each deck while deck planking would be supported by and rabbeted onto this timber.

Catshead- a short wooden projection near a ship’s bow where used to secure the anchor, support its weight, and keep it outboard the hull to avoid planking damage. Early catsheads were often capped off with carved cat or lion face.

Cheeks- knee pieces fixed to the bow and to the head knee.

Creeper- a very small anchor used for retrieving mooring lines, anchor cables, flotsam, etc.

Crown- an anchor-shrank’s lower end where the arms come together.

Cutwater- a stem’s forward curve or edge.

Dolphin Striker- a short spar fitted mid-way and vertically downwards, midway along the bowsprit and under its cap. Used for holding the bobstay and preventing the bowsprit’s outboard end from upwardly riding under the tensioned headsail’s load.

Eyes of a Ship- the extreme ship’s bows. Originated from the ancient custom of painting an eye on each side so a ship could find its way.

Fiddlehead- a scrolled stemhead on a ship lacking a true figurehead.

Figurehead- an ornamental carved and painted figure or scene on the stem below the bowsprit, generally expressing some aspects of the ship’s name or owner. One type is the straddlehead which was a freestanding figure. But one normally standing a small but often decorated platform extending ahead of the ship.

Fish Davit- a spar used as a purchase to hoist anchor flukes to the bow’s top without damaging the ship’s hull.

Fluke- a pointed triangular blade at the end of an anchor’s arm. Intended to grab hold of the sea bottom. Usually the anchor’s broadest part.

Forebody- forepart that’s in front of the ship’s widest section.

Forecabin- cabin in fore part of ship.

Forefoot- foremost end of a ship’s keel.

Forepeak- the foremost part of a ship’s hold.

Gallery- a platform at a ship’s stem. Could be an open balcony or closed i.e built-up.

Gammon Iron- an iron circular band used to hold the bowsprit into the stem in late sailing ships.

Grapnel- a small anchor with 3 or more fluked claws. Often used for anchoring a small ship or as a grappling hook. Was called a fire grapnel when the claws were barred.

Hair Bracket- a molding coming in from behind a figurehead.

Half-Timbers- timbers in framework towards the stem.

Harpings- wales’ foreparts which are around the bow fixed to the stem.

Hawse- location at the bow where the hawesholes are.

Hawes Bolster- a piece of block iron protecting the hawsehole from the chafing of the rope running through it.

Hawsehole- hole for which the anchor chain is led overboard from the windlass on the deck through the ship’s side.

Hawse Pieces- ship’s foremost timbers, parallel to the stem, in which the hawsehole is cut.

Hawsepipe- metal pipe placed inside the hawsehole to prevent the bow wood from damage.

Jackass or hawse bag- a canvas bag used to plug the hawsehole on the deck to prevent seawater from washing onto it.

Jib-Boom- a continuation of the bowsprit used to stay at the jib’s outer foot and the topgallant mast’s stay. A flying jib-boom is a further extension to which the flying-jib’s tack is attached.

Kedge- a small anchor to keep the ship steady.

Killick- a small anchor, especially one made of stone in a wooden frame. Normally had 2 curved wooden timbers forming a cross at the base where the center stone rests. These rods were then tied together just above the center stones. Used for anchoring small boats and fishing nets.

Knight Head- one of 2 large timbers on the stem’s either side which can rise above deck and support the bowsprit heel between them.

Manger- a small space or compartment in the ship’s bow to prevent water coming in through the hawseholes from running along the deck or into the ship. Located behind the hawseholes and enclosed by a coaming of scuppers drained the water back into the sea.

Pillow- a wood block fixed to a ship’s deck inside the bow on which the bowsprit’s inboard end rests.

Prow- the ship’s nose.

Ram- a long sharp or blunt projection from a warship’s bow for the purpose of demolishing an enemy’s hull.

Rostrum- spike on prow on warship used for ramming.

Sampson Post- a strong, vertical post used to support a ship’s windlass and bowsprit’s heel.

Stem- a keel continuation upwards at the hull’s front where the plank ends are butted. The foremost timber forming the ship’s bow. Joined by the keel by the deadwood and by the stem band outside.

Stem Head- the stem’s top or highest and most forward point. Sometimes had a carved figure like a lion on top if it was offset by the center. But after 1700, it became the norm for the bowsprit to be centered on and thus be supported by the stem.

Supporter or bibb- timbers under the catshead.

Thwartships Stem- timber joined to the hull sides at right angles to the keel.

Timber Stem- longitudinally joined timber sections sawn out of larger pieces.

Trailboard- a pair of boards or a set of often gilded and elaborate carvings on each stem side “trailing” the figurehead. Often helped to express support the ship’s name, sometimes with figures or scenes relating to its figurehead. Later, simpler trailboards had vine and oakleaf themes.

Whisker- short horizontal spars fitted to a bowsprit when a jib-boom is added.

Whooding- planks rabbeted along the ship’s stem.

Windlass- a lifting device which in its simplest form of a horizontal cylindrical barrel on which a rope or anchor cable winds. A manually operated windlass was turned by handspikes and one or more cranks later on.

The Stern:

Afterbody- part of the ship behind the widest section and in front of the stern.

Afterpeak- a compartment in the stern behind the furthest bulkhead.

Archboard- counter formation across the extreme stern end, being a continuation of the covering board.

Buttock- convex curve under the stern, between the counter as well as the far part of the bilge that’s between the quarter and the rudder.

Counter or Fantail- an overhanging stern projecting beyond the sternpost. Often purely ornamental, but almost a necessity in cutters and yawls.

Counter Stays, Counter Timbers, or Stern Timbers- timbers or stays within the counter projecting behind and taking the weight off the counter.

Counter Stern- a traditional stern construction with a long overhang and a shorter upright end piece. Rounded when in plain view but usually decked over.

Covering Board, planksheer, or planshare- an outside deck plank fitted over timber heads and covering counter frame heads.

Crutch- oblique or horizontal knee used to reinforce the stern.

Fashion Pieces- timbers forming the stern’s shape which are fixed to the sternpost and wing transom.

Flagstaff- flag pole at ship’s stern.

Great Cabin- the ship captain’s quarters usually located in the stern. Often used as a meeting place or dining room in addition to the captain’s use. Can have cannons and be turned into a battle station if disassembled with glass windows removed. Depending on the time period, the rudder yoke or tiller would run through this cabin from rudder to helm.

Gudgeon- a socket into which the ship’s pintle rudder fits.

Hood- a strakes final end.

Hood Ends- plank ends which are fitted into the stem or sternpost’s rabbet.

Horn Timbers- bracket or knee-shaped timbers fixed to the sternpost to support the counter.

Inside Stern or inside stem- a longitudinally joined sections sawn from larger timbers and covered by side planking ends. This makes the stem or stern invisible from the outside. Main structural detail of boat end types.

Pink Stern- stern with a narrow, overhanging transom.

Pintle- a pin or bolt inserted into the gudgeon, which is used for a pivot or hinge.

Rudder- a means of giving a ship’s direction underway. Changed from an oar rudder hung from a ship’s sides to a fixed stern rudder in the 14th century. The latter was a flat paddle hung and hinging from a sternpost with its lateral pivot movement transmitted to the rudder by a wheel, tiller, and/or rope and pulley system, depending on the ship’s sides and time period.

Rudder Stock- vertical shaft connecting the rudder to the steering wheel.

Rudder Stop- lag on stern frame or a stout bracket on deck at each side of the quadrant to limit the rudder’s swing at 37 degrees starboard.

Run- indicating the hull lines’ curvature towards the stern.

Shaft Log- block through which the steering shaft passes.

Skeg- a timber connecting the keel and sternpost.

Stern- a ship’s rear. Often refers to the rear part above the sternpost from the counter to the taffrail. Contains the lanterns, galleries, tafferel, captain’s office and officers’ quarters. Shape also forms the ship’s main characteristic with the principal types being pointed, round, or square as seen in plain view.

Stern Lantern- a lantern often resembling a streetlight, mounted above the tafferel or above the quarter galleries. Since 1450, sailing ships would often carry 1-3 and sometimes more lanterns at the stern. A single lantern could be mounted from the mast top to indicate the lead-ship, admiral, and squadron commander. Since this was most likely a temporary situation often one of the stern lanterns was relocated at the top. Main-top means full admiral. Fore-top means vice admiral. Mizzen-top means rear admiral.

Sternpost- the aftermost timber in a ship’s hull, forming the stern down to the keel while bearing the rudder.

Stern Sheet- a flat area on deck, inboard a small boat transom, which may contain hatches below deck or provide on deck storage for lifesaving equipment.

Sternson- a keelson’s extremity in which the sternpost is fixed.

Tafferel- a stern’s upper part. Often consists of a curved wood piece richly decorated with sculptures and paintings.

Taffrail- rail around the ship’s stern or the stern’s upper part. Often richly decorated.

Transom- a wide, flat, slightly curved, or sometimes vertical board at the hull’s rear, which increase the width and buoyancy at the stern. Consists of horizontally laid closing planks and supporting timbers forming square sterns.

Transom Knees- knees at the stems springing from the transom.

Tuck- ship part where lower plank ends meet under the stern.

Wardroom- the officers’ quarters for dining and recreation on a warship. Often located directly below the captain’s cabin.

Whipstaff- a bar attached to the tiller used for convenience and to extend leverage in steering.

Woodlock- a thick wood piece fitted to the rudder to keep it in position.


2 responses to “The Anatomy of a Wooden Ship: Part 5- The Bow and Stern

  1. Though I am flattered you have chosen my painting to head your article; I did NOT give permission for you to use it. Either contact me to arrange to paypal me my standard fee for licenced images or take it down immediately please. Thank you

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