The Anatomy of a Wooden Ship: Part 6- The Decks and Compartments


Launched in 1854 by the United States Navy, the USS Constellation was the last-sail only warship. Built out of the disassembled timbers of the 1797 Constellation, this corvette sloop-of-war was in service for close to a century, including a stint in a blockade during the American Civil War, before its retirement to museum duty at Baltimore Harbor in 1954.

While the ship’s main part is the hull, the decks are where the action happens. A deck often refers to a ship’s covering over a compartment. On a typical ship, the upper deck constitutes of a horizontal structure forming its roof to resist tension, compression, and racking forces, and serves as the primary working station while protecting the ship’s interior from the weather. Yet, wooden ships of the Age of Sail often had more than one level both within the hull and in superstructures above the primary deck that’s similar to a multi-story building. While wooden ships then were nowhere near the floating metropolises like today’s cruises, they had plenty of compartments built over certain superstructure areas as well as within the hull. Decks with specific names can also have specific purposes. Nevertheless, traditional wood decks consisted of planks laid front to back over beams along carlins that were caulked and paid with tar. As for compartments, you have a berth for the seamen along with a kitchen, a sickbay, a brig for prisoners, a gun magazine, and storage space for supplies and cargo. Strangely these watertight bulkhead compartments were invented by the Chinese which strengthened the junks and slowed flooding in case of holing during the Han to Song Dynasties. This application soon found its way to Europe through Indian and Arab merchants.

The Decks:

Aftercastle- a medieval tower-like structure placed near the sailing warship’s stern where soldiers stood and fought during battle.

After Deck- deck behind a ship’s bridge.

Awning- a canopy over a weather deck, gallery, or quarter gallery intended to shield officers and crew from the sun in warmer climates or hot weather. Often made of extra sail material.

Beak Head- a small platform at the fore part of a large ship’s upper deck.

Beam or arm- a timber piece perpendicular to a ship’s sides supporting the deck. Supported on the ship’s sides by right angle timbers called knees. Also used to identify objects in relation to those perpendicular to the ship that are visible from the port or starboard side. Can even be the hull’s widest point from one side to the other.

Belaying Pin- a removable wooden, iron, or brass pin fitted into a rail hole. Used for securing and tying the running rigging. Also made a handy club in hand-to-hand combat situations.

Belfry- a usually single arch structure from which the ship’s bell was hung. After 1660, often located at the forecastle.

Bilge Pump- a manual pump with the inlet set at the bilge’s lowest point where water collects when the ship is upright. Most common was the hand-pump or elm-pump. Often located on the highest deck not open to the weather. The more complex and effective chain-pump was used by the British Royal Navy in the late 17th century.

Bitts- posts mounted on a ship for fastening ropes.

Blinding Strake- 2 oak strakes near hatch coamings to strengthen the deck.

Bollard- short post on wharf or ship where ropes are tied.

Brow- the gangway or entrance onto a ship when docked.

Buckler- portable cover secured over the deck opening hawsepipes and the chain pipes to restrict the water flow through the openings.

Bulwark- the planking along the ship’s sides which are above the deck and below the gunwales. Act as a railing to prevent passengers and crew from falling or being washed overboard.

Cable Bitts- 2 strong vertical timbers of cables when at anchor.

Camber- slight arch or convexity to a ship’s beam or deck.

Cants or deck cants- sole pieces following the ship’s deck inclination. They’re rebated for framing such as bulkheads, etc.

Capstan- an apparatus used for hoisting anchors or other objects. Consists of a vertical spool-shaped cylinder that’s manually rotated around which a cable is wound. Often fitted with removable wooden arms fitted into sockets on which the seamen push. Sea shanties were often chanted to keep the sailors together as they pushed. Located in the ship’s center line, sometimes through several deck levels. A dog or pawl ratchet mechanism was located at or below the base to prevent the capstan from slipping back.

Carlin- a timber piece running back and forth between the main tranverse beams which it secures together. Also used to describe timbers used to frame the partners.

Carlin Sole or carlin runner- grooved timber or head to secure the framing top edges on ship’s decks and to form a structural part of the cornice. Fixed to the deck carlins or beams.

Carrick Bitts- bitts for belaying hawsers.

Catwalk- a narrow, elevated walkway, connecting the quarter deck section to the forecastle.

Chock- metal casing with curved arms for passing ropes for mooring ship.

Cleat- a wooden or metal object used to tie a rope around to fasten something in place on a ship. Often T-shaped.

Coaming- raised edge to deck openings to keep water out.

Companionway- stairs from a ship’s upper deck to a lower deck.

Crab- a small and sometimes portable capstan used for lifting equipment and cargo.

Davit- a device for hoisting and lowering a boat as well as heavy equipment and objects.

Deck- a top horizontal surface covering a ship’s hull from one side to the other. Meant to keep water and weather out of the hull as well as stiffen it while allowing the crew to run the ship more easily. Also can be a horizontal platform corresponding to a floor in a building or a permanent covering over a compartment.

Deck Beam- a heavy timber running across from the top frame under the deck. Usually has a gentle upward curve for extra strength, extra height below deck along the center line, and to allow water to run off deck when the ship is upright.

Deck Chine- waterway part above deck joining the spirketing.

Deckhouse- a cabin protruding above the ship’s deck.

Deck Planks- timbers forming the ship’s deck floors.

Ensign-Staff- a long pole hung over the poop used to hoist the ensign.

Fairlead- a U-shape or circular fitting often positioned near the bow leading an anchor warp or sheet to a cleat or winch. Usually bronze since it must take the warp or chain’s regular abrasion. Typically set on the angle change between the deck and topside to prevent wear and tear. Can also be a pulley block of leading line to in the proper direction and prevent sagging or chafing.

Fender, belting, or rubbing piece- a rope or piece around a ship to protect it from knocks when it comes in contact with a wharf or dock.

Fiddle or fiddle rail- a low wooden rail designed to stop things from sliding off a table at sea when the ship is heeled.

Flitch- one in a number of planks used in creating a heavy beam.

Flush Deck- a continuous ship’s deck laid from stem to stern without any break.

Forecastle or fo’c’sle- the upper deck section located at the bow and in front of the foremast. Though it was originally a tower-like structure on a sailing warship where soldiers stood and fought from during battle. Can also be a superstructure on a merchant ship’s bow containing the crew’s living quarters.

Freeing Port- a hole opening in the bulwark at deck level to drain water from there.

Gallows, gallows bitts, or gallows frame- a wooden frame above the deck in the center of a large ship where its boats and spare spars are kept.

Gangplank- a long narrow board or ramp used as a removable footway between a ship and a pier or two boats to walk across.

Gangway- can be a passage along either side of a ship’s upper deck, a gangplank, or an injection used to clear a passage through a crowded area.

Grab Rail- a length of strong wood with short legs which is bolted to the cabin floor so crew making their way forward on a sloping and wet side have a firm handhold.

Gun Deck- any full-length deck carrying a ship’s guns. There could be up to 3 for large deep draught warships such as the upper or main gun deck, the middle gun deck, and the lower gun deck. Though few warships were built with 4 gun decks, they weren’t very successful.

Gunwale, gunnel, or gunwall- a boat’s elevated side edges which strengthen its structure and act as a railing around the gun deck. In warships, the gunwale has openings where heavy cannons or guns are positioned.

Half-Beam- short beam introduced to support the deck where there’s no framing such as the hatch coamings.

Hand Spike- one of several wooden levers used for turning a windlass or capstan. One end was rectangular or square and would fit into a slot or hole in a barrel. Also used whenever a sturdy lever was needed for any other purposes.

Hatch- a ship’s deck opening. Often rectangular and covered by gratings for below deck access or access to the hold for stowing and retrieving cargo or stores.

Horse- a wooden rod or iron bar running across the deck to allow a fore-and-aft sail’s sheet to traverse from side to side according to the tack.

Kevel- a large and sturdy wooden belaying pin for with heavy cables.

King Plank- a flat, notched timber laid over the foredeck beams between the front of a cockpit or cabin and the stem. The notches are designed so that the tapering deck planks don’t end at a potential weak point.

Lazaret- a ship’s space between decks used for stowing provisions.

Ledgers- pieces between beams under a deck.

Loggerhead- a post on a whaling ship used for securing lines attached to a harpoon.

Lower Deck- the second deck containing guns on a warship if the ship had 2 decks containing a full complement of guns.

Lutchet- a ship’s deck fitting allowing mast to pivot to past under bridges.

Lumber Iron- a forked iron crutch or stanchion. Usually located upright on gunwales to hold oars or extra spars.

Main Deck- on warships the highest deck deck. Often had a full complement of guns.

Merger Board- a strong bulkhead on the ship’s fore part to keep water out of the hawseholes.

Middle Deck- if a warship carried 3 decks of guns, it carried the third.

Orlop- lowest ship deck on a ship with 4 or more. Used for covering storage and keeping ammunition.

Pawl Bitts- a hinged or pivoted catch designed to build into a ratchet wheel’s notch, to move it forward in one direction while preventing it from slipping back.

Poop- an enclosed structure, a rear part of a deck.

Poop Deck- the ship’s short and furthest deck raised above the quarter deck. Usually at the large ship’s stern and typically above the captain’s quarters.

Quarter Deck- the after part of a ship’s upper deck behind the main mast where command was executed and was often reserved for officers. Often included the poop deck. Usually set aside by captain for ceremonial functions. Often stationed cannons.

Rail- rounded part at the bulwark’s upper edge.

Scupper- opening along a ship’s deck edges that allows water on deck to drain back into the sea rather than collecting in the bilge.

Scut- small crack or chink in deck.

Ship-Lap- a dovetailed halving joint for coamings’ corners.

Skylight- a window set at an angle to the ship’s deck to give light and ventilation to the cabin below.

Spar Deck- a deck extending from stem to stern above the main deck. Usually devoid of guns but not always. Not found on a merchant ship.

Sponson- platform jutting from a ship’s deck for a gun or wheel.

Spray Board- gunwale board to check spray.

Stanchion- upright support set on the upper deck to carry a guard rail.

Standard- vertical inverted knees above a ship’s deck.

Superstructure- part of the ship above the main deck.

Timberhead- ship’s timber top end projecting above the deck and gunwale.

Tiller- a long handle on the ship’s back used for controlling direction. Attached to a rudder’s head.

Toe Rail- an upright longitudinal wooden strip fastened to the foredeck near the sheer. Placed on the foredeck so that crew working there can brace their toe or foot against it, especially when heeled.

Trundleheald- the lower capstan’s drumhead from a double capstan.

Upper Deck- the ship’s highest continuous deck running the ship’s full length.

Washboard- a broad, thin, plank along the ship’s gunwale to keep out sea water.

Wash Strake- plank above a ship’s gunwale.

Waterway- deck planks nearest the bulwark round the ship’s sides. Usually grooved with a channel to carry out water via run-off.

Weather Deck- a ship’s deck having little or no protection from the weather.

Winch- a geared mechanical device used for adjusting sail sheets, hoisting large sails with halyards, or hauling an anchor out of the water. A normal turret winch is set on the back side deck for trimming headsails or on a spinnaker. Manual trimming winches are operated by initially grinding the handle in a circle before pulling back and towards on a short lever while a second pulls the tension on the sheet to obtain optimum force.

The Bridge:

Astrolabe- a navigational instrument consisting of a dial showing degrees with an alidade arm pivoting through the center. The arm had a projection with a small hole on each end used to line these up so a celestial body would be visible through its degree markings would indicate the celestial object’s angle in the night sky. Used to determine a ship’s position by finding and predicting the stars and sun’s location through triangulation. With a mariner version, latitude was determined using the Sun or Pole Star. Was the main navigational instrument until the sextant’s invention in the 16th century.

Bittacle, bitacola, or binnacle- a ship’s deck box holding its compass. Usually a simple wooden box mounted on a pedestal. Normally placed near or in front of the helm.

Bridge- ship’s part where it’s controlled.

Cockpit- where the controls are.

Compass- a navigational instrument used since the 12th century for determining the ship’s direction and position. Housed in the binnacle and consists of a magnetic needle freely suspended to align itself with the earth’s magnetic field. The needle turns until the ends are aligned with the magnetic north and south poles. The ship’s direction would be the angle the needle made with the lubber’s line or simply the direction forward. Also used to determine azimuth in celestial navigation.

Cross Staff- a relatively accurate tool used in celestial navigation since the early 16th century consisting of a scaled wooden staff or rod with one or more sliding perpendicular “transoms” with which the angle between a celestial object like the sun or the moon and the horizon can be measured. Later often replaced by the somewhat less accurate backstaff or quadrant.

Dodger- shield against rain or spray on a ship’s bridge.

Dog- a hinged catch fitting into a ratchet notch to move a wheel forward or prevent it from moving backward.

Dyrogram- ship’s chart indicating compass deflection due to ship’s iron.

Gimbal- 2 concentric metal rings mounted and pivoting on right angle axes from each other. Used to suspend objects in a horizontal plane like the ship’s compass, allowing gravity to keep it level despite the ship’s rolling and pitching in the waves.
Helm, steering wheel, or ship’s wheel- the ship’s spoked steering wheel controlling the rudder.

Jacob’s Staff- an instrument used to measure altitude at sea.

King Spoke- a marked top spoke on a ship’s wheel when the rudder is centered.

Lubber’s Line- a mark or permanent compass line indicating the direction forward, parallel to the keel.

Octant- a similar navigational device to a sextant with the difference being a shorter scale, only 1/8 of a circle or 45 degrees. Used until 1767 when the sextant replaced it. Mostly because of the first edition of the Nautical Almanac, which tabulated lunar distances, enabling navigators to determine the current time from the measured angle between the sun and the moon. This angle is sometimes larger than 90 degrees and then can’t be measured by the octant, rendering it obsolete.

Sextant- a navigational instrument used to measure a celestial object’s elevation angle above the horizon. The angle and the time of measurement were used to calculate a position line on a nautical chart. A sextant’s common use was to sight the sun at noon to find the ship’s latitude levels. Its scale had 1/6 of a full circle or 60 degrees.

Spoke- an extension in the ship’s wheel beyond the rim acting as a handle by which the wheel is turned.

Spyglass- telescope.

Wheel- ship’s wheel at the helm. A spoked-round steering device, linked to the tiller through a configuration of ropes, blocks, or chains. The rudder, tiller, and wheel formed the helm.

Wheelhouse- shelter where the ship’s steering wheel is kept and protects the helmsman from the elements.

Yoke- an early name for the steering mechanism when steering was achieved with the help of a tackle connected to the tiller. Also when a boat was steered by 2 ropes leading from the stern to a small cross-bar attached to the rudder’s top.

The Compartments:

Berth-the ship’s sleeping and living quarters below main deck or a ship’s built-in bed. Can also refer to sufficient space for a ship to maneuver, a space for a ship to dock or anchor, or employment on a ship.

Brig- compartment where prisoners are kept.

Bunk- a built-in wooden bed in a later ship. Often built in tiers with one above the other.

Cabin- a ship’s private room for passengers, officers, or crew for sleeping and/or meals.

Compartment- a space portion within a ship defined vertically between decks and horizontally between bulkheads. Analogous to a room within a building and could provide a watertight subdivision in a hull to retain buoyancy should it be damaged.

Hammock- a sailor’s bed, often consisting of a canvas drawn together at both ends and hung lengthwise under the deck. Since space was at a premium, more than one sailor often had to share one.

Lastage- a room for storing the ship’s goods.

Locker- an enclosed space to store sails, anchors, personal effects, tools, and supplies.

Magazine- a ship’s gunpowder and storage room, usually located deep in the ship’s hold. Due to obvious reasons, no lamps and candles were permitted. To still see what one was doing, a light room was adjacent to it, with the specific purpose to illuminate the magazine. Often lined with copper to prevent sparking and keep rats from gnawing their way in.

Mess- the ship’s kitchen and dining area.

Newel Post- turned wooden post from floor to ceiling for one side of a cabin. Serves as a handhold while the boat is at sea.

Pissdale- an 18th century ship’s urinal, which was essentially a tapered lead tube leading to the sea. Often located near the officer’s quarters.

Sickbay- a compartment where sick people go to rest and receive medical treatment. One of the most horrifying places on a ship if you know anything about pre-19th century medicine. Expect to see a surgeon hacking limbs after a naval clash.


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