The Anatomy of a Wooden Ship: Part 9- Shipbuilding and Nautical Terms


Whether originated in India or the Middle East is unknown, but the traditional Dhow have been a common sight in the Arab and Indian Ocean which were commonly used for trade. Nonetheless, its triangular sails influenced European seafaring during the Middle Ages and inspired forms of the fore-and-aft rigs.

When you do a post series about wooden ships, you find plenty of shipbuilding and nautical terms that don’t really belong in some neat little category. Some of these deal with certain shipbuilding techniques and rigging descriptions. Some might pertain to directions or locations on the ship. Some may consist on measurements. And some might reflect aspects of ship life, ship shape, or weather conditions. At any case, such terms can be kind of strange to any layman who hasn’t spent a great amount of time using a sailboat. Yet, they’re nonetheless important if you want to understand ship parts or read a historical captains log of what went on one.

Shipbuilding Terms:

Battens- narrow wood strips used for a variety of purposes. Can be strips of wood or bamboo poles placed in a sail’s leech or sewn into a sail to retain its form. Can be strips of wood used to fasten down edges of material covering the hatches in bad weather. Or can be strips of wood used in the ship’s construction.

Boat Skids- long square softwood pieces on which spare masts, boats, etc. were stored onboard.

Clinker-Built- a shipbuilding method in which the hull planks overlap. Found on early ships.

Coak- a hardwood pin joining 2 timbers or 2 halves of a tackle block.

Coir- coconut husk fibers used for making rope.

Crank- an iron bracket for supporting and/or storing items such as stern lanterns or capstan rods. Also refers to a ship that couldn’t carry a great deal of sail without capsizing.

Deadlights- can be strong shutters or plates fastened over a ship’s porthole or cabin window in stormy weather. Can also be thick windows set in the ship’s side or deck.

Escape Hatch- a small door for escaping from a ship in an emergency.

Fiddley- iron framework around the hatchway opening.

Fife Rail- a rail around the mast or along the ship’s sides with belaying pin holes used to secure running rigging.

Fore-and-Aft Rigged or sloop-rigged- fitted with sails not attached to yards but are bent with gaffs or set onto the masts or on stays in the ship’s mid line. Such ship is often simpler to rig than its square-rigged counterparts, required less crew, and can sail closer to the direction from which the wind blew.

Furniture- all the ship’s moveable equipment like rigging, sails, anchors, spars, etc.

Gaff-Rigged- a fore-and-aft rig where the primary sails behind the mast are trapezoidal in shape. The sail foot is attached to a boom, the luff is attached to a mast, and the head is attached to the gaff.

Leadman’s Platform- suspended grating over the ship’s sides from which soundings are taken.

Lateen-Rigged- rigged with triangular fore-and-aft sails.

Lug-Rigged- rigged with lugsails.

Mortise- a square hole in the plank’s sides, made to receive a tenon and so form a mortise and tenon joint.

Muster Station- place on the ship where people should gather in an emergency.

Plank- a long wood piece used for constructing the hull and decking. Were usually 1-4″ inches thick of varying lengths.

Purchase- any mechanical device consisting of spars and tackle, to increase mechanical advantage (lifting power) when hoisting heavy objects like spars or sails.

Rabbet- a notch in a wood piece made to receive the plank ends or sides which are to be secured by it.

Rig- characteristics of a ship’s masts and type along with number of sails by which the type is determined.

Saddle- a long wood block or a semi-circular wood piece fixed to a mast, bowsprit, or yard.

Scarf- an overlapping joint used to connect 2 timbers or planks. Includes those hooked and keyed.

Shell-First Construction- a construction method where the hull’s formed without a frame. Strakes either overlap, fastened to one another by clenched nails, or they form a smooth skin, fastened edge to edge by a complex system of mortise-and-tension joints.

Ship-Rigged- rigged with 3 or more masts carrying all square sails.

Shiver- a wooden splinter.

Sny- an upward curvature in a plank’s edge resulting from the bend and twist occurring when a plank is laid against a hull or hull frames. Usually amplified at the bow and stern but will occur wherever a plank twists because of the hull’s curvature.

Sprig- a relatively small threaded eye-bolt.

Square-Rigged- fitted with square sails as the principal sails bent to the yards carried athwart the mast and trimmed with braces. Though it can carry more sail than a fore-and-aft rigged ship of comparable size, it’s more dependent on favorable winds.

Tarpaulin- waterproof and treated canvas used for covering hatches, boats, and other gear on board a ship.

Tenon- a side plank projection shaped to fit into a mortise and form a mortise-tenon joint.

Thick Stuff- a plank thicker than 4 inches.

Top-Hamper- refers to the uppermost rigging, spars, and sails.

Treenail- an oak cylindrical pin used to secure a ship’s wooden planks to the ribs. Used since wooden nails didn’t rust nor loosen since they’d swell when wet while metal nails weren’t yet widely available until the Industrial Revolution.

Trunnel- wooden shipbuilding peg used for fastening timbers.

Turtleback- structure over the ship’s bow or stern in a Korean turtle ship.

Whelp- any wood or iron piece bolted onto a windlass or capstan barrel to save it from chafing and damage by the cables it hoists.

White Rope- untreated rope not saturated in tar.

Nautical Terms:

Aback- wind coming from the front or wrong side of sail or sails.

Abeam- at right angles to or beside a ship.

Afore- before or closer to.

Aft or abaft- a ship’s rear section. Can refer to in, toward, or close to a ship’s rear.

Ahoy- a greeting or hail to another ship originating from the 18th century.

Alee- in the direction toward which the wind is blowing; downwind.

Aloft- overhead or above.

Altitude- used in celestial navigation, a celestial body’s angle with a point on the horizon vertically below it. Historically measured with an astrolabe, a cross staff or quadrant, and later a sextant or octant.

Amidship- the ship’s middle.

Anchor’s Away- expression when the anchor just clears the bottom.

Anchorage- any location where a ship can safely or is allowed to drop anchor. Most often a location within or just outside of the harbor. Also, a city in Alaska.

Apeak- when an object like an anchor or oar is straight up.

Articles- signed documents indicating a crew member’s responsibilities, duties, rank and/or position aboard a ship.

Athwart- stop.

Azimuth- used in celestial navigation, the angle measured clockwise around the horizon from North to a horizon point vertically below the observed celestial object. Determined with the help of a compass. North was 0/360 degrees. East was 90 degrees. South was 180 degrees. West was 270 degrees.

Banking- a term for fishing on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.

Barking or dressing- creating treatment for sails.

Barnacle- a species of shell fish which often attached to a ship’s hull.

Barratry- an unlawful act or fraudulent breach of duty by the ship’s master or crew, which is going against and in conflict of interest with the cargo’s owner. Like selling the ship’s cargo before claiming it was lost at sea.

Beaufort Scale- scale named after Royal Navy officer Sir Francis Beaufort. Used for classifying wind velocity ranging from 0 for calm or no winds to 12 for hurricane strength winds.

Belay- to tie and secure rope.

Bend- to attach a sail or fasten onto its supporting spar.

Board- to force one’s way on a ship without consent.

Boarding- to enter a ship either by invitation or consent.

Boom Chain, boom defense, harbor chain, river chain, or chain boom- a chain or other obstacle strung between two points across a body of water to impede navigation, sometimes strung between a boat and shore.

Broach- when a ship veers or turns suddenly and uncontrollably broadside to the wind and waves.

Broadside- a general term for the vantage of another ship that’s absolutely perpendicular to the direction it’s going. To get along broadside, a ship was to take it at a very vulnerable angle. Of course, this is the ship’s largest dimension and is easiest to attack with larger weapons. A “broadside” has also came to indicate a cannon hit or similar attack to the ship’s main part as well as a simultaneous discharge of some or all the port or starboard guns.

Buoy- a float of different shape and size that’s attached by a cable or chain to the seabed marking navigational channels or underwater hazards like shallow banks, rocks, or reefs. A ship’s buoy could be attached by a rope to the anchor, indicating the anchor’s underwater location so that a ship could stay clear of the anchor and the anchor cable.

Burthen- an older term used for expressing a ship’s carrying capacity.

Careen- to turn a ship on its side for repairs or cleaning. Or a ship leaning on one side while sailing in the wind.

Carpenter’s Measurement- (L x B x D)/95 an unofficial North American management of a ship’s cargo capacity consisting of, which was very popular in the 1800s. Calculated by multiplying the ship’s length from stem to sternpost, with the ship’s beam, and its hold depth before dividing the result by 95.

Cat- name of the purchase where the anchor was hoisted to the catshead in preparation for stowing and letting go.

Cat O’Nine Tails- a knotted whip from unraveling the rope’s strands. Used for a variety of offenses aboard a naval ship.

Celestial Navigation- in such navigation, the 2 coordinates use to determine a ship’s bearing were the celestial body’s altitude and azimuth.

Chain- a length unit equal to 4 rods or 66 ft.

Close-Hauled- the sail trim when sailing into the wind was required, generally within 45 degrees. A ship is said to be close-hauled when its tacks were drawn windward with the sheets hauled close aft and the bowlines drawn to their greatest extension.

Come About- to change tack and the ship’s course or direction. In other words, changing the ship’s position and sails for wind to come in from the opposite direction, from starboard to port and vice versa.

Deadweight- the absolute maximum weight a ship can safely carry when fully loaded. Includes crew, passengers, cargo, fuel, water, and stores. Often expressed in long tons or metric tons. Measured by the displacement when the ship is empty and fully loaded.

Disembark- leaving a ship to go ashore.

Displacement Tonnage- the ship’s actual weight with its contents. One displacement ton is equal to measuring the seawater displacement while ship is afloat, is equivalent to one long ton or about one cubic meter (35ft) of saltwater.

Doldrums- regions near the equator where there’s little or no wind.

Draft- the depth of as ship’s keel below the waterline, especially when loaded. Can also be the minimum water depth necessary to float a ship.

Dressing Sails- applies to sail treatment to preserve and keep them supple in wet and cold weather. Often a mixture of ocher and linseed oil, giving the sails a reddish-brown appearance. Tar, tallow, and oak bark were also ingredients, hence the name barking sails. New sails were normally not dressed in the first year or so. Since they had to be fully stretched before application.

Druxey- fungal decay in a ship’s timbers. Characterized by whitish spots and veins.

Entry- a forepart’s form as the ship cuts through the water.

Even Keel- when the ship’s fore and back draft is equal. Or in layman’s terms, the ship’s keel is parallel to the waterline.

Fathom- a measurement unit for depth. Equals either 1.83 meters or 6ft.

Flank- a ship’s maximum speed which is faster than “full-speed” and is used only in emergencies.

Fleet- a number of ships sailing together, a number of merchant ships owned by the same company, or the whole national navy in a region or country. In the 18th century any more than 5 ships of the line was considered a fleet.

Fore or forward- referring towards the ship’s front.

Freeboard- distance between the waterline and a ship’s main deck.

Furl- to fold or roll a sail before securing it to its main support.

Furring- replanking a ship to give it more beam and freeboard.

Gross Ton- a British weight unit equal to 2240lbs.

Gunnage- number of guns carried on a warship.

Hand- a measurement unit of 4 inches. Used to describe the circumference of masts and yards among other things.

Headway- a ship’s forward motion.

Heave To- to bring a ship up in a position where it will maintain little or no headway, usually with the bow into the wind or close to.

Heeling- when a ship tilts to one side.

Hog- when the keel arches up due to structural weakness causing an improper amount of sheer and the ship being out of trim.

Holystone- a soft sandstone used for scrubbing ship decks.

Impress- to compel or force a person into serving in a specific naval force, often without haven been given any opportunity to make arrangements for leaving family or home.

Inboard- inside the ship’s line of bulwarks or hull.

Interscalm- the minimum distance between rowers or oarsmen when viewing a ship or boat from the side. Sometimes used to estimate the length of ancient galleys and other rowed ships.

Jibling- contrary to tacking and more dangerous, refers to turning back the ship so that it moves through the wind.

Keckling- the process of winding old rope around a cable with a small interval between turns in order to save the cable from being fretted or chafed by the hull.

Keel-Hauling- punishment for various offenses onboard a ship. Involved the offender plunged repeatedly under the ship’s bottom on one side before being pulled up on the other after passing the keel. It’s a particularly cruel treatment since the victim would repeatedly contact the rough hull and mind-numbingl cold seawater often added to the misery.

Knot- a measure unit used to express speed in nautical miles per hour. One knot equals 1.151 mph. Depending on the ship, wind speed, and direction, 4-12 knots was the typical speed for an Age of Sail vessel.

Knuckle- an abrupt change in direction or non-tangency in a ship’s external structure, forming a knuckle line which was the angle’s apex dividing the stern and counter’s upper and lower parts.

Larboard- a ship’s left side.

Lasten- an older Dutch term used to express a ship’s carrying capacity. Equaled 4000 Amsterdam pounds or 1976 kilos. In modern terms, 1 lasten is 2 tons.

Launch- the process of sending a newly built ship from the shipyard and into the water. Also a large dockyard boat with a broad transom which was used a ship’s boat from the 18th century on. It was often lug-rigged.

Lay By- to remain in position with the ship’s bow turned to the wind.

Lay Up- refers to a ship put in a dock for maintainance, modifications, and repairs.

League- a measurement unit equal to 3 miles or 4.8 kilometers. Previously a unit of distance equal to 3 nautical miles.

Lee- the side away from the direction from which the wind blows.

Lee Gauge- when a ship is downwind of another ship allowing its guns firing into enemy rigging.

Line of Battle- a fleet formation before entering battle. Introduced in the 17th century, fleets formed opposing lines to engage one another. Thus, bringing all their respective broadsides to bear. All ships were close-hauled when possible and about 50 fathoms (300 feet) apart.

List- when a ship leans to one side.

Meaking- extracting old oakum from a wooden ship’s seams.

Moor- to secure and hold a ship or boat in a specific location through lines, cables, and/or anchors.

Mutiny- rebellion against a ship’s constituted authority.

Nautical Mile- a measurement unit used in navigation equal to one arc minute (or 1/60 of a degree) of a great full circle sphere. One international nautical mile equivalent to 1852 meters or 1.151 miles.

Nest- when 2 or more boats are either stowed or moored alongside each other.

New Measurement- in effect from 1836, when the recording method of measurements of tonnage and other dimensions of British merchant ships was changed. In NM terms, ship beam and depth were measured from the hull’s inner edges from stem to stern for length, inner edge to inner edge for beam, and overall depth from the gunwales top to the hold’s base. NM dimensions were given in decimals of a foot.

Old Measurement- applied to measurements of ships built, registered, and surveyed before 1836, and in particular British merchant ships. In OM terms, a ship was measured by overall length, from the stem’s fore side to sternpost’s afterside. While the beam was measured from the ship’s outer edges across its widest part. The depth was an inside measurement of the hold’s depth for a single decked ship and the total space between decks for a multi-decked one. In OM, the dimensions are given in feet and inches.

Outboard- a ship’s outside perimeter.

Overboard- generally a very, very, bad thing when a passenger or crew falls from the ship into the water. Closely related to drowning.

Overlaunch- when a plank’s end overlaps with another.

Parish-Rigged- when a ship is worn with bad gear aloft due to neglect by the ship’s owner.

Pied- an Old French (Paris) measurement equivalent to the English foot. 1 pied equals .03248 meter or 1.066 ft. The Old French equivalent of an inch was the pounce and since 1 pied equaled 12 pounces, 1 pounce would be 1.066 inch or .02707 meter. Apparently, the French foot was slightly larger than the English one.

Pitch- a term for the ship’s rotational motion such as the bow and stern’s rise and fall.

Plim- when wood swells in the water.

Plimsoll Line- a mark painted on a merchant ship’s sides indicating the draught levels to which ships may be loaded under varying conditions. Made mandatory in 1876 when too many ships were lost due to being overloaded.

Port- the ship’s left side when facing toward its prow opposite of starboard.

Quintal- a weight measure of 100-120lbs.

Rake- deviation off the perpendicular.

Raking- firing a cannon along the entire enemy ship’s deck. By maneuvering at a right angle across an opponent’s bow or stern, a full broadside could be fired along an enemy ship’s length, causing much havoc. Rendering the opponent only able to bear a few bow and stern chasers.

Rate- a warship classification under to the British Admiralty’s Fighting Instructions of 1653 according to size and capabilities (guns mounted) into 6 distinct rate. A first rate was the largest and most capable, a sixth rate was the smallest and least. Though the number of guns a ship carried of a certain rate changed from time to time. Only the first 4 rates were considered fit for duty as “ships of the line.” Yet, fifth and sixth rates, and other smaller ships did join the battle where and when required.

Reef- an underwater obstruction comprised of rock or coral which can tear a ship’s bottom.

Reef Sails-to take in or lessen a sail without furling it. Depending on the sail’s location, size, and time-period, sails could be single reefed, double reefed, treble reefed, or close reefed. The last indicates that all the reefs were taken in and the minimum surface area was exposed. Between 0 and 4 reef bands were common with often 2 present.

Reeving- to pass rope or line through something else.

Roads- a saved and sheltered anchorage.

Running Before the Wind- sailing downwind.

Sarve- the process of winding something around a rope to protect it against fretting and chafing.

Scantling- a timber dimension after it’s been reduced to a standard size.

Scope- an anchor’s rode length, measured in water depth units.

Scud- when a ship runs before a gale with little or no sails set.

Seizing- binding a rope to another, or to a spar, with turns of a smaller, thinner line.
Shackle- a varying length unit most often used for measuring anchor chains’ length. Used to join anchor chain lengths which can be counted when the anchor’s dropped or raised. Lengths can be anywhere from 75-100ft. But the standard shackle’s length was 15 fathoms or 90ft though differing lengths were used through varying time periods. Can also be a U-shaped metal piece that’s closed with a pin across the end used for connecting and securing rigging parts including anchor chains.

Shanghai- to take someone against their will for compulsory service on board a ship.

Sheer Width- the distance between the sheer-line and centerline of a ship at a specific location.

Shipside- wharf or dock area next to a ship.

Shipyard- area where ships are built and repaired. Called dock or dockyard when near a body of water.

Shipworm- a troublesome wormlike marine mollusk such as the Teredo and the large Bankia, which bore into submerged wooden ship timbers and are capable of doing extensive hull damage. Think of them as the termites of the sea.

Siding- width of deck beams, crosswise ship frame members.

Slough- a shallow, muddy, swampy inlet or channel.

Spilling- the process determining the plank edges’ shape by lifting the desired plank’s shape from the hull with spilling battens.

Splice the Main Brace- breaking out extra rum rations or something rare like splicing the main brace.

Spoondrift- wind swept spray from the water’s surface.

Starboard- the ship’s right side when facing toward its prow opposite of port.

Steeve- the bowsprit’s angle in relation to the horizontal.

Stores- provisions and supplies such as food, water, shoes, arms, sailcloth, and rope aboard a ship during a sea-voyage.

Sway- the operation of hoisting the topmasts and yards of a square-rigged ship.

Tacking- a technique for sailing against the wind on a zigzag course, sailing a few degrees off the wind’s direction for a period of time, then turning through the wind and sailing for another period of time, a few degrees the other side of the wind’s direction.

Thames Measurement- a system for measuring the size of smaller ships and boats. Originally used for calculating port dues for smaller ships like yachts, the formula was also used in handicapping rules for yacht racing. Formula for Thames Tonnages consists of stempost to sternpost length minus maximum beam times maximum beam squared before divided by 188.

Tonnage- a ship’s internal or cargo capacity. 1 ton equals 100 cubic feet.

Topping- raising one spar end higher than the other.

Topside- relating to the ship’s deck.

Trim- relationship between a ship’s front and back draft.

Unship- to remove or detach an equipment piece from its proper location onboard a ship.

Walt- when a ship required more ballast for stability.

Warp- to move or re-position by hauling on the line which, usually using one of the ship’s anchors. Can also be the measuring and laying out rigging on a sail loft before cutting to the desired final lengths.

Watch- one of 6 4-hour periods or work shifts during a day on board a ship at sea.

Waterline- the highest point where water touches the ship’s sides.

Weatherboard- a ship’s weather side.

Weather Gauge- when a ship is upwind of another where its guns can fire at the enemy hull.

Weather Side- the ship’s windward direction or side.

Weep- water leaking to the ship through cracks and seams which was why the wooden ship pumps had to be manned 24/7. Excessive weeping often occurred at launch before the planks had time to plim.

Wharf- a structure or platform like a pier or dock either built along the water’s edge or into the water for loading and unloading ships by means of cranes. Dues were paid for wharf use.

Windward- in the same direction of the wind.

Wreck- a ship’s ruined or sunken remains.

Yaw- sudden or erratic off course deviation.

Zephyr- the west wind or a gentle breeze.


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