As the Crow Flies
When lost or unsure of
their position in coastal waters, ships would
release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight
towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some
sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout
platform on a ship came to be know as the crow's
The weather side of a
ship is the side from which the wind is blowing. The
Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the
wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a
ship. If a ship does not have enough "leeway"
it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.
A sudden unexpected
rush of wind from a mountainous shore which allowed
a ship more leeway.
Over the Barrel
The most common method
of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The
unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, a mast or
over the barrel of a deck cannon.
To Know the Ropes
There was miles and
miles of cordage in the rigging of a square rigged
ship. The only way of keeping track of and knowing
the function of all of these lines was to know where
they were located. It took an experienced seaman to
know the ropes.
Thin and worn sails
were often treated with oil or wax to renew their
effectiveness. This was called "dressing down". An
officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded
received a dressing down.
The bottom portion of
a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it
is footloose and it dances randomly in the
Aboard ship, a
booby hatch is a sliding cover or hatch that
must be pushed away to allow access or passage.
From the 16th century on until steam powered ships
took over, british naval ships were rated as to the
number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100
or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle
ship. Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns; Third
Rates, 64 to 89 guns; Fourth Rates, 50 to 60 guns.
Frigates carrying 48 to 20 guns were fifth and sixth
Means stop talking and
be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal
from the Bosun's pipe each day which meant "lights
out" and "silence".
Meaning something is
filled to capacity or over loaded. If two blocks of
rigging tackle were so hard together they couldn't
be tightened further, it was said they were
In 1740, British
Admiral Vernon (whose nickname was "Old Grogram" for
the cloak of grogram which he wore) ordered that the
sailors' daily ration of rum be diluted with water.
The men called the mixture "grog". A sailor who
drank too much grog was "groggy".
Three Sheets to the Wind
A sheet is a rope line
which controls the tension on the downwind side of a
square sail. If, on a three masted fully rigged
ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are
loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said
to be "in the wind". A ship in this condition would
stagger and wander aimlessly downwind.
The poop is the stern
section of a ship. To be pooped is to be
swamped by a high, following sea.
Using a buoy to raise
the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from
chafing on a rough bottom.
By and Large
Currently means in
all cases or in any case. From the
nautical: by meaning into the wind and
large meaning with the wind: as in, "By and
Large the ship handled very well."
Cut and Run
If a captain of a
smaller ship encountered a larger enemy vessel, he
might decide that discretion is the better part of
valor, and so he would order the crew to cut
the lashings on all the sails and run away
before the wind. Other sources indicate "Cut and
Run" meant to cut the anchor cable and sail off
in a hurry.
In the Offing
something is about to happen, as in - "There is a
reorganization in the offing." From the
16th century usage meaning a good distance from
shore, barely visible from land, as in - "We sighted
a ship in the offing."
A small triangular
sail set above the skysail in order to maximize
effect in a light wind.
The Bitter End
The end of an anchor
cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship's
bow. If all of the anchor cable has been payed out
you have come to the bitter end.
Toe the Line
When called to line up
at attention, the ship's crew would form up with
their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.
Back and Fill
A technique of tacking
when the tide is with the ship but the wind is
To prevent the
buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were
sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was
A slushy slurry of fat
was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted
meat storage barrels. This stuff called "slush" was
often sold ashore by the ship's cook for the benefit
of himself or the crew. The money so derived became
known as a slush fund.
To sail downwind
rapidly towards another ship or landmark.
Under the Weather
If a crewman is
standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he
will be subject to the constant beating of the sea
and the ocean spray. He will be under the weather.
If a ship holds a tack
course too long, it has overreached its
turning point and the distance it must travel to
reach it's next tack point is increased.
Gone By the Board
Anything seen to have
gone overboard or spotted floating past the ship (by
the board) was considered lost at sea.
Anything on or above
the open deck. If something is open and in plain
view, it is above board.
Old English for
capsize or founder.
the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
The devil seam was the
curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side
of the ship and next to the scupper gutters. If a
sailor slipped on the deck, he could find himself
between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Devil to Pay
To pay the deck seams
meant to seal them with tar. The devil seam was the
most difficult to pay because it was curved and
intersected with the straight deck planking. Some
sources define the "devil" as the
below-the-waterline-seam between the keel and the
the adjoining planking. Paying the Devil was
considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant
From the French "arrimage"
meaning ship's cargo. Damaged cargo was sold at a
A Square Meal
In good weather,
crews' mess was a warm meal served on square wooden
Son of a Gun
When in port, and with
the crew restricted to the ship for any extended
period of time, wives and ladies of easy virtue
often were allowed to live aboard along with the
crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children
were born aboard, and a convenient place for this
was between guns on the gun deck. If the child's
father was unknown, they were entered in the ship's
log as "son of a gun".
Let the Cat Out of the Bag
In the Royal Navy the
punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was
flogging. This was administered by the Bosun's Mate
using a whip called a cat o' nine tails. The "cat"
was kept in a leather or baize bag. It was
considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out
of the bag. Other sources attribute the
expression to the old english market scam of selling
someone a pig in a poke(bag) when the pig turned out
to be a cat instead.
To sail downwind
directly at another ship thus "stealing" or
diverting the wind from his sails.
No Room to Swing a Cat
The entire ship's
company was required to witness flogging at close
hand. The crew might crowd around so that the
Bosun's Mate might not have enough room to swing his
cat o' nine tails.
Taking the wind out of his sails
Sailing in a manner so
as to steal or divert wind from another ship's
Start Over with a Clean Slate
A slate tablet was
kept near the helm on which the watch keeper would
record the speeds, distances, headings and tacks
during the watch. If there were no problems during
the watch, the slate would be wiped clean so that
the new watch could start over with a clean slate.
A dangerous situation
where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails
pressing them back against the mast and forcing the
ship astern. Most often this was caused by an
inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to
head up into the wind.
An iron ball attached
to a long handle was a loggerhead. When
heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams.
It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarrelling
A large sail used only
for sailing downwind and requiring rather little
No Great Shakes
When casks became
empty they were "shaken" (taken apart) so the
pieces, called shakes, could be stored in a small
space. Shakes had very little value.
Give (someone) a Wide Berth
To anchor a ship far
enough away from another ship so that they did not
hit each other when they swung with the wind or
Cut of His Jib
Warships many times
had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that
they could maintain point and not be blown off
course. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant
ship a captain might not like the cut of his jib
and would then have an opportunity to escape.
Garbling was the
prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the
cargo. A distorted, mixed up message was said to be
Press Into Service
The British navy
filled their ships' crew quotas by kidnapping men
off the streets and forcing them into service. This
was called Impressment and was done by Press Gangs.
Touch and Go
This referred to a
ship's keel touching the bottom and getting right
A butt was a barrel.
Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The
scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut
into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out
drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the place
where the ship's gossip was exchanged.