The Old Booksmith

Glossary of Naval & Maritime Terms & Phrases
of the Late 18th & Early 19th Centuries
R — Z

rack [verb]

To twist a shipís hulla along its fore and aft axis.

rake [verb]

To fire down the length of an enemy ship from ahead or astern.


Designation of experience and abilities assigned to every crewman by the first lieutenant when he joined the ship, from landman at the bottom to Able Seaman, and which determined his pay and duties. A seamanís rate could be increased or lowered at any time by the captain, or by the first lieutenant of a new ship to which he was transferred.


Ships of the Royal Navy were categorized into six ratings, based on the number of guns (meaning long guns, or cannon, only) each was intended to carry (whether or not that many guns actually were present). A shipís rating controlled the pay of her captain, master, and standing officers. First rates carried 100 guns or more, 3rd rates were mostly 74-gun ships of the line (the most common type), and most 5th & 6th rates were frigates. Armed sloops, schooners, and other ships smaller than 6th rate ("unrated") were commanded not by an officer holding the naval rank of captain, but by commanders and lieutenants. The system shifted somewhat over the years, as new ship designs were introduced and as smaller vessels began to carry heavier armament, especially carronades.


Grid-like rope ladders rigged permanently from bulwarks to tops and from tops to the top above, to allow access aloft. Technically, only the horizontal lines forming the steps in the shrouds.


A ship modified in its design by having one deck cut away.

reach [verb]

To sail with the wind abeam. A close reach is more towards the wind, a broad reach is more away from the wind. For most fore-and-aft rigged vessels, a reach is the fastest point of sailing.

ready about

Preparatory order to indicate imminent tacking.


Calculation of a shipís position.


A gathering taken in a sail to reduce its effective area.

reef [verb]

To shorten sail by gathering in a portion of it and tying off a reef point.

reef point

Short length of line inserted through a sail by which the sail may be gathered up to the yard and its area reduced.

reef bands

Long strips of canvas sewed across the sails to provide reinforcement.



reeve [verb]

To run a piece of rigging through a block or eye.


The process by which a ship is repaired and made ready for sea again; less extensive than an overhaul.

rhumb line

A constant course which appears on a Mercator-projection chart as straight, but which is actually curved on the surface of the Earth; much more convenient to navigate than the shorter Great Circle course.

ride [verb]

Of a ship, to lie at anchor.


The design and arrangement of a vesselís masts and sails.


System of ropes by which a shipís masts and spars are supported (standing rigging) and controlled (running rigging).

road, roadstead

An open anchorage.

rode, anchor rode

Anchor line or cable connecting the anchor chain to the ship.

rogue's yarn

Rope yarn of a particular type and color woven into the middle of every strand of all cables and cordage manufactured for the Navy, to identify it as government property. The equivalent of a broad arrow.


The vertical angular movement (heel) of a ship from one side to the other in response to waves or an ocean swell.


System of pulleys to ensure a yard is confined to the weather side of the mast.


Cordage of a diameter larger than one inch, usually made of hemp.

ropeís end

Short length of rope used by a bosunís mate to whip the back or thigh of a slowmoving crewman; a starter.

rummage sale [i>French: arrimage]

Sale of damaged cargo

run [verb]

To sail before the wind.

running rigging

Shipís rigging, including sheets, tacks, braces, lifts, braces, and halliards that control the yards and sails and are in constant adjustment during the working of the ship.


Of a ship, when the trough of a passing wave is directly amidships, causing the ends of the keel to be temporarily higher than the middle.

Sampson post

Strong vertical post that supports a shipís windlass and the heel of the bowsprit.

scandalize [verb]

To reduce the area of a sail with proper reefing, as by slacking the peak and tricing up the tack; a sign of mourning.


Structure of a shipís hull, including dimensions of the principle timbers.


Fore-and-aft rigged vessel of two or more masts, the foremast being shorter than those aft of it. (If the foremast is taller, the vessel is a ketch.) Invented in and especially popular in North America. Very fast, very successful, and requiring a smaller crew to work than most rigs. Many merchant schooners had as many as five or six masts; a unique example, the Thomas W. Lawson, had seven masts.


Clinker-built dinghy, typically slow and broad in the beam.


Channel along the edge of a deck to carry water over the side.


Square opening cut through a deck, much smaller than a hatchway, for the purpose of handing small items from deck to deck. Also, a small opening cut in the side of a ship, or in the port lids of a two-decker, to admit light and air. Similar to a porthole on a merchant vessel.

scuttle [verb]

To cut a hole in a shipís deck or side. Also, to deliberately sink a ship by cutting holes in it.


Common water barrel used by the deck watch.


Technically, a single wave.

sea anchor

Stabilizer, usually in the form of a large canvas, towed behind a ship in heavy weather.

sea keeping

The ability of a ship to remain at sea in all weather.

sea legs

The ability to stand or walk smoothly on a moving deck.

sea mark

Tower, church steeple, promontory, or other prominent navigational landmark visible from some distance at sea.

sea mile

Distance of one minute of arc, measured along the meridian (approx. 6,080 feet, but varies slightly with the latitude).

sea way

The open sea with a swell running.


Capable of sailing safely in the open sea.


Direction of flow of a current.


Navigational instrument describing 60 degrees (one-sixth of a circle), used to measure the altitude of a celestial object above the horizon, and capable of taking sights at angles up to 120 degrees. Sighting the sun at noon allowed one to identify oneís latitude.


Staves of empty barrels and casks which have been broken down to save storage space.


Curve of a hull along a shipís length as the bow and stern rise from the horizontal.

sheer, sheer off [verb]

To alter course sharply, as away from another ship or hazard.

sheer hulk

A vessel no longer fit for sea, rigged with a large derrick in A-frame shape (sheer legs), most often used in a dockyard to vertically draw the masts out of a ship under repair.

sheer plan

Shipbuilderís drawing of a vesselís elevation, demonstrating the lines of its sheer.


Rope or tackle controlling the direction of a sail in relation to the wind.


Technically, a seagoing vessel of three masts, square-rigged on all. Commonly used of oceangoing vessels generally.

ship [verb]

To bring inboard; to stow.

ship of the line

Square-rigged ship of sufficient size and armament, and with sufficiently strong sides, to stand in the line of battle against an enemy line; by the late 18th century, a 74-gun three-decker was considered the standard size for a ship of the line.

shipís company

Crew of a ship, including officers. Total body of personnel.


Three-masted sloop under command of a master and commander.

ship water [verb]

To take in water as a result of heavy weather.


Teredo navalis, a marine boring worm native to the Caribbean that infests timber.

shipwright, master

Shipyard officer responsible for all shipbuilding and repairs.

shiver [verb]

To angle a sail edge-on to the wind so that it neither fills nor backs, but flaps from equal pressure on both sides. Used to temporarily prevent the shipís forward movement without reducing sail.


Relating to a sandbank, reef, or other area of shallow water hazardous to navigation.

shoal draft

Of a ship of unusually shallow draft, allowing it to amneuver in especially shallow water.

short stay

Of an anchor chain that is moderately slack.


Non-explosive projectile fired from a shipís gun.


Stay supporting a mast from abeam.

Sick and Hurt Board

Subsidiary to the Navy Board, it examined surgeons, provided medical supplies, ran hospitals, and (until 1796) was responsible for prisoners of war.

sick bay

Compartment reserved for medical purposes, under authority of the shipís surgeon.


One of a party of seamen posted in two rows at the point where the accommodation ladder reaches the quarterdeck, as an honor guard for a visitor of high rank.


Downward projection below the keel just before the rudder, to protect the rudder from damage


Removable beams or booms above the open waist that support the larger shipís boats when not in use.


Sanctioned singing, games, and other amusements on the forecastle, with topmen and midshipmen racing each other through the rigging, all to let off steam. More active and physical than "make and mend" time.


Square sail set above the royals; not possible in most ships.

sling [verb]

To lift or hoist.

slip [verb]

To cast off a rope; especially to cast off the anchor cable (leaving it attached to a buoy for later retrieval) in order to sail without having to weigh anchor.

sloop of war

Unrated warship smaller than a frigate, mounting her main battery on the upper deck; by tradition under the command of a "master and commander," below the rank of captain. Conversely, a vessel under a commander was automatically considered a "sloop," regardless of rig (hence brig-sloop and ship-sloop). The modern sloop is a type of single-masted sailboat with a single jib bent to the forestay and has little relation to the 18th-century sloop of war.

slops, slop chest

Purserís store of miscellanous merchandise for sail to the crew; especially, odds and ends of clothing sold to crew members who have lost their dunnage in action or wreck, or to pressed men with no personal possessions.


Greasy remnants scraped from empty salt-meat casks, used for greasing the running rigging. Also, the floating fat residue remaining after the crewís meal has been cooked; the perquisite of the cook, who could sell it or exchange it to the crew. Unneeded slush could be sold ashore, the proceeds placed in a "slush fund" for the benefit of the crew.


Large English fishing boat, originally cutter-rigged but later, as their size increased, more commonly ketch-rigged; local variations included a topsail on the mizzen or a bowsprit carrying a jib.

smart money

Naval compensation paid for wounds and injuries.

snow [pronounced "snoo"]

Most common-two-masted merchant vessel in northern Europe. Brig variant with a small trysail mast with a boom stepped immediately abaft the mainmast; predecessor in design of the sloop.

sound [verb]

To measure the depth of water with the lead.


Sea area within the 100-fathom line (therefore capable of being sounded).


Waterproofed foul-weather hat with a wide covering the neck.


Fore-and-aft or gaff-rigged sail on the mizzen of a square-rigged ship. Also, the main fore-and-aft sail on the aft-most mast of a schooner or barque.


Mast, pole, or boom that supports rigging or a sail.

spar deck

Light deck connecting the quarterdeck to the forecastle.

splice [verb]

To permanently join the ends of two lines, or two parts of the same line, by separating the strands and interweaving them into one continuous line.


A hawser led from the capstan and out through an aft port, then made fast to the anchor cable, hauling on which will angle the ship in order to bring her batteries to bear as desired.

spring [verb]

Of a mast or spar, to split along the grain.


Sail set on a yard mounted below the bowsprit.

spritsail topsail

Sail set on a small mast stepped on the end of the bowsprit.

square rig

Type of rigging in which sails, square in shape are suspended from yards attached to masts and, in their neutral position, are perpendicular to the vesselís centerline. Also, a sailorís best set of clothing, leather shoes, and tarred hat, reserved for visits ashore.

stand off [verb]

To sail away from, to keep oneís distance from.

standing officers

A shipís boatswain, gunner, and carpenter, who stayed with the ship from launching to breaking-up, including periods when it was out of service (as a maintenance crew). Unlike other warrant officers, they could not be removed solely on authority of the captain. For the standing officers, the ship was not only their place of employment but their home.

standing rigging

Fixed rigging that supports masts and spars, not ordinarily changed or moved during normal ships operations.


Of a vessel instructed to maintain course and speed when another vessel is approaching with the danger of collision.


Relating to the righthand side of a vessel.


Ropeís end wielded by a bosunís mate to encourage slow or awkward crew members.

station keeping

Process of maintaining a shipís position with respect to other ships within an arrayed fleet, preserving cohesion within the fleet while still allowing sea room for each constituent ship to maneuver.

stay [verb]

To tack.

stays, in

Of a ship pointing into the wind while in the process of going about.

stays, miss [verb]

When tacking, to fail to turn into the wind, thereby falling back on the original tack.


Triangular sail set on one of the forward stays supporting a mast.

staysail schooner

Fore-and-aft rigged vessel that carries no foresail but a main staysail between the masts in addition to the forestaysail ahead of the foremast.

steerage way

Movement through the water at a speed sufficient to enable the vessel to be controlled from the helm.

steering oar

Long, flat oar attached at the starboard ("steering-board") side of a shipís stern; predecessor of the rudder.

stem, stempost

Timber rising from the fore end of the keel and forming the center of the bows.


After part of a ship. Technically, the area above the sternpost, extending upward from the counter to the taffrail


Straight timber rising from the after end of the keel, providing support for both the rudder and the structure of the stern.




Said of a ship that is very stable, heeling little under wind pressure.

stopper knot

Knot (usually a figure-eight) tied at the end of a line, usually to prevent it escaping through a hole.


One of the overlapping planks in a clinker-built hull.

strike [verb]

To lower a mast, spar, sail, etc. To "strike the colors" is to surrender the ship.

studding sail, stunsail

Light, narrow sail temporarily spread outboard of a square sail to increase overall sail area in a light breeze.


Light twine or yarn, such as that used for serving lines, often made from two or three rope yarns loosely wound together.


New rank created in 1804 in order to provide lieutenants in command of brigs and gun-brigs with a junior officer. A temporary rank, filled by a passed midshipman or masterís mate, with reversion to previous status when the duty ended.


A vesselís complete set of sails. (Not "suite.")


Warrant officer who had passed an oral examination by three surgeons of his squadron or at Surgeonsí Hall in Lincolnís Inn Fields. (Ordinarily, he did not have a medical degree, which would have made him a "physician.") His main duty was to visit the sick and wounded twice a day, to check the health of new crew members as they came aboard, and to advise the captain in all matters of health. He had one to three mates (renamed Assistant Surgeons in 1805) and one or more seamen assigned as loblolly boys.

sway [verb]

To hoist something aboard or aloft.


Long, large-bladed oar.

swig [verb]

To take up the last bit of slack on a line (such as a halyard, anchor line or dockline) by taking a single turn round a cleat, then heaving alternately on the rope above and below the cleat while keeping tension on the tail.

swing the compass [verb]

To measure the accuracy of a shipís magnetic compass for pursposes of adjustment by turning the ship and taking bearings on reference points whose positions are known.

swing the lamp [verb]

To tell sea stories, especially exagerated yarns.

swing the lead [verb]

To avoid difficult work by pretending illness; malingering.


Rope or tackle for hauling down the clew of a square sail. Also, the course held by a vessel beating to windward.

tack [verb]

To shift tacks, to go about, to turn into the wind and so adopt the opposite tack; to beat to windward by successive tacks.


Rigging or gear in general; a purchase consisting of ropes rove through two or more blocks to achieve mechanical advantage.


Rail at the very stern of a ship, on the quarterdeck if there is one.

taken aback

Of a ship whose sails are unintentionally allowed to be backed.

tally on [verb]

To haul the sheets aft.


Very common Mediterranean merchant and fishing vessel resembling a stumpy, flat-bottomed xebec, with, typically, a single lateen-rigged mast with a triangular headsail, though larger versions might carry a mainmast as well. Also much favored by North African pirates.


Said of a ship that is laterally unstable and yields too easily to wind pressure, probably because of design flaws.

three sheets to the wind

Of a three-masted ship with the sheets of all lower courses blowing loose, causing the ship to wander aimlessly downwind. By extension, adrunken sailor.


Bench-seat across a boat.


Bar projecting from the top of the rudder post by which a vessel is steered; used principally on small vessels.


Technically, a deliberately bent frame.




Modeled on the American Indian weapon, it was issued to the crew in action more as a tool than an anti-personnel weapon. Used to cut away enemy rigging in boarding and to sever encumbering lines when oneís own ship was damaged.


Shaped wooden plug inserted in the barrel of a gun to seal out moisture when it was not in use.


Platform constructed at the head of the lower masts which spreads the shrouds of the topmast and provides a workspace for men aloft.


Sail above the topsail.

tophamper, topweight

Shipís equipment or structure carried high up the masts which, by its position, tends to increase windage and reduce stability.


Skilled, experienced, physically fit seaman who worked aloft and handled the sails in all weather conditions; the elite of the crew.

topsail schooner

A fore-and-aft rigged vessel of two or more masts carrying a square topsail on the foremast.


Lighter mast fitted to the top of a lower mast and extending it.


Upper part of a vesselís structure, between the waterline and the main deck.

touch and go

Of a ship which touches the bottom but does not ground.


Hole bored through a gun at the inner end of its bore for insertion of priming powder.


Cold winds that blow offshore from the Ligurian Alps in spring and autumn in the Gulf of Genoa.


Surface forming the stern of a vessel, either flat or curved, either vertical or raked forward or aft.

Transport Board

Founded only in 1793 and subsidiary to the Navy Board, it hired its own merchant and naval vessels for transport of men and supplies. It was so efficient, it became independent in 1795, took over responsibilities from the Sick and Hurt Board for prisoners in 1796, and absorbed the latter board entirely in 1806.


Small rings or fittings that slide on a rod or line, as on the backstays for hoisting the topgallant yards.

traverse board

A peg board kept near the wheel and used to record the shipís course and speed during the watch, at the end of which the course run was worked out and recorded as part of the process of dead reckoning.


Wooden peg used to fasten together the planks and other parts of the hull; made of dry, compressed timber which expanded when wet for a tight fit.

trice [verb]

To haul and tie up with a line at a higher level.

trice [verb]

To haul and tie up with a line.


Period of duty time spent at a shipís wheel.


Angle at which a vessel floats; relationship of the hull to the waterline.

trim [verb]

To adjust the set of the sails.


Wooden disk protecting the top of a mast. Also, the solid wooden wheel of a gun carriage.

true bearing

Absolute bearing in reference to true north.


Iron projections on either side of a gunís barrel, allowing it to be elevated or lowered when fitted into a carriage.


Diagonal bracing timber.


Inward curve of a shipís side above the waterline.


Small fore-and-aft sail hoisted abaft the mainmast and taking the place (usually temporarily) of the mainsail; used in high winds and storms to maintain control of the vessel and to keep the bow to the wind.

turn of the bilge

Point in a vesselís cross-section where the shape of the frames turn sharply upward.

under weigh (not "way")

Of a vessel that is moving and under control, neither adrift, aground, nor at anchor.


Clumsy, lacking in maneuverability.

up and down

Of an anchor chain that is vertical beneath the hawse and about to be weighed.

upper deck

Continuous weather deck comprising the quarterdeck and forecastle.


Leading division of the three divisions of a fleet.


Line leading from the gaff to either side of the deck to prevent the gaff from sagging.

veer [verb]

To alter course sharply; to wear. Also, to pay out a cable. Of the wind, to change in a clockwise direction.


Flag officer commanding the van of a fleet. Also, the deputy of the Lord Admiral in a maritime county or colony.

Victualling Board

Subsidiary to the Navy Board, it supplied all food, drink, and clothing, and appointed and bonded pursers


Turbulence created behind a moving vessel; not the same as wash.


Of a ship with vertical sides, having no tumblehome.


Space in which the officers mess and have their cabins, located directly beneath the captainís cabin.

warrant officer

Naval master specialist issued a warrant by the Navy Board upon proof of training and experience, including the boatswain, carpenter, gunner, purser, surgeon, and master. He could be punished only by confinement to quarters and court martial, not merely by the captainís order.


Waves created by a vesselís passage through the water; not the same as wake.


One of the two (or three) divisions of a shipís company alternating on deck duty, around which all activities aboard were organized; a period of duty on deck. Also, one of the seven divisions of the naval day.


The process of keeping watch, around the clock, on all essential functions aboard ship. Watchstanders are deputed from among the officers and crew in rotation by watch and include an officer on the quarterdeck (who is in charge of the ship) with a junior officer (usually a midshipman or masterís mate) assisting him, a quartermaster supervising a helmsman, a bosunís mate, and one or more lookouts. Idlers, being always on call, normally are exempted from watchstanding.

watch bill

List of a shipís company assigning men to specific watches.


Movement of a vessel through the water.

wear [verb]

To alter course from one tack to the other by turning before the wind.


Relating to the direction from which the wind is blowing.

weather [verb]

To seek a position to windward of another ship or object.

weather deck

Principal deck exposed to the open sky and the weather.

weather gage (not "gauge")

The position to windward of another ship, line of battle, or fleet. Often seen as an automatic advantage in combat, which was not necessarily the case.


Of a vessel that is easily maneuvered and makes little leeward sailing to windward.

weigh anchor [verb]

To hoist up the anchor preparatory to sailing.


Vertical access to a shipís bilges, where the level of water being taken in may be checked and where the pumps are installed.


Boat designed to carry cargo and passengers on rivers and canals in England; especially associated with Thames watermen. Clinker-built, with long, overhanging bows so that passengers could step ashore dry in the days before landing stages. Predecessor of the skiff, a rowboat used by gentlemen. Replaced in the Royal Navy by the gig.

white horses

Whitecaps; spray atop the waves caused by wind.

widowsí men

Fictitious crewmen carried on a shipís muster roll at the rate of one per hunded real crewmen, whose wages were paid into a fund to benefit seamenís widows and orphans.


Vesselís susceptibility to lateral wind pressure, hence the extent to which she makes leeway.


Of a ship unable to leave its station because of contrary winds.

wind over tide

When the wind blows in a direction opposite to the tidal flow, producing short, heavy seas.


Horizontal winch to obtain mechanical advantage greater than that available with block and tackle, as in raising the anchor of a small vessel.


Relating to the direction from which the wind is blowing.

work [verb]

To beat to windward.

worm, serve, and parcel [verb]

To protect a section of rope from chaffing by laying yarns (worming) in the cuntlines, wrapping marline or other small stuff around it (serving), and stitching a canvas cover (parceling) over all.


Lateen-rigged vessel of two or three masts equipped with oars as an additional means of propulsion; originally a trading vessel in the Mediterranean but later became popular with Barbary pirates (in which case it typically carried 16-30 guns and a crew of 130-150). By the 1790s, a diverse number of hull designs had appeared, including a frigate hull. Adopted as a small warship type, the equivalent of a sloop, by the French, Spanish, and Turkish navies.


Spar suspended horizontally from a mast to spread the head or foot of a square sail.


Extreme ends of a yard.


Deviations in a vesselís course from side to side, as a result of currents, wind pressure, etc.


Two-masted fore-and-aft rigged vessel with a small mizzen well aft of the mainmast (often right on the transom), which is intended mostly to provide helm balance, not motive power. Originally intended as a fishing boat or cargo-carrying coastal trader, but also popular with single-handed sailors because of its ability to be trimmed to sail without use of the rudder.

yellow admiral

A post captain promoted through seniority to the rank of admiral, but not fit because of age, infirmity, or temperment to actually command. He was theoretically attached to an unspecified squadron and had the pay, uniform, and privileges of a rear admiral but no actual assignment or duties.