Nautical Terms

Admiralty: The governing board of the Royal Navy.

Aloft: Going up the mast.

Bosun: The officer in charge of repairs and the crew aboard a ship. Bosuns would often live on the ship they were in charge of when not in service and were sometimes granted permission to bring their wives on voyages to help with the work. Also spelled boatswain or bos’n.

Bosun’s call: The whistle a bosun used to give orders to the crew.

Bosun’s mate: The assistant to the bosun.

Bow: The front end of a ship.

Bowsprit: The timber extending forward from the front of the ship.

Brig: A type of two-masted vessel frequently used by the Royal Navy.

Chafing gear: Padding or wraps used to prevent ropes wearing against the mast and yards.

Chain shot: Two small cannon balls (or half cannon balls) connected with a chain. These were used for taking out masts and rigging.

Commissioned officers: Officers who received a commission to serve the navy—lieutenants, masters and commanders, post-captains, admirals, etc. Generally, these officers were gentlemen.

Footrope: A rope underneath a ship’s yard that sailors would stand on when aloft.

Forecastle: The raised part of the upper deck at the front of a ship.

Foremast: The front mast.

Gasket: A rope used to hold a furled sail in place.

Great cabin: The captain’s room.

Gun: A cannon. This was the most common term for cannons at the time.

Gun crew/captain: A group of sailors assigned to man a specific gun, led by a captain.

Gunner/gun master: The officer in charge of cannons aboard a ship.

Hatch: The door to the lower decks of a ship.

Haul home the sheets: One of the maneuvers used to set sails in place.

Hull: The outer shell of a ship.

Jackstay: A rope or bar that ran along the top of a yard for support.

Lieutenant: A junior officer who acts as second-in-command to a captain of a ship. Lieutenants may receive temporary commands of their own on smaller vessels.

Line: A rope or cord.

Linstock: A stick used to light the fuse to fire a cannon.

Mainmast: The tallest mast of a ship. In the case of a brig, the mast closest to the stern.

Master and commander: An officer between the rank of lieutenant and captain who had been granted command of a vessel but had not yet been promoted to the rank of post-captain. He served as both sailing master (in charge of navigation) and commander (in charge of the vessel as a whole). He would be called “Captain,” though he hadn’t officially reached that rank. It was not necessary for an officer to be a master and commander before becoming a captain.

Messdeck: The deck where the sailors ate and slept.

Port side: When facing forward, the left side of the ship.

Post-captain: An officer who has officially been granted the rank of captain.

Quarterdeck: The raised back portion of the main deck. In general, only officers were allowed on the quarterdeck.

Ratlines: The horizontal ropes going up the shroud that sailors used as a ladder to climb the masts.

Rigging: The ropes used to support and move a ship.

Round shot: Regular cannon balls.

Sheets: Ropes connected to the bottom corners of sails.

Shroud: The ropes supporting the masts that attached to the sides of the ship. They were used by sailors to climb aloft.

Starboard side: When facing forward, the right side of the ship.

Stern: The back end of a ship.

Warrant officers: Officers who were hired because of their expertise in a specific area (such as carpentry or artillery).

Yard: The horizontal timbers attached to the mast to which sails are fastened.

Yardarm: The end of a yard.