Nautical Terms

Footloose -
The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.

Booby Hatch -
Aboard ship, a booby hatch is a sliding cover or hatch that must be pushed away to allow access or passage.
Overbearing -
To sail downwind directly at another ship thus "stealing" or diverting the wind from his sails.
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.
Pooped -
The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea.
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 nest.
Buoyed Up -
Using a buoy to raise the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from chafing on a rough bottom.
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 valour, 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.
Hoisted by One's Petard -
The "petard" was a small cask of black powder used to prime cannon fuses. During battle a petard was stored alongside each gun. Occasionally, a careless crewman would set one off while lighting a fuse, thereby "hoisting" himself in the air. The expression was used by English sailors describing the inept French gunners.
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.
Overhaul -
To prevent the buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.
Slush Fund -
A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff 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.
Bear Down -
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.
Overreach -
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.
Overwhelm -
Old English for capsize or founder.
Between 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.
The 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 adjoining planking. Paying the Devil was considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant task.
Rummage Sale -
From the French "arrimage" meaning ship's cargo. Damaged cargo was sold at a rummage sale.
A Square Meal -
In good weather, crews" mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.
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".
Taking the wind out of his sails -
Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship's sails.
Freeze a Brass Monkey
Between a ship's guns were lip-edged brass trays called monkeys which held pyramid stacks of cannon balls. In cold weather the brass tray would contract faster than the iron cannon balls and the balls would go tumbling on the deck. In this case it was said to be "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey".
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.
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.
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.
Taken Aback -
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.
At Loggerheads -
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 crewmen.
Fly-by-Night -
A large sail used only for sailing downwind and requiring rather little attention.
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 tide.
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.
Garbled -
Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the cargo. A distorted, mixed up message was said to be garbled.
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.
The Whole Nine Yards -
Yards are the spars attached at right angles across a mast to support square sails. (Yardarms are either side of a yard.) On a fully-rigged three-masted ship there were three major square sails on each mast. So if the nine major sails were all employed at the same time, the whole nine yards were working.
Touch and Go -
This referred to a ship's keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.
Scuttlebutt -
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.
The Beaufort Scale
The Beaufort Scale or Beaufort Wind Force Scale is a system for estimating wind strengths without the use of instruments, based on the effects wind has on the physical environment. The behaviour of smoke, waves, trees, etc., is rated on a 13 point scale of 0 (calm) to 12 (hurricane). The scale was devised in 1805 by the British naval Commander, later Admiral, Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1875).
A further set of numbers (13-17) for very strong winds were added by the US Weather Bureau in 1955.
The Beaufort Scale, as originally drawn up, made no reference to the speed of the wind and various attempts have been made to correlate the two.
The scale is not often used today as more direct methods are used by meteorologists to measure wind speed. However, it is still useful in estimating wind speeds, especially when anemometers are not available.
Beaufort number 0 - Calm
Wind speeds: less than 1 knot (<1 mph; <1 kph; <0.3 mps)
At sea: Sea like a mirror, calm
Sea disturbance number: 0
Probable wave height: flat (0 ft; 0 m)
On land: Smoke rises vertically
Notes: Boring, boring, boring...
Beaufort number 1 - Light Air
Wind speeds: 1-3 knots (1-3 mph; 1-5 kph; 0.3-1.5 mps)
At sea: Ripples with the appearance of scales are formed but without foam crests
Sea disturbance number: 0
Probable wave height: 5-10 cm (2-4 in) (0 ft; 0 m)
On land: Direction of wind shown by smoke drift, but not by vanes
Notes: Yachts just have steerage way
Beaufort number 2 - Light Breeze
Wind speeds: 4-6 knots (4-7 mph; 6-11 kph; 1.6-3.3 mps)
At sea: Small wavelets, still short but more pronounced; crests have a glassy appearance and do not break
Sea disturbance number: 1
Probable wave height: 10-15 cm (4-6 in); (0-1 ft; 0-0.3 m)
On land: Wind felt on face; leaves rustle; ordinary vane moved by wind
Notes: Wind fills sails of yacht, which then may move at 1-2 knots
Beaufort number 3 - Gentle Breeze
Wind speeds: 7-10 knots (8-12 mph; 12-19 kph; 3.4-5.4 mps)
At sea: Large wavelets; crests begin to break; foam of glassy appearance; perhaps scattered white horses
Sea disturbance number: 2
Probable wave height: 60 cm (2 ft); (1-2 ft; 0.3-0.6 m)
On land: Leaves and small twigs in constant motion; wind extends light flag
Notes: Yachts start to careen and travel at 3-4 knots
Beaufort number 4 - Moderate Breeze
Wind speeds: 11-16 knots (13-18 mph; 20-28 kph; 5.5-7.9 mps)
At sea: small waves, becoming longer; fairly frequent white horses
Sea disturbance number: 3
Probable wave height: 1 m (3.5 ft); (2-4 ft; 0.6-1.2 m)
On land: Raises dust and loose paper; small branches are moved
Notes: Good working breeze for yachts; carry all sail with good list
Beaufort number 5 - Fresh Breeze
Wind speeds: 17-21 knots (19-24 mph; 29-38 kph; 8.0-10.7 mps)
At sea: Moderate waves taking a more pronounced long form; many white horses are formed; chance of some spray
Sea disturbance number: 4
Probable wave height: 2 m (6-7 ft); (4-8 ft; 1.2-2.4 m)
On land: Small trees in leaf begin to sway; crested wavelets form on inland waters
Notes: Yachts shorten sail
Beaufort number 6 - Strong Breeze
Wind speeds: 22-27 knots (25-31 mph; 39-49 kph; 10.8-13.8 mps)
At sea: Large waves begin to form; the white foan crests are more extensive everywhere; probably some spray
Sea disturbance number: 5
Probable wave height: 3 m (9-10 ft); (8-13 ft; 2.4-4 m)
On land: Large branches in motion; whistling heard in telegraph wires; umbrellas used with difficulty
Notes: Yachts with double reef in mainsail; care required when fishing
Beaufort number 7 - Near Gale / Moderate Gale
Wind speeds: 28-33 knots (32-38 mph; 50-61 kph; 13.9-17.1 mps)
At sea: Sea heaps up and white foam from the breaking waves begins to be blown in streaks along the direction of the wind
Sea disturbance number: 6
Probable wave height: 4 m (13-14 ft); (13-20 ft; 4-6 m)
On land: Whole trees in motion; inconvenience felt when walking against wind
Notes: Yachts remain in harbour, those at sea lie to
Beaufort number 8 - Gale / Fresh Gale
Wind speeds: 34-40 knots (39-46 mph; 62-74 kph; 17.2-20.7 mps)
At sea: Moderately high waves of greater length; edges crests begin to break into spindrift; the foam is blown in well-marked streaks along the direction of the wind
Sea disturbance number: 6
Probable wave height: 5.5 m (18 ft); (13-20 ft; 4-6 m)
On land: Breaks twigs off trees; generally impedes progress
Notes: All yachts make for harbour if possible
Beaufort number 9 - Strong Gale
Wind speeds: 41-47 knots (47-54 mph; 75-88 kph; 20.8-24.4 mps)
At sea: High waves; dense streaks of foam along the direction of wind; crests of waves begin to topple, tumble and roll over; spray may affect visibility
Sea disturbance number: 6
Probable wave height: 7 m (23 ft); (13-20 ft; 4-6 m)
On land: Slight structural damage occurs (chimney post and slates removed)
Beaufort number 10 - Storm / Whole Gale
Wind speeds: 48-55 knots (55-63 mph; 89-102 kph; 24.5-28.4 mps)
At sea: Very high waves with long overhanging crests; resulting foam in great patches is blown in dense white streaks along the direction of the wind; on the whole, the surface of the sea takes a white appearance; tumbling of the sea becomes heavy and shock-like; visibility affected
Sea disturbance number: 7
Probable wave height: 9 m (29 ft); (20-30 ft; 6-9 m)
On land: Seldom experienced inland; trees uprooted; considerable structural damage occurs
Beaufort number 11 - Violent Storm / Storm
Wind speeds: 56-63 knots (64-75 mph; 103-117 kph; 28.5-32.6 mps)
At sea: Exceptionally high waves (small and medium size ships might be for a time lost from view behind waves); sea is completely covered with long white patches of foam lying along the direction of wind; everywhere the edges are blown into froth; visibility affected
Sea disturbance number: 8
Probable wave height: 11 m (37 ft); (30-45 ft; 9-14 m)
On land: Very rarely experienced; accompanied by widespread damage
Beaufort number 12 (-17) - Hurricane
Wind speeds: 64 knots and greater (> 75 mph; >117 kph; >32.7 mps)
At sea: The air is filled with foam and spray; sea completely white with driving spray; visibility very seriously affected
Sea disturbance number: 9
Probable wave height: 11 m and more (> 37 ft); (>45 ft; >14 m)
On land: Very rarely experienced; accompanied by widespread damage

In navigation, measure of speed at sea, equal to one nautical mile (6,080 feet in the British admiralty mile; 1,852 m, or 6,076.115 feet, in the international mile) per hour. This is approximately 1.15 statute miles per hour. Thus, a ship moving at 20 knots is travelling as fast as a land vehicle at about 23 miles (37 km) per hour. The term knot probably results from its former use as a length measure on ships" log lines, which were used to measure the speed of a ship through the water. Such a line was marked off at intervals by knots tied in the rope. Each interval, or knot, was about 47 feet (14.3 m) long. When the log was tossed overboard, it remained more or less stationary while its attached log line trailed out from the vessel as the latter moved forward. After 28 seconds had elapsed, the number of knots that had passed overboard was counted. The number of knots that ran out in 28 seconds was roughly the speed of the ship in nautical miles per hour.

Mike Stevens

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