Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sail Away Part II

Sail Away Part II 

More about ships

by Laurie Alice Eakes

Until the early nineteenth century, docks and wharves as we know them did not exist. Much of this was simply due to the fact that nosing a sailing ship up to a dock was pretty difficult. Another problem was space. Sailing a ship between two other vessels would have been nigh on impossible. So ships dropped anchor in the harbor or river, such as the Thames, and the crew rowed ashore. Some of the vessels that took people ashore were pretty fancy, especially with naval vessels. They were called gigs and had several oarsmen.
USS Constitution launched 1797 would need a gig.

Before docks became prevalent, the left side of the ship was not considered the portside. It was larboard. Starboard for the right and larboard for the left. Imagine hearing that in a high wind and mistaking one for the other. Such disaster could have stricken the craft that it’s rather amazing those two words were used for so long.

Because ships didn’t have docks to draw up to, boarding was a little difficult. Men and women had two choices. They could climb a ladder of rope called chains, or they could be raised via a boson’s chair and be hauled aboard. This latter technique caused a great deal of seasickness even before boarding because the passenger twisted and swung while rising. Early amusement ride? And imagine being a lady trying to maintain her modesty. No wonder so many heroines put on pants to go to sea.

Once aboard, they stood on the maindeck. The floor is always a deck. No sailor would call those boards on which they stand a floor. At the rear of the vessel, the first raised deck is the quarterdeck because the captain’s quarters were off of it beneath the poopdeck. When poopdecks were eliminated, the captain’s quarters moved to below the quarter deck.

The main cabin was lighted by big stern windows or sternlights, not windows. No windows aboard a ship. Portholes and lights.

The raised step that helped keep water out of the cabin is a coaming. Those things we think of as walls? Those are bulkheads. The ceiling is a deckhead. Steps are ladders and hallways--companionways. Fortunately, however, a door is a door.

Again, I have just skimmed the surface of ship terminology, but I am hopeful that I have whetted your appetite to learn more.

Let me leave you with a few resources:

How long did it take to travel by ship? 


  1. oh, I love that a door is a door... =) Thanks for the post! I just love learning and reading all about ships back then - just amazing.

  2. I just eat this stuff up. There's so much to learn about ships and they are one of my favorite subjects. I've been studying but missed the reasoning behind port vs larboard!
    I think my favorite resources is Nelson's Navy, that big old thick encyclopedia about the heyday of the early British Navy.

    Thanks for the new sites! Have a great weekend, Laurie Alice and all.

  3. So, what were poopdecks and why were they eliminated? Very interesting stuff!

  4. Yes!!! A DOOR! Finally, something I recognize!!! lol

    Thank you for this very clear explanation, Laurie Alice. Many times I read these words in books, and only have a vague idea of where/what the author is describing.

    Must read this again and cement these seaworthy terms in my land-locked brain. :)

  5. I haven't done much research into ships(I must be a land ludder!) but this has peaked my interest! Thanks, Laurie Alice--great article!

  6. Thanks for the information. Always glad to learn more, and I love ships :)

  7. Hmm. My earlier comment never showed up.

    Poopdecks were the far back and highest deck beneath which lay the captain's quarters, thus the next level deck was the quarterdeck.

    Poopdecks damaged wind sheer. In other words, they were a drag on the aerodynamics of the vessel, slowing it down. They also caused issues in battle making too easy a target, esp. for anyone standing on them, and they kept thos eon the quarterdeck from seeing behind or astern of the ship.

    1. Thank for for explaining, Laurie Alice! I've often read books where the poopdeck was mentioned, but never had a clue what it was! :)

  8. Debra, yes, ships are really fascinating. I have found some really old books on both British and American Navies. Googlebooks is a great resource for this, but I also have an 1895 training manual someone I know scanned and sent me.

  9. I like reading the stories of yesteryear when folks traveled by ships, it took them forever to get to destination and many times folks died along the way. interesting to read your post with all the nautical info. Thanks for sharing
    Paula O

  10. I'm going to have to re-read all the books I've read that take place on or talk a lot about ships so I'll really know what they're talking about! Thanks for sharing!

  11. I have illustrations of St. Thomas during the Regency as well as written information stating that each warehouse had a pier. In order to pass one of our sailing tests, we had to dock under sail. All skilled captains can do it. Tweeted.

  12. Quite interesting post, especially about the names of the sides and the bosun's chair.

  13. Thank you for the information. I will be reading your blog a lot more to help me with some of my writing.