Customs of the Navy


Chapter 1
Shipboard Terms

Chapter 2
Recruiting and Conditions of Service

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5
Salutes and Ceremonial

Chapter 6
Laws of the Sea and Punishments

Chapter 7
More Customs

Chapter 8
A Few Expressions

Chapter 9
Wardroom Customs

Chapter 10
Odds and Ends

Chapter 10 - Odds and Ends

The word knot as a unit of speed has an interesting beginning. The first method of calculating the velocity of a ship was by Dutchman's log. A chip of wood thrown from the fore-castle was timed as it passed down the side of the ship; the calculation of speed was based on the length of time the chip took to travel between the forward and after marks, since distance divided by time equals speed. But it was from a later type, the hand log, first used in the 16th century, that the word knot develops. A triangular piece of wood called a log-ship is weighted at the bottom, and slung by means of a three-legged rope crows-foot, one leg of which is secured to the log-ship with a re­movable wooden plug, in such a way as to present resistance to the water when towed astern of a ship on a log-line. This plaited line of about l50 fathoms is marked every ten fathoms. In the days of sail the hand log was streamed once an hour by the midshipman-of-the-watch and the boatswain's mate. The latter rigged the log with a plug in securely enough to remain in against the water pressure to be expected, and streamed it astern, As the log-line slipped through his fingers, at the first knot that passed after the log was clear of the wake, the boatswain's mate called out “turn” and the midshipman inverted his hour-glass. When each subsequent knot passed the boatswain's mate sang out its number. As the last of the sand fell into the bottom half of the glass the midshipman gave the order “check”; the boatswain's mate stopped letting the line run out, noting the number of the knot nearest his hand. Comparing the number of the knot against the time on a chart gave the speed of the ship. By jerking the log-line the plug was removed and the log recovered. Thus it was that knots in a line became associated with nautical miles per hour. The reader will understand from this description that the land-lubber’s ‘knots per hour’ is meaningless.

Although the glass referred to was probably graduated for about three or five minutes a half-hour glass was used aboard ship until 1857 to mark the passage of time. The ship's bell was struck at the time of turning the glass, a custom instituted in the 13th century.

Whistling is forbidden in most ships if only for the reason that it can often be confused with the sound of the boatswain’s call used for attracting attention before making a pipe. A former reason for the no whistling rule was that it was the custom to whistle a wind when becalmed in a sailing ship; if per­chance a gale ensued the assumption was that they overdid it. So sailors, being superstitious, rigidly curtailed their whistling habits. At the time of whistling for a wind it was customary to drive a knife into the mainmast on the bearing the wind was desired. Another strange and very ancient superstition for producing wind was the knotting of a short length of rope, a single knot for a light breeze, two for fresh breezes, and three for strong winds.

A killick is Gaelic for anchor, an invention of the Chinese emperor Yu (2205 - 2197 B.C.), and it is from the badge of a single foul anchor that the leading seaman takes the naval slang term for his rank. The foul anchor, otherwise known as the sailor's disgrace, has no intent of reflection on the wearer's seamanship ability, but had its origin in ancient times as a religious symbol of steadfastness, hope and salvation. It re­appears in the heraldic device of Lord Effingham. Lord High Admiral in the late 16th century, and naval use of it probably dates from that time.

Records indicate that tobacco was introduced in the navy in 1798, mostly for chewing, although we read that in later years informal meetings of a smoking circle about a smoking lantern were held on the upper deck in fine weather, at other times in the galley. The U.S. Navy refers to this smoking lantern in lieu of our stand easy and out pipes.

The broad arrow or crowsfoot on government stores, not just naval gear, was the personal mark of the Commissioner of Ordnance during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603). The mark was authorised for use by the Royal Navy in 1698. The same mark was used in Canada for military stores with the addition of the letter ‘C’ about the arrow. Its use as a symbol of Crown property was discontinued in 1949 since the disposal of war assets had made such a usage uncertain. Service stores are now marked only as having been tested by Inspection Services of Canada.

The term compass rose no doubt comes from the French rose des vents, an imaginary flower of four petals, one for the wind of each cardinal point. Roman records show that what is now the north point was in their era marked with a letter ‘T’ for trans montana or tramontana -- across the mountains, i.e., what lay to the north of the Mediterranean. The French later substituted their national symbol, the fleur de lis.

Mention has been made elsewhere of the silver chain and boatswain's call now worn in lieu of a lanyard by men of the quartermaster branch. A silver whistle and chain have also played a part in military as well as naval command. For some centuries this item of regalia has been part of the military bandolier, now rarely seen except in ceremonial parades of historic regiments.

A custom not often practised at the present time is that of hoisting between the masts of a ship, or at the yardarm, on the day of marriage of a member of the ship's company, a gar­land of evergreens, symbolising continuing fruitfulness.

For centuries the marines in a ship lived between the officers and the men. The small-arms racks were kept nearby since the marines were the soldiery of the ship. After the Nore mutinies St. Vincent had the marines moved further aft, and the small-arms moved with them. The marines' mess is traditionally called the marines' barracks.

The naval tudor crown, as described in the manual of Seamanship, volume 2 (1952) “consists of a circlet surmounted by the sterns of four men-of-war, each with three poop lanterns, and four square sails each spread on a mast and yard and fully filled and sheeted home; the ships and sails being positioned alternately”. The Sailing and Fighting Instructions published in l746 appear to contain the first written description and use of the crown in the navy. It was there stated that it was an award to a ship's company for being the first to board successfully an enemy man-of-war.

The normal place for the naval crown now is at the top of ships' crests or badges. The latter are drawn up in accordance with the historic rules of heraldry, that is from items of office, name of history, and are submitted for ap­proval to the Clarenceaux King of Arms, titular head of the College of Heralds. R.C.N. crests have three green maple leaves in addition to any other distinctive Canadian symbols or animals. A sealed pattern of each ship's crest is issued to the, ship by Naval Headquarters.

A Canadian warship is known in writing as H.M.C.S. BUCKINGHAM or the BUCKINGHAM, or even the BUCKINGHAM (with her name in italics); but a ship’s name should never appear in quotation marks. In referring to her captain, he is called simply BUCKINGHAM or BUCKINGHAM.

By traditional right the starboard side of the quarterdeck belongs to the captain, though it may be used by any officer so long as the captain is not on deck. Less necessary now but certainly a reality in the days of small vessels on long voyages was a space to walk, and even now captains or officers-of-the-watch can be seen pacing the quarterdeck. Presumably the starboard side became the captain's choice because it was farthest from the noise and turmoil of loading the ship on the port side.

The adjustable screw plug which fits in the muzzle of a large gun is called a tampion or tompion. Some of these, parti­cularly on mountings or turrets on the quarterdeck, have the ship's crest or some other symbol affixed. These fittings were invented by a London clockmaker named Tompion in the year 1690.

The seaman’s hammock was first introduced to the old World by Christopher Columbus who had discovered them in the West Indies in l493. The present name comes from the Spanish hamaca and the original English word was hamaco. The British first saw these at the Armada (1588) and they appeared in ser­vice in the British navy in 1597. At first they were issued on a basis of one for every two men, and for foreign service only. In 1693 they were noted as supplementary stores items for flag­ships only -- 400 for the Admiral of the Red, 300 for the Blue, and 200 for other flagships. They were listed under ‘Boatswain’s Stores’ as ‘hammacoes, swinging’. Until well into the 19th century these and the sailors' trousers were made of heavy brown canvas from damaged sails. On clearing a ship for action the lashed hammocks were placed in the netting along the upperdeck bulwarks to protect exposed guns’ crews from musket fire.

Under international law the territory of a state extends with some local exceptions, to three nautical miles to seaward from mean low water level. This distance, determined in the 17th century, is based on what was then considered to be the maximum range of cannon. It has long been an established right under the law relating to territorial seas that ships which ordinarily operate outside the limits of such waters are exempt from excise tax and duty on certain articles such as tobaccos and alcoholic beverages which are for consumption onboard by the crews and passengers. These fringe benefits are considered a valuable compensation for the inconveniences and discomforts of seagoing service.

The anchors and cables, and other heavy rigging, in ships before the advent of steam propulsion were worked by hand-operated capstans of massive size. In the VICTORY, for example the main capstan was ‘handraulic’ to the extent of 280 men, l40 of them on each of two decks, manning the capstan bars. A fiddler used to sit atop the capstan playing tunes to which the men sang; this was the beginning of the sea shanty. Many of these, although very old, are found in modern songbooks and still enjoy a wide popularity.

Amidships and just above the waterline on the side of a merchant ship you will see painted in white a circle with a horizontal line through it and alongside it another set of marks. These are known respectively as the Plimsoll line and the load lines, the first named for Samual Plimsoll, a Liverpool merchant and member of Parliament about 1880 who succeeded in Having a bill passed requiring every British merchant ship “to carry the mark and not submerge it”. Before that year many otherwise seaworthy ships had been lost through overloading. The load lines are special variations for different areas of operation and prevailing conditions. Obviously there would be no point in applying such a system to naval vessels. The draught marks of our ships are marked fore and aft in 6-inch Roman numerals and are read by a shipwright before leaving or after entering harbour.

Not previously mentioned in the remarks on laws of the sea are the North European Sea Codes, which placed emphasis on the shipping of wine. Measurement of ships engaged in this trade was by the number of large casks, known as tuns, carried. If we study the definitions of gross and net tonnage -- the usual measurements for merchant ships -- we see that the ton is still a unit of internal carrying capacity.

By modern requirements a ship's log, though full of detail, cannot be called a very interesting document. To show that logs, as diaries of ships’ activities, enjoyed a more colourful past some logbooks dated between 1804 and 1812 may be examined in the Museo Maritimo in Barcelona, Spain. Each page, written in Spanish, is headed “Dios nos guie, Amen”. (May the Lord guide us.) and ends “En el nombre de Dios, Amen.” (In the name of God.) Between these, on the left page, are columns for courses and distances, much like our own logs, with the addition of plane sailing tabulations, that is distance run north, south, east and west during the day. On the right hand page, above a narrative in the master's handwriting of the day’s activities, is a watercolour painting of his ship, showing the sails set, the relative sea state and direction, and the motion of the ship; if at anchor details of the port appear in the background. By contrast we now substitute columns of navigational and meteorological numerals and symbols!

In the Sixth Book of the Roman poet Virgil we learn that the old seamen used to place a coin under the heel of each mast to pay the fare to Charon for crossing the River Styx, thereby ensuring a safe passage for all hands over ‘the river of the underworld’ should disaster overtake the vessel. In deference to this old superstition the practice is still carried out. A copper coin inserted in the mouth of a dead seaman in Roman times served the same purpose in respect to the individual.

A custom adhered to by navies and steamship lines in naming their ships is that a name is only repeated in a later vessel if the predecessor went out of service honourably -- through being sold to another owner, scrapped, or lost by enemy action. The name of a ship destroyed by fire or lost in collision or grounding is not repeated. It would perhaps be more appropriate to decide each case on its merits, but the custom seems quite inflexible.

Whereas merchant practice is to paint a ship's name on both bows, and across the stern together with the port of registry, large naval vesse1s have their names on either side of the stern so they may be easily seen from boats approaching either accomodation ladder. Small naval ships, namely destrovers and below, have hull or pendant numbers painted on both sides below the bridge superstructure, and across the stern. Name-boards are often mounted as well, usually on the after superstructure.

The End >> Return to Introduction Page