Customs of the Navy

Chapter 1 - Shipboard Terms

"For the knowledge of naval matters is an art as well as any other and not to be attended at idle times and on the by...."

---Thucydides: part of the Pericles' speech to the Athenians.

It may not be considered tactless to presume that 'old hands' do not know the origin of the names of parts of a ship, but despite the risk of offending a few well-known points are mentioned by the way of introduction.

The word ship itself is from the Anglo-Saxon scip or the Gothic skip, both meaning boat. In the navy we draw a distinction between ship and boat, the latter being a smaller vessel, usually without decks, which is carried aboard a ship. Certain exceptions exist: submarines, out of a possible sense of friendly rivalry, are often called boats, and we refer to passenger ships as boats though probably not as a compliment.

From the ancient Greek and Roman eras until long after the Grand Armada of 1588 warships carried soldiers, accustomed to conducting sieges on land, as their offensive strength. The soldier ashore felt secure in his castle, although a castle is essentially defensive, and on going to sea to fight battles required that castles be provided in the ships of war. There were in fact two self-contained castles in each ship, one forward and one aft, known as the forecastle and the aftercastle. From these the soldiers fired the slingshot, longbow and crossbow. These castles almost disappeared with the advent of muzzle loading cannon due to the obvious factor of top-weight. The name forecastle has remained through the years, though often contracted in spelling and always abbreviated in pronunciation.

The memory of the aftercastle, later to become the quarterdeck, is recorded only in abbreviations of the parts of ship, FX and AX "X" in this instance representing castle. The more common abbreviation now for quarterdeck is QD but AX is still marked on part-ship stores belonging to the quarterdeck division because it is easier to carve into deck scrubbers or paint on buckets.

In the course of time the aftercastle became the poop; the development of this work, like many things to follow in this text, is conjectural. The Romans and other ancient seafarers carried with them their gods or idols. These were worshipped in the open rather than between decks, and the forecastle, like the 'sharp end' of any ship at sea, was liable to dampen idols and worshippers alike. The best place would seem to be high up on the aftercastle. As the Latin word for idol is puppis we derive poop-deck or poop. We use the expression "I'm pooped" meaning "I am completely exhausted"; that usage comes from the effect of a following sea breaking over the poop of the ship, in which case it was said that the ship was pooped. Apart from this expression the term survives only in the merchant service where it is used instead of quarterdeck.

A deck which runs unbroken from forward-aft is of course a whole deck; and one which goes approximately half the ship's length, like the forecastle deck of a destroyer, is a half deck. Consequently a quarterdeck was roughly a quarter of the ship's length; it was a small deck forward of and just below the poop, between poop and mainmast. When the aftercastle disappeared the quarterdeck came into its own.

The waist, a term still with us in ships where it has been replaced by the expression boatdeck, was the lowest part of the upperdeck, between the forecastle and the aftercastle, and included the quarterdeck. The word top formerly referred to a mast; the topmen, the hands who worked aloft, were the most agile of the seamen and could be considered the cream of the seaman complement.

The deck above the holds in the old ships, what would now be called the platform deck, was known as the orlop deck, a contraction of 'overlap', a word of Dutch origin meaning 'that which runs over the hold'. In H.M.S. Victory this deck is painted red; the wounded were taken there to be tended by the ship's surgeon. On this first deck below the waterline they were safer and their blood was not so noticeable against the red paint of the deck. This term orlop is still in use in merchant ships.

During the 18th century there was little difference between warships and merchantmen. Ships were usually built for merchant service and were easily converted and armed when required. Most were armed in any case for defence against pirates. The practice of converting merchant ships into armed merchant cruisers was continued to the end of World War II.

Before the invention of the rudder a ship was steered with a long oar or sweep fitted over the stern on the right or steer board side of the ship. The Norse were the first to use a single oar; Greek and Roman ships had two steering oars, often connected and controlled by a tiller. It is not known why the Vikings had chosen the starboard side; their choice, however, became universal. In the course of time the term steerboard changed to starboard; it has no connection at all with stars.

It was found awkward to put a ship alongside a jetty on the side this oar was shipped. By preference ships were put alongside starboard side outboard. A plank was put across from shore to ship and over it stores were embarked. This plank or board was called the ladeboard or loadboard, later larboard. There was doubtless much confusion over the use of the terms larboard and starboard but after 1580 there was a way out. The French with their high ships' sides devised a shortcut to handling cargo: they cut a loading door or ports in the ship's side. To mariners this became the port side.

Another version of the origin of starboard and larboard is by derivation from the Italian (aque) sta borda - this side, and (aquel) la borda - that side, equivalent to the expression found in the highway code of the United Kingdom near side and off side.

From early times, to avoid collisions, ships underway or at anchor by night carried at least a single lantern showing a white light. There seems to have been no fixed rule about the use of lights until 1824 when two white lights were required to be shown in ships navigating the canals of the Netherlands and Belgium. In 1845 coloured lights were authorized for this purpose.

In that same year H.M.S. COMET carried out experiments at Spithead with red, green and white lights, and 1847 Admiralty regulations called for all British steamships to be fitted in the approved manner. No such requirement existed for sailing vessels. After 1850 all steamships in the busy fairways of the open seas were required to show coloured lights by night. The colours red and green had been selected as the least likely to be confused.

The French in 1863 instituted a practice of making the lights visible on the beam as well as ahead. This led to the international agreement on the use of side lights, visible through definite arcs. About the same time sailing vessels were first required to show red and green side lights.

Trinity House, the British pilotage authority, had ruled in 1840 that two steamships steaming towards each other by night, to avoid collision were to alter course to starboard, thereby keeping the other ship on the port hand. The red light, indicating danger, was assigned to the side to be steered away from.

A series of conferences of the principal maritime nations has produced the international regulations for Preventing Collision at Sea, in which are embodied directions regarding lights, steering and sailing rules. In the most recent revision (1953) these are greatly clarified, and are made applicable to aircraft taxi-ing or alighting on water in ocean areas. Further revisions, drafted at the 1960 Safety of Life at Sea Conference, will soon be brought into effect.

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