Nautical Terms, Early Twentieth Century


Nautical Terms - FAQs - GG Archives


Commonly used nautical and maritime terms in use during the age of the transatlantic steamship circa the early to mid-1900s. It is perfect for a quick answer without too much detail.


▓▓▓ "A" ▓▓▓

ABAFT: Toward the stern; further aft than.

AFT: At, toward, or near the stern.

ALLEYWAY: Passageway.

ALTITUDE: Angular elevation of the Pole above the horizon.


▓▓▓ "B" ▓▓▓

BALLAST: Any weight or weights used to keep the ship from becoming top-heavy.

BEAM: Greatest width of a vessel.

BILGE: The flat, or nearly flat, part of a ship's bottom.

BILGE KEELS: Fin-like strips running lengthwise and projecting from the outer bilge on some ships to prevent rolling.

BILGE WATER: Foul water that collects in the bilge of a ship.

BITTS: Heavy steel castings fitted to a deck for securing mooring lines or hawsers.

BOOM: A long, round, heavy spar, pivoted at one end, generally used for hoisting cargo, etc. On sailing vessels the spar holding the bottom of a fore-and-aft sail.

BOW: The forward part of a vessel.

BRIDGE: The observation platform or partial deck built across and above a ship's deck for the use of officers in navigating the vessel.

BULKHEAD: A vertical partition running from side to side or fore-and-aft beneath the deck. A collision bulkhead is the first partition forward, near the bow.

BUNKER: A compartment used for storage of fuel.


▓▓▓ "C" ▓▓▓

CABLE: The chain to which the anchor is fastened. The term "cable's length" means about 100 fathoms or 600 feet, one- tenth of a sea mile.

CAPSTAN: A windlass for winding the cable.

CHART: A sea map used in navigation, showing depth of the sea, location of rocks, configuration of coast, etc.

CHART ROOM: Navigating room.

COAMING: The vertical boundary of a hatch or skylight.

COMPANIONWAY: A staircase at the entrance of a ship's cabin.

CROW'S NEST: A barrel or box on the ship's foremast where the lookout is stationed.


▓▓▓ "D" ▓▓▓

DAVITS: Heavy vertical pillars, used to support the ends of a boat when hoisting or lowering.

DEADLIGHT: Covering for portholes made of metal or wood and used in severe weather.

DEAD RECKONING: Method of ascertaining the approximate position of a vessel from the course steered and the distance run when heavenly bodies or land are obscured.

DOG: A small, bent metal fitting, used to close doors, hatch covers, etc.

DRAFT OR DRAUGHT: The depth to which a vessel sinks in the water: one commonly speaks of a ship's "drawing" so many feet of water, which is the equivalent of its draft.

DRIFT CURRENT: Movement of the surface of the sea.


▓▓▓ "E" ▓▓▓

EBB TIDE: The falling tide.

EQUINOX: Equal length of day and night, the vernal equinox occurring toward the end of March and the autumnal toward the end of September.


▓▓▓ "F" ▓▓▓

FATHOM: Six feet.

FLOOD TIDE: Rising tide.

FO'C'S'LE: "Forecastle"; seamen's living quarters, usually in the bow.

FORE-AND-AFT: Lengthwise with the ship.

FORWARD: Toward the bow.


▓▓▓ "G" ▓▓▓

GALLEY: The ship's kitchen.

GLORY HOLE: Steward's quarters. Usually aft, over the propellers.


▓▓▓ "H" ▓▓▓

HATCH: An opening in a dock.

HAWSE PIPES: Openings in the bow for the anchor chain.

HAWSER: A large rope or wire, commonly used for making fast to a pier or tender.

HOLD: The part of a ship below decks reserved for the storage of freight or baggage.

HOUSE FLAG: The penant usually flown on the mainmast, bearing the emblem of her owners.

HURRICANE DECK: A deck with no overhead protection.


▓▓▓ "K" ▓▓▓

KEEL: The central longitudinal beam at the extreme underside of the vessel; the foundation of the entire construction.

KNOT: A nautical mile. The British Admiralty knot is 6,080 feet; the statute knot is 6,082.66 feet, or 1.151 land miles.


▓▓▓ "L" ▓▓▓

LEAD: A mass of lead used for taking depths at sea.

LEE OR LEEWARD: The side of the vessel away from the wind.


  • An instrument towed by the vessel at the end of a long line, recording approximate distance traveled.
  • Official daily record of a voyage, including weather, wind, direction and velocity, distance traveled, etc.


▓▓▓ "M" ▓▓▓

MID-SHIP: Toward the middle or "waist" of a vessel; is equally distant from bow and stern. The term "amidships" is frequently used.

MOORING: Securing a ship in position by lines so it cannot move or swing; anchoring.


▓▓▓ "O" ▓▓▓

OVERHANG: Portion of hull at the stern, over and unsupported by the water.


▓▓▓ "P" ▓▓▓

PILOT: Usually the licensed "guide" who comes aboard ship from a near port and directs its course through the local channel to anchorage or pier, or from the pier to the outer end of the channel.

PILOT HOUSE: Sheltered position connected with the bridge from which the ship is steered.

PITCHING: See-saw motion caused by the plunging of the vessel's head into the sea and the consequent raising of the stern. Distinguished from rolling, which is a movement from side to side.

POOP: Raised deck toward the stern of the vessel.

PORT: The left side of a vessel. French, babord.

PORTHOLE: Stateroom window.


▓▓▓ "R" ▓▓▓

RUDDER: The hinged projection astern for steering, controlled by chains from under the bridge.


▓▓▓ "S" ▓▓▓


  • A full-rigged ship has usually three masts, on all of which are square sails.
  • A bark has three or four masts, all square-rigged except the after or mizzenmast, which is fore-and-aft rigged.
  • A barkentine has three masts, the foremast square-rigged, the other two fore-and-aft rigged.
  • A brig has two masts, both square-rigged.
  • A brigantine has two masts, square-rigged except for a fore-and-aft mainsail.
  • A schooner has two or more masts, with fore-and-aft sails.
  • A sloop has a single mast, fore-and-aft rigged.

SCENDING: Heaving upward; a mixing of rolling and pitching.

SCREW: The ship's propellor.

SCUPPERS: Drains from the edge of a deck, discharging overboard.

SEXTANT: An instrument for measuring angular distance, used in ascertaining the ship's position by taking the altitude of heavenly bodies.

SHAFT: Long, round, heavy forging, connecting engine and propellor.

SOUNDINGS: Means of measuring the depth of the water by dropping a lead.

SPAR: A round timber for extending a sail; a mast, a yard or a boom.

SPRING TIDE: High tide caused by the sun and moon being on Meridian together, or in opposition.

STARBOARD: The right side of a ship. French, tribord.

STEM: A nearly upright timber or metal piece constituting the forward member of a vessel's hull; the bow.

STERN: The rear end of a vessel.


▓▓▓ "T" ▓▓▓

TAFFRAIL: A rail around a vessel's stern; the upper part of a vessel's stern.

TENDER: As applied to ocean travel, a small steamer for meeting ships in ports and taking off or putting on passengers.

THWARTSHIP: Crosswise to the ship.


▓▓▓ "W" ▓▓▓

WEATHERSIDE, WINDWARD: Side of vessel toward the wind.

WINCH: A small hoisting engine.


▓▓▓ "Y" ▓▓▓

YARDS: Spars set crosswise of a mast and used to support square- sails.


Cunard Line, SS Manhattan Passenger List, 18 July 1934.


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