Nautical glossary A



Main sources were Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary, Bowditch, and Falconer.


W: Backward against the mast; said of the sails when pressed by the wind from the "wrong" (forward) side.

F: the situation of the sails when their surfaces are slatted against the masts by the force of the wind. The sails are said to be taken aback, when they are brought into this situation, either by a sudden change of the wind, or by an alteration in the ship's course. They are laid aback, to effect an immediate retreat, without turning to the right or left; or, in the sea phrase, to give the ship sternway, in order to avoid some danger discovered before her in a narrow channel; or when she has advanced beyond her station in the line of battle, or otherwise. The sails are placed in this position by slackening their lee braces, and hauling in the weather ones; so that the whole effort of the wind is exerted on the forepart of their surface, which readily pushes the ship astern, unless she is restrained by some counteracting force.

taken aback


W: Behind; toward the stern relative to some other object or position; aft of

F: the hinder part of a ship, or all those parts both within and without, which lie towards the stern, in opposition to afore. Abaft is also used as a preposition, and signifies further aft, or nearer the stern; as, the barricade stands abaft the mainmast, i. e. behind it, or nearer the stern.


W: On the beam; at a right angle to the centerline or keel of a vessel; being at a bearing approximately 090 Degrees or 270 Degrees relative.

able seaman, AB, Ab

WP: a seaman with at least two years' experience at sea. Seamen with less experience were referred to as landmen or ordinary seamen. Also able-bodied seaman.


W: 1. On board; into or within a ship or boat, 2. Alongside

F: the inside of a ship: hence any person who enters a ship is said to go aboard: but when an enemy enters in the time of battle, he is said to board. A phrase which always, implies hostility.

fall aboard


W: On the opposite tack

TFD: to a reversed position, or direction

F: the situation of a ship immediately after she has tacked or changed her course by going about, and standing on the other tack

heave about

put about


W: Side by side; also, opposite; over against; on a line with the vessel's beam; - with of.

TFD: alongside each other and facing in the same direction

B: The situation of two or more ships lying with their sides parallel, and their heads equally advanced; in which case they are abreast of each other.


W: A cone-shaped piece of wood on the point of the spindle above the vane, on the masthead.

F: a little ornamental piece of wood, fashioned like a cone, and fixed on the uppermost point of the spindle, above the vane, on the masthead. It is used to keep the vane from being blown off from the spindle in a whirlwind, or when the ship leans much to one side under sail.


F: an officer of the first rank and command in the fleet, and who is distinguished by a flag displayed at his main topmast head. Also an officer who superintends the naval forces of a nation, and who is authorised to determine in all maritime causes.

Lord High Admiral


TFD: The department of the British government that once had control over all naval affairs.

F: the office of Lord High Admiral, whether discharged by one single person, or by joint commissioners, called Lords of the Admiralty (this important and high office has seldom been entrusted to any single person, except princes of the blood; or to some nobleman meriting such distinction for his eminent services. In general the crown appoints five or seven commissioners, under the title of Lords Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of Great Britain, &c. All maritime affairs are entrusted to their jurisdiction. They govern and direct the whole royal navy, with power decisive in all marine cases, civil, military, and criminal, transacted upon or beyond sea, in harbors, on coasts, and upon all rivers below the first bridge seaward.

Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty


TFD: Drifting or floating freely; not anchored.

B: The state of a ship broken from her moorings, and drifting about without control.


F: floating on the surface of the water; a ship is said to be afloat when there is a volume of water under her bottom of sufficient depth to buoy her up from the ground.


W: 1. Before, 2. In the fore part of a ship.

B: All that part of a ship which lies forward or near the stem. It also signifies further forward.


W: At, near, or towards the stern of a vessel (with the frame of reference within the vessel).

F: behind, or near the stern of the ship; being opposed to fore; as, run out the guns fore and aft! i. e. from one end of the ship to the other.


W: (where the frame of reference is within the ship) At or towards the stern of a ship

TFD: further aft; sternwards

B: A phrase applied to any object in the hinder part of the ship, as the after hatchway, the after sails, &c.

after the fair

TFD: Too late.


TFD: The sails on the mizenmast, or on the stays between the mainmast and mizenmast.

F: The aftersails usually comprehend all those which are extended on the mizenmast, and on the stays between the mizen and mainmast. They are opposed to the headsails, which include all those that are spread on the foremast and bowsprit; and both, by their mutual operation on the opposite ends of the ship, duly balance her when under sail,


TFD: on or onto the ground or bottom, as in shallow water

B: The situation of a ship when her bottom or any part of it rests on the ground.


B: Any thing which is situated on that point of the compass to which a ship's stem is directed, is said to be ahead of her.

F: further onward than the ship, or at any distance before her, lying immediately on that point of the compass to which her stem is directed. It is used in opposition to astern, which expresses the situation of any object behind the ship.


TFD: With the sails furled, and the helm lashed alee; - applied to ships in a storm.

F: the situation of a ship when all her sails are furled on account of the violence of the storm, and, when having lashed her helm on the lee-side, she lies nearly with her side to the wind and sea, her head being somewhat inclined to the direction of the wind.


A species of tuna, often encountered in tropical seas.


W: On the lee side of a ship; to leeward.

F: the situation of the helm when it is pushed down to the lee side of the ship, in order to put the Ship about, or to lay her head to the windward.

all hands

The entire crew of a ship.

all in the wind

E: an expression used to describe the situation when a sailing vessel, in the process of tacking, is head to wind and all her sails are shivering.

F: the state of a ship's sails when they are parallel to the direction of the wind, so as to shake and shiver, by turning the Ship's head to windward, either by design, or neglect of the helmsman.

all standing

To stop suddenly.


W: in the top, at the masthead, or on the higher yards or rigging.

F: up in the tops, at the mastheads, or any where about the higher yards or rigging.


F: side by side, or joined to a ship, wharf, &c. and lying parallel thereto.


B: is distance. Keep aloof, that is, keep at a distance.

F: this has frequently been mentioned as a sea term, but whether justly or not we shall not presume to determine; it is known in common discourse to imply at a distance; and the resemblance of the phrases, keep aloof, and keep a luff, or keep the luff, in all probability gave rise to this conjecture. If it was really a sea phrase originally, it seems to have referred to the dangers of a lee shore, in which situation the pilot might naturally apply it in the sense commonly understood, viz. keep all off, or quite off; it is, however, never expressed in that manner by seamen now.


a hard close wood of a reddish color


TFD: with great strength, speed, or haste

B: The old term for yield, used by a man of war to an enemy; but it now signifies any thing done suddenly, or at once, by a number of men.

F: 1. at once, suddenly; as, let go amain! i. e. let it run at once. This phrase is generally applied to any thing that is hoisted or lowered by a tackle, or complication of pullies. 2. yield, from a ship of war to an enemy. 3. lower your topsails.


W: In the middle of a ship, either longitudinally or laterally.

B: The middle of a ship, either with regard to her length or breadth.

an end

TFD: On end; upright; erect; endways.

F: the situation of any mast or boom, when erected perpendicularly on the plane of the deck, tops, &c. The topmasts are also said to be an end when they are hoisted up to their usual station, at the head of the lower masts.


W: 1. A tool used to moor a vessel to the bottom of a sea or river to resist movement.

TFD: A heavy object attached to a vessel by a cable or rope and cast overboard to keep the vessel in place either by its weight or by its flukes, which grip the bottom.

F: a heavy, strong, crooked instrument of iron, dropped from a ship into the bottom of the water, to retain her in a convenient station in a harbor, road, or river.

The most ancient anchors are laid to have been of stone, and sometimes of wood, to which a great quantity of lead was usually fixed. In some places baskets full of stones, and sacks filled with sand, were employed for the same use. All these were let down by cords into the sea, and by their weight stayed the course of the ship. Afterwards they were composed of iron, and furnished with teeth, which, being fastened to the bottom of the sea, preserved the vessel immoveable.

The anchors now made are contrived so as to sink into the ground as soon as they reach it, and to hold a great strain before they can be loosened or dislodged from their station. They are composed of a shank, a stock, a ring, and two arms with their flukes. The stock, which is a long piece of timber fixed across the thank, serves to guide the flukes in a direction perpendicular to the surface of the ground; so that one of them sinks into it by its own weight as soon as it falls, and is still preserved steadily in that position by the stock, which, together with the shank, lies flat on the bottom. In this situation it must necessarily sustain a great effort before it can be dragged through the earth horizontally. Indeed this can only be effected by the violence of the wind or tide, or of both of them, sometimes increased by the turbulence of the sea, and acting upon the ship so as to stretch the cable to it's utmost tension, which accordingly may dislodge the anchor from its bed, especially if the ground be soft and oozy or rocky. When the anchor is thus displaced, it is said, in the sea phrase, to come home.

Every ship has, or ought to have, three principal anchors, with a cable to each, viz. the sheet, the best bower, and small bower, so called from their usual situation on the ship's bows. There are besides smaller anchors, for removing a ship from place to place in a harbour or river, where there may not be room or wind for sailing; these are the stream anchor, the kedge and grappling, or grapnel, this last, however, is chiefly designed for boats.

cat the anchor

drag the anchor

fish the anchor

anchor ground

F: is a bottom which is neither too deep, too shallow, nor rocky; as in the first the cable bears too nearly perpendicular, and is thereby apt to jerk the anchor out of the ground: in the second, the ship's bottom is apt to strike at low water, or when the sea runs high, by which she is exposed to the danger of sinking; and in the third, the anchor is liable to hook the broken and pointed ends of rocks, and tear away it's flukes; whilst the cable, from the same cause, is constantly in danger of being cut through as it rubs on their edges.


TFD: A liquid measure in various countries of Europe. The Dutch anker, formerly also used in England, contained about 10 of the old wine gallons, or 8½ imperial gallons.


TFD: In a vertical or almost vertical position or direction

B: Perpendicular to the anchor; the cable having been drawn so tight as to bring the ship directly over it. The anchor is then said to be apeak. heave apeak


GB: The armourer was yet another artificer appointed by Navy Board Warrant to all rated ships, and under the command of the gunner. He was the leading metal-worker of the ship, and often worked with the iron of the hull and rigging, as well as the armament. He was particularly concerned with the maintenance of the muskets of the crew and the marines. He was supplied with an elaborate set of tools, including a portable forge which could be set up on shore when the opportunity arose. He was paid at the same rate as the master at arms. He had two mates on third rates and above, and one on smaller vessels, including sloops which had no armourer as such.


TFD: A strong alcoholic drink of the Middle East and the Far East, usually distilled from fermented palm sap, rice, or molasses.


chiefs, those of chiefly status (Tahiti)


B: On the shore, as opposed to aboard. It also means aground.


TFD: 1. behind a vessel, 2. at or to the stern of a vessel, 3. with or having the stern foremost, backward.

B: Any distance behind a ship as opposed to ahead.


An ancient instrument used to observe and calculate the position of celestial bodies, once used in navigation.


W: Across the line of a ship's course or across its deck.

F: when used in navigation, implies across the line of the course; as, we discovered a fleet at daybreak standing athwart us, i. e. steering across our way.

athwart hawse

TFD: across the stem of another vessel, whether in contact or at a small distance.

B: the situation of a ship when driven by accident across the fore part of another; whether they touch, or are at a small distance from each other, the transverse position of the former being principally understood.


W: Across the vessel sideways, i.e. in a direction at right angles to the fore and aft line of the vessel.

TFD: across the ship from side to side, or in that direction; - opposed to fore and aft.

athwart the fore foot

B: when any object crosses the line of a ship's course, but ahead of her, it is said to be athwart the fore foot.


TFD: Just clear of the bottom. Used of an anchor.

B: When applied to an anchor, it means that the anchor is drawn out of the ground, and hangs in a perpendicular direction, by the cable or buoy rope. The topsails are said to be atrip, when they are hoisted up to the masthead, or to their utmost extent.


See kava


W: Hold fast!, cease; stop; desist; stay.

F: the order to stop, or pause, in any exercise.


TFD: Any of various hand tools, typically having a threaded shank and cross handle, used for boring holes in wood or ice.

F: a wimble, carpenter's tool for boring.


W: Just drawn out of the ground, and hanging perpendicularly; atrip; said of the anchor.

F: the state of the anchor when it is drawn out of the ground in a perpendicular direction, by the application of mechanical powers, as a capstan or windlass, to the cable within the ship; So that aweigh is synonimous to atrip.


F: a canopy of canvass extending over the decks of a ship in hot weather, for the convenience of the officers and crew, and to preserve the decks from being cracked or split by the heat of the sun. The awning is supported by a range of light posts, called stanchions, which are erected along the ship's side on the right and left; it is also suspended in the middle by a complication of small cords, called a crowfoot.


W: An arc of the horizon intercepted between the meridian of the place and a vertical circle passing through the center of any object

azimuth compass

TFD: a compass resembling the mariner's compass, but having the card divided into degrees instead of rhumbs, and having vertical sights; used for taking the magnetic azimuth of a heavenly body, in order to find, by comparison with the true azimuth, the variation of the needle.

F: an instrument employed to discover the magnetical azimuth or amplitude of any heavenly object. This operation is performed at sea, to find the exact variation of the magnetical needle. The compass will be described further below; it is, however, necessary here to explain the additional contrivance by which it is sited to take the magnetical azimuth, or amplitude, of the sun or stars, or the bearings of headlands, ships, and other objects at a distance.

The brass edge, originally designed to support the card, and throw the weight thereof as near the circumference as possible, is itself divided into degrees and halves; which may be easily estimated into smaller parts, if necessary. The divisions are determined by means of a catgut line stretched perpendicularly with the box, as near the brass edge as may be, that the parallax arising from a different position of the observer may be as little as possible.

There is also added an index at the top of the inner box, which may be fixed on or taken off at pleasure, and serves for all altitudes of the object. It consists of a bar, equal in length to the diameter of the inner box, each end being furnished with a perpendicular stile, with a slit parallel to the sides thereof; one of the slits is narrow, to which the eye is applied, and the other is wider, with a small catgut stretched up the middle of it, and from thence continued horizontally from the top of one stile to the top of the other. There is also a line drawn along the upper surface of the bar. These four, viz., the narrow slit, the horizontal catgut thread, the perpendicular one, and the line on the bar, are in the same plane, which disposes itself perpendicularly to the horizon when the inner-box is at rest and hangs free. This index does not move round, but is always placed on, so as to answer the same side of the box.

The sun's azimuth is known to be an angle contained between the meridian and the center of the sun. When this is required, and its rays are strong enough to cast a shadow, the box is turned about till the shadow of the horizontal thread, or, if the sun be too low, till that of the perpendicular thread, in one stile, or the slit through the other, falls upon the line in the index bar, or vibrates to an equal distance on each side of it, the box being gently touched if it vibrates too far; at the same time they observe the degree marked upon the brass edge of the catgut line. In counting the degree for the azimuth, or any other angle that is reckoned from the meridian, the outward circle of figures upon the brass edge is used; and the situation of the index, with respect to the card and needle, will always direct upon what quarter of the compass the object is placed. But if the sun does not shine out sufficiently strong, the eye is placed behind the narrow flit in one of the stiles, and the wooden box turned about till Some part of the horizontal or perpendicular thread appears to intersect the center of the sun, or vibrate to an equal distance on each side of it; smoked glass being used next the eye, if the sun's light is too strong. In this method another observer is necessary, to note the degree cut by the nonius, at the Same time the first gives notice that the thread appears to split the object.


A small pointed tool used for piercing holes, especially in leather or wood, often used in ship maintenance.

awl definition