Nautical References

In order best to understand the action of Billy Budd, it helps to understand some of the specifics of the seventy-four gun man-of-war that is H.M.S. Indomitable. To that end, this page provides a basic introduction to some of the nautical terminology.
At the beginning of several sections, additional notes try to contextualize the information and make clearer the relationships of the following terms to the novel. Also, when possible, terms that share the same base and vary only in application — foretop, foretopsail, foretopmen, etc. — are grouped together.

If you come to this page from the text of the novel, you may click the “Back” button on your browser or click on the chapter number at the end of the entry. If you are interested in looking at the various groups of terms, you may scroll up and down this page clicking on the chapter number to see the word used in context.


As in many novels where the action takes place at sea, Billy Budd is filled with references to direction that can seem quite foreign to many readers. Below is a basic diagram as well as several of the most common directional references used in the novel.

Bow, Stern: The bow is the forward end of the ship, beginning on both sides where the planks arch inwards and ending where they close at the prow. The stern, on the other hand, is the rear end of the vessel. [19] [28]
Fore, Aft: The fore is the part of the ship that lies near the bow or in that direction. Anything that is aft falls near the stern of the ship.[26]
Lee, Leeward : The lee side is that side of the ship sheltered from the wind; or, more generally, any object that is away from the wind. The term is also used to indicate that an object that is on that side of the ship.[6] [15] [19] [22]
Starboard: The right-hand side of the vessel when facing the bow (see above). Traditionally, it is the side of the ship reserved for the Captain, who took his exercise on the starboard side of the poop deck or quarterdeck.[19] [25] [28]
Weather side: Like lee, the term weather refers to a side of the ship in reference to wind. The weather side is the side toward the wind, or windward.[6] [19] [22]
The Royal Navy circa 1797

Throughout Billy Budd, much is made of the type of ships involved in any given action. Below are several specific descriptions of the vessels to which Melville refers.

Brig: A Brig is a two-masted vessel, square-rigged — i.e. a vessel with yards and sails set across the masts as opposed to a fore-and-aft rigged craft — on both masts. [22]
Frigate: A fast, three masted fully rigged ship of the fifth or sixth rate (i.e. carrying anywhere from 20 to 48 guns). At the time of this narrative, frigates served primarily “scouts” for the main body of the fleet.[Dedication] [3] [19]
Ironclads: Generally, the term applies to all ships clad with iron for defense. At the time of the narrative, however, there had been no large-scale development for protecting ships in this way. It is the gradual improvement of artillery during the 18th century that laid the foundation for the emergence of the ironclad in the 19th century.[4]
Line-of-Battle-Ships:Broadly, any rated ship of sufficient size to take part in the battle line during a major fleet action.[19] [29]
Rate: Rate applies to the classification of ships according to size and armament. There were six rates at the time of the narrative: 1st (100+ guns), 2nd (90-98 guns), 3rd (64-80 guns), 4th (50-60 guns), 5th (32-48 guns), and 6th (20-32 guns). Ships of the first three rates were considered powerful enough to fight in a line of battle in a major fleet action.[19]
Man-of-War: Any armed ship of a national navy usually carrying between 20 and 120 guns.[1] [8]
“Seventy-four”: A third rate man-of-war carrying seventy-four guns. The seventy-four, the type of ship that made up the bulk of the royal fleet at the time of the narrative, was noted for the balance of firepower and maneuverability.[3] [6] [11] [25] [26]
Squadron: In the most general sense, a squadron is any detachment of warships on some special duty. In the British Navy, it was one of three divisions — the red, blue, or white — of the fleet forming one body under the command of a flag-officer.[21]
Steamer: As opposed to a Steamboat, a light-draft vessel used in inland waters, a Steamship is a fully-armed sea-going ship powered by steam as opposed to sail.[22]
Three-deckers: More than simply a ship with three decks, it is a ship fitted for carrying guns on three decks. The Indomitable is a seventy-four gun two decker ship; larger ships such as Nelson’s first-rater H.M.S. Victory were three deckers.[3]
Hierarchy at Sea

Commissioned Officers: At the top of the naval military hierarchy, the commissioned officers are those who hold, in writing, a warrant or letters patent issued by the state that grant authority to hold office and exercise duties.[8] [26] [30]
Admiral: The highest naval officer of flag-rank who commands one of the principal divisions of the fleet. Depending on which division he commands (van or fore, middle, or rear), the admiralty is divided into positions of Admiral, Vice-Admiral, and Rear-Admiral.[21]
Captain: In the navy, the Captain holds the commissioned rank next below rear-admiral. By extension, the term is applied to a commander of any naval vessel, regardless of commissioned rank.[1]
First Officer or First Mate: The commissioned officer next in rank to the master of the ship.[28]
First Lieutenant, Lieutenants: The most junior of the traditional officers’ naval ranks. Though the terminology had shifted a bit by Melville’s time, at the time of the narrative, the first lieutenant was an executive officer of the marines charged with stationing officers and crew for the necessary handling of the sails, at the guns, and in the messes. The Lieutenants hold rank equal to that of Captain in the army and are charged primarily with duty as watch-officers, i.e. serving as the representative of the commanding officer while on duty.[1] [8] [21] [22] [23] [28]
Chaplain: Though he could also be appointed as an inferior officer, the Chaplain was often a commissioned officer of rank. Regardless of rank, the Chaplain’s duties included those that his corollary on land would serve: preaching, ministering to the sick, and counseling the condemned.[25] [26]
Wardroom or Warrant Officers: One of a varied group of officers below the commissioned officers. They served as heads of specialized technical branches of the ships’ company.[24]
Purser: Appointed by admiralty warrant but having no professional examination, the purser was responsible for keeping the ship’s accounts and for issuing provisions and clothing. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the purser was considered a wardroom officer.[27]
Sailing Master : The officer charged with navigation of the ship.[22]
Surgeon: A member of the medical detachment aboard a ship. Generally, he was prevented from involvement in conflicts, instead serving within the hold to help treat those injured.[20] [21] [27]
Midshipman: Non-commissioned sea-officers who were considered prospective commissioned officers. One in such a position would, after two years of service, take an examination to be commissioned as a lieutenant.[19] [22]
Rate: For titles of station aboard a ship, all non-commissioned officers were marked in the ship’s muster-book according to skills and duties. The chief grades in the Royal Navy were seaman (subdivided into ordinary and able), petty officers, and landsmen. The term also applies to the classification of ships according to size and armament.
Petty Officers : Simply a naval officer corresponding in rank to a non-commissioned officer in the army. He holds position at the discretion and pleasure of the appointing authority, generally the commanding officer.[8] [19] [22] [30]
Boatswain: Usually one of the best sailors, the boatswain (pronounced ‘bosun’) was responsible for inspecting the ship’s sails and rigging every morning. He was also in charge of all deck activities, such as dropping anchor and handling the sails. He issued orders piping on a silver boatswain’s whistle.[24] [25] [28]
Apothecary: Appointed by the surgeon of the cruise, he is the chief assistant to the medical officer.[18]
Armorer: The petty officer in charge of keeping the small-arms in condition for service.[18]
Captain of the Hold: In this sense, Captain refers to a specific leading man of the ship’s company charged with maintaining order in the portion of the ship below the lower deck.[18]
Corporal: In this case the Ship’s Corporal who assists the Master-at-Arms with his duties.[11]
Coxswain: The person who has charge of the boat and crew in the absence of officers. On a man-of-war, the Captain’s coxswain ranked high among the petty officers and had charge of the Captain’s boat and attends him.[20]
Master-at-Arms, “Jimmy Legs”: The chief petty officer aboard a man-of-war, the master-at-arms (as Melville notes) attends to the police duties of the ship. The title derives from his traditional duty of instructing the crew in the use of small arms. “Jimmy Legs” is a humorous nickname for the Master-at-Arms.[8] [9] [14] [17] [19] [20] [22] [24] [30]
Ship’s Yeoman: An appointed officer who has charge of stores and keeps accounts in his special department.[18]
Marines, Marine Guard: As distinguished from sailors, the marines where specialized soldiers who served aboard a man-of-war. During the time of the narrative, a large ship of line like the seventy-four often consisted of more than twenty percent marines who served in gun crews, with boarding parties, and as sharpshooters or sentries.[20] [20] [26] [29]
Captain of the Marines: Though under the broad control of the naval admiralty, the Captain of the Marines, the ranking marine aboard a man-of-war, was responsible for command over the marines while under sail.[20] [21] [22]
Sailors, Blue-jackets: As opposed to marines, the terms used in reference to all experienced, skilled seaman. The term ‘bluejacket’ derived from the color of their uniform.[2] [3] [11] [16] [19] [24] [31]
Helmsman: the sailor charged with piloting the ship.[28]
Landsmen: As opposed to skilled seaman, the landsmen were those with no naval training who performed basic tasks on ship such as hauling and hoisting.[15]
Afterguard, Afterguardsmen: The afterguardsmen, usually drawn from the landsmen who are not required to go aloft except to loose and furl the mainsail, are those stationed on the quarter-deck and poop to man the gear.[9] [15] [16] [18] [22]

Boom: A long spar run out to extend the foot of a particular sail. [15] [26]
Deadeyes: The flat, round wooden block with a grooved perimeter and three holes through which the lanyard is threaded and used to extend the shrouds; also the triangular blocks with one large hole that are similarly used to extend the stays.[15]
Chains, Forechains: The name used collectively to refer to the hardware that secures the lower shrouds of the mast outside the ship’s side. Usually, the mast which is secured is specified (i.e. forechains or mainchains).[15] [19] [22]
Lower Sails, Upper Sails: The larger, lower sails provide the power for vessels. The smaller, upper or topsails are set above the course and are usually divided into two sails so that they may be set and taken in independently.[19]
Mainsails: The principal sail on a vessel. On a man-of-war, the mainsail is the lowest and largest sail on the mainmast.[15]
Stunsails: The stun- or studdingsails are extra sails set outside the square sails of a ship during a fair wind.[9]
to Reef, to Furl: These are the verbs which describe the management of the sails. To reef is to reduce the amount of exposed sail by rolling up a part and securing it with the reef points. To furl a sail is to roll up and bind a sail neatly upon the yard or boom.[15]
Masts and Rigging

Stays: The stay is a large rope that supports the mast either fore (forestays) or aft (backstays). The stays are named according to the mast they support.[15]
Foremast: The forward lower mast nearest the bow.[15] [19] [26]
Halyards: One of various ropes or tackles used for raising and lowering a sail, yard, spar, or flag.[2] [27] [31]
Mainmast, Mainmastmen: The central mast in a three-masted ship. The mainmastmen are those whose duties involve working with that mast.[9] [15] [19] [26]
Mizzenmast: On a three-masted ship, the rear mast most aft near the stern.
Masthead: The masthead is the highest reach of the mast where the flag is flown. More specifically, the term refers to the head of the lower mast used for observation or a place of confinement as punishment.[3]
Spar: A spar is the general term for all the poles in a vessels rigging and includes masts, yards, and booms.[31]
Tops, Topmen : The top is, appropriately, the top of the mast and the small platform there. The various tops are named for the mast on which they sit (foretop, maintop, etc.). Those who are stationed for duty in the tops are topmen. [Dedication] [9] [24]
Foretop, Foretopmen: The top of the foremast. Generally, the foretopmen were young er, stronger seamen.[2] [9] [17] [18] [20] [22] [31]
Mizzentop, Mizzentopmen: The aft-most top. The mizzentopmen were usually older, more experiences sailors a bit past their prime and less fit for service in the fore or main top.[19]
Shrouds: A range of large ropes extending from the mastheads to the sides of the ship to provide lateral support to the masts thereby enabling them to carry the sails. Parallel bands of ratlines between the shrouds functioned as ladders for the topmen to climb up and down the mastheads.[15]
Yards, Yardarm: A yard is the long, narrow wooden spar slung at its center form the mast and serving to support and extend a square sail that is bent into it. The yardarm is either of the ends of the yard. It is from these that men were hanged. (as with most things on a ship, the yards are identified by the position and mast). [9] [19] [22][26] [31]

Berth-deck: Broadly, a sleeping place in the ship; particularly, that deck that contains the sailors’ hammocks.[25]
Bridge: The bridge is the platform extending across the deck above the rail for the convenience of the officer in charge of the ship. [22]
Bulwarks: The planking or woodwork above a deck.[15] [16]
Cockpit: The aft section of the lowest deck in a man-of-war, the cockpit was usually reserved for the quarters of the midshipmen and others, but was also used for the care of the wounded during engagements. There is also a fore cockpit usually reserved from he boatswain and carpenter.[29]
Deckstation: The place for anyone stationed on a given deck.[15]
Forecastle, Forecastlemen : The short raised deck at the fore of the ship originally used by archers. In a man-of-war, it is the upper part of the deck forward of the foremast. The term forecastlemen refers to any member of the crew whose quarters were beneath that deck.[8] [15]
Gangway: On deep waisted ships like the seventy-four, a narrow platform extending from the quarter-deck to the forecastle.[9]
Gun Decks: Upper and Lower: The gun decks extend below the spar-deck where the guns are carried.[8] [9] [19] [24] [25] [28] [31]
Hatchways: Hatchways are the openings in a ship’s deck through which cargo can be moved to the hold. More generally, it is the term for any passageway from one deck to another.[26]
Open Deck : Another term applied to the central part of the main or spar-deck between the foremast and the mainmast.[28]
Poop-deck: A partial deck which is the portion of the spar-deck extending from the mizzenmast aft.[21]
Quarter-deck, Quarter-deck Cabin: The part of the spar-deck from the mainmast aft. It is generally reserved for commanding officers and the officer of the deck.[19] [20] [22] [23] [26] [28]
Spar-deck: At one time, it was any temporary deck. It came to be the common term for the entire upper deck above the main deck.[26]
Waist: The middle part of the upper deck extending between quarter-deck and the forecastle.[19]
Other Useful Terms

Batteries: Any place where the guns and mortar are mounted. The term is also used to designate collectively a body of cannon. [25]

Battle Lanterns: The lantern supplied to each gun to light up the decks during an engagement at night.[25]

to Becalm : To render quiet or calm by intercepting the current of air in its passage to an object (e.g. the jib is becalmed by the foresail before the wind).[16]

Breeching: The large rope rove through the cascabel (at the base) of a gun and secured to the ship’s side to limit recoil when firing.[25]

Cabin: The apartment occupied by the commanding officer and other line officers. the cabin is often divided into compartments by light bulkheads to form two or More staterooms. Vere’s cabin is divided thus.[20]

Capstan: The cylindrical wheel and axle mechanism powered by the crew hands and used to wind up a cable around the barrel. Its primary function is to weigh the anchor.[2]

Carronade: First used aboard British ships in 1779, the carronade was a short barreled, lightweight gun designed to fire heavy shot over a short distance. [22]

Class: see Grade [25]

Cordage: The generic term for any rope on a ship, but especially denoting the ropes of the rigging.[19]

Dockyard: Dockyards are the arsenals on land containing naval stores and timbers for ship-building. [31]

Watch, Dog-watch: The watch is the period of time that each division of the ship’s company alternately remains on deck. A watch lasts for four hours, with the exception of the dog-watch which lasts two and serves to prevent the watch from being kept by the same men every day. The various watches are: First (2000 to midnight); Middle or Graveyard (midnight to 0400); Morning (0400 to 0800); Forenoon (0800 to 1200); Afternoon (1200 to 1600); First Dog (1600 to 1800); and Second Dog (1800-2000).[16] [18] [19]

Drum: Like the pipe, the drum is sometimes used to give orders aboard a ship.[28]

Drumhead, Drumhead Court: The Drumhead itself is the circular top of the capstan where the bars are fitted to aid in turning. The Drumhead Court, a summary court martial held while the ship is still at sea and presided over by the ranking officer, takes its name from the occasional necessity of the drumhead doing service as a writing table. Usually, only the senior naval officers — as opposed to marine officers — make up the court which has full power to convict and sentence while at sea. [20] [21] [22] [28] [29]

Duck Trousers: The duck trousers get their name from the material from which they are made, a linen or cotton fabric that is finer and lighter than canvas. While occasionally used for men’s clothing, generally, the fabric is used for the lighter sails of vessels and the sacking of beds. [25]

Grades: Although in some ways synonymous with rank, there is a fine distinction between ranks and grade when used by members of the military or navy. In this usage, the former term distinguishes the relative authority between individuals of the same grade. That is to say, while there may be many of the same grade, there can only be one of a certain rank.[5]

Hands: The metonym term for members of the ships crew.[28]

Hull: The hull is the frame or body of the ship excluding the masts and superstructure.[26]

Lanyards: The generic term for any short piece of rope used to fasten something, make it secure, or serve as a handle.[15]

Launch: Of the several boats carried aboard a man-of-war, the launch is the largest and heaviest. Usually, it is fitted for both sails (2) and oars and stretches to nearly 30 feet.[15]

Lintstocks/Linstocks: The short staffs for holding a matchrope by which the larger guns are fired.[25]

Marlinspike: The marlinspike is a pointed tool used to part the strands of a rope so as to splice it.[15]

Mess, Messmates : Each mess designates the specific divisions of a company of officers or crew who take their meals together in a given place. Those members of the same mess are termed messmates.[18] [31]

Muster : As a verb, to muster is to assemble the entire ship’s company for an inspection, exercise, or other communal activity. A a noun, the muster is a list of the members of the ship’s company.[30]

Powder-boys: Also called powder-monkeys, the powder-boys were those responsible for passing cartridges to the guns.[26]

Rammers: A rammer is the long staff with a cylindrical head used in loading to press home the charge of a gun.[25]

Shotbox: The shotbox is where ammunition for the guns is stored.[9]

Side-tackles: As a means of securing the gun, the side-tackle is connected to either side of a gun-carriage as well as to the ship’s side.[25]

Stateroom: A stateroom is the small room in the cabin or wardroom of a man-of-war for use by an individual, usually one of higher rank.. [20] [23]

Tar-bucket: The tar bucket is the place aboard the ship for storage of the tar used to protect rope from the weather and from dampness penetrating among the fibers.[2]

Tars: Tar is the slang term for an experienced sailor.[26]

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Author: The sarejessian


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