The following info was sent to me by a Stores Chief - I don't know personally if it is right or wrong ...ed

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BOARD--the side of a vessel -; fm. the Old French bort, meaning ';edge, ship's side'. From this reference word we get on board, out board, in board and boarding etc…

STARBOARD ;--the right side of a vessel – slurring of "steering-board". Prior to the invention of the modern rudder, an oar was hung over the right hand side of the ship in order to steer. Indeed, the word rudder is a corruption of the old English word rother, which simply means ‘oar or paddle’.

LARBOARDthe left side of a vessel – slurring of "larder-board". Due to the need to keep the vessel’s steering oar clear for manoeuvring, the left hand side of the ship was put alongside the dock/wharf in order to load/off-load cargo or ‘larder’ the ship – fm. the Latin word lardarium meaning ‘a room for storing food’.

PORT the left side of a vessel – corruption of the French word portage, meaning ‘to carry’, which you certainly had to do with all of the ship’s cargo. Same reason as for larboard. Interestingly, all commercial harbours are historically called ‘ports’ because they’re places that sailors knew that they’d have to carry something.

STERN the rearmost (blunt) end of a vessel – fm. the Norse word stjórn meaning ‘steering’. (Ref: STARBOARD)

BOW the front (pointy) end of a vessel – fm. the German boog, meaning ‘shoulder’ or a ‘main branch of a tree’. A very stout piece of timber was required to form the front of a vessel, due to the pounding it took from the ocean, (more so if a ram was affixed there). The best part of a tree for this job was then a main branch, or stem, for it’s strength and flexibility. This led to the expression "from stem to stern".

HISTORIC NOTE - : Vast forests were planted to produce the desired woods required for shipbuilding – and the desired shapes (for certain key pieces) were cultivated like giant bonsai trees.


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DECK a floor of a ship. Originally, a canvas covering on a ship. Later, a solid surface serving as a roof and floor. – fm. the Dutch word dec, meaning ‘covering, roof’ or dekken meaning ‘to cover’.

HEAD the top of a ship’s mast or rib. In the case of a rib, it would be a headpiece (or brace) used to support something above it for strength.

DECKHEAD today it refers to the bottom of the deck above you (the ceiling), however it actually refers to the rib braces supporting the entire deck (floor) above you. We refer to the ship’s ribs as frames today.

BULKHEAD a barrier (wall) between separate compartments inside a ship. Originally, it was a method of packing and securing loose cargo (something in bulk). Today it refers to all internal and superstructure walls. A perfect example of ‘bulk-head’ packing is a warship’s ammunition magazine and how the individual shells are stored.

HULL the main body of a ship, including the sides, bottom and deck but not the superstructure or fittings. – fm. the Old English word hulu, meaning ‘seed shell or fruit rind’.

HISTORIC NOTE:   In ancient times (pre-cannon), naval battles were little more than land battles fought on the water. Ships would draw alongside each other and the soldiers would board (and fight) like the infantry that they were or they’d ram each other. There was no ‘standing’ Navy per se, but ‘temporarily converted’ merchant ships, which had been pressed into service. Indeed, the very word navy comes from the Latin navis, which simply means ‘ship’. Eventually, advances in ship design and weaponry meant that you didn’t have the luxury of time to convert your merchant fleet into warships, a permanent class of warship was required.

FO"C"SLE slurring of the word forecastle – the forward or bow weather deck. In ancient times, merchant ships were pressed into service as warships and would require a fighting conversion. This included the actual building of an archery tower (a castle) on both the forward and after parts of the ship. Most were constructed of light wood, for stability purposes, however there are some historical cases of stone being employed. A quick way of writing fo’c’sle is FX.

AFTERCASTLE an archaic reference to the after weather deck. Today this part of the ship is called the Quarterdeck, however it is still written as AX (which can be confusing, but this is the reason for it).

QUATERDECK the after weather deck. Literally a deck which ran 1/4th of the ships’ length from the stern. Traditionally, the position of command where the vessels’ master/captain would control the ship. He could best judge the wind and sea direction from there, adjusting his sails and course accordingly.

Respect is always payed (salute or come briefly to attention/doff cap) to the quarterdeck when boarding or leaving a ship as an acknowledgment of the Captain’s authority (the Crown), however it has a more ancient history.

Sailors are a superstitious lot, and the ocean is a dangerous place, so they would erect a shrine to whichever god they hoped would protect them. Of course, the most comfortable place on a sailing ship is at the stern, so that’s where they placed the shrine and would pay homage to it whenever they entered or left the ship. Interestingly, the vessel’s Master would also act as their god’s priest (mess with the Captain and you mess with god!) and this tradition has carried on to today. In particular, the performance of marriage or burial at sea.

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BRIDGE the command position of a modern, powered ship and a term that we have the stoker trade to thank for. The first application of steam powered vessels involved covered paddle-wheels amidships (port & starboard). The new maritime trade of engineer (slang word of stoker is due to the shovelling of coal into the furnace of the steam engine) had to do maintenance on these wheels and built a bridge between them for ease of access. The Captain, on his quarterdeck, saw that he could control this new powered vessel of his better from this bridge and transferred his command position there. When it was later proven that screw propellers are superior to paddle wheels (and that they’d solved the question of piercing the hull with a propeller shaft without sinking the ship) the paddle wheels were gone but the bridge remained.

HEADS the lavatory. Always pronounced in the plural. In the days of sail, the wind would ideally come from astern or the quarters (45 degrees from astern). Therefore it was prudent to go to the head of the ship (bow) to do your business (remembering the saying "don’t piss into the wind"). You had a choice of which side of the bow to use and this is why it’s referred to in the plural. (only the USN uses the singular ‘head’)

DIRECTIONS – are referenced to being onboard a ship;

Forward or fore – ahead, or towards the bow/front

After or aft – behind, or towards the stern/back

Up top – going/being up (referenced to ascending a mast)

Going below – going/being down (referenced to descending under the deck)

DOORS & HATCHES doors always go through the vertical plane (bulkheads, superstructure or hull) whereas hatches always go between decks (the horizontal plane). ‘Hatch’ is derived from an old German word meaning the lower half of a door and, when you look at it, a hatch is roughly half the size of a door.

BILGE the lowest part of a vessel formed where the hull curves in to where it meets at the keel. It’s actually a distortion of the word bulge.

KEEL a lengthwise structure along the base of a ship to which the ribs (frames), bow-piece and stern-piece are attached. It’s from the Old Norse word kjolr meaning ‘spine’. When a ship is being built, a ceremony is performed called the laying of the keel where a coin is placed on the area that the first piece of the keel will rest. Generally it’s for luck, but originally it was an offering to the sea gods. The weight of the ship would press the coin into the wood and, after it was launched, it eventually would be worked loose to be deposited somewhere on the ocean floor.

Now that we have our basic ship, let’s christen her…

CHRISTENNING WITH A BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE goes back a long way. At first the ancients would actually sacrifice a human, smearing their blood on the bow, in the hope that the spirit of the victim would inhabit the ship and keep it safe (some cultures still paint eyes on the bow of their vessels, so that the spirit can see).

When this form of public entertainment fell out of favour (or nobody wanted to hang out near the local shipyard any more) they shifted to red wine. All was fine and dandy until the Catholic Church complained that red wine was associated with the Holy Sacraments. So they shifted to white wine… the best being champagne.

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