Nautical Trivia

Ever wonder where some of those sayings came from?

How about some of those obscure nautical terms?


Many words and phrases we use in our everyday lives have nautical roots.



Above Board - To take aboard was to take useful things above deck, ready to use. All above board referred to the fact that the boards of planking which make up the decks are in plain view to everyone.

As The Crow Flies - British coastal vessels customarily carried a cage of crows. Crows detest large expanses of water and head, as straight as a crow flies, towards the nearest land if released at sea - very useful if you were unsure of the nearest land when sailing in foggy waters before the days of radar. The lookout perch on sailing vessels thus became known as the crow's nest.

Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea - In traditional wooden ships, sailors had to caulk or pay the seams between planks with hot tar to keep their ship from leaking to the bilges. The devil seam was topmost in the hull, next to the scuppers (waterways or gutters) at the edge of the deck. It was thus the longest seam on the vessel and, not being flush as with other hull seams, the seam that was most prone to spring a leak. A sailor knocked down by a wave would find himself scuppered and lying between the devil and the deep blue sea

Canvas - (from the Greek Kannabis) was made from hemp (as is cannabis) but modern sails, although still called canvas, are made from terylene, polyester, dacron, kevlar and other man made fibres.

Chewing The Fat - Before refrigeration, food was preserved in brine within wooden casks. In time, the salt-hardened fat on the meat, became stuck to the sides of the barrel. But the cook would not waste this and could often be seen scraping the barrel whilst the crew impatiently waited and chewed the fat. The hard fat was perfect for greasing masts and preserving leather fittings, so to prevent the crew from using it all, the cook would secrete it in his 'slush fund', selling the excess ashore to candle makers and fish and chip shops.

Clean Slate - It was the custom in sailing ships to record courses, distances and tacks on a log slate. The new watch would always use a clean slate if things were going fine, disregarding what had gone before and starting anew.

Crows Nest - See 'As the Crow Flies'

Fly By Night - When sailing downwind at night a large fly-by-night would be used to do the job of several smaller, more intricate sails. It required less attention but could only be used downwind and therefore was seen infrequently by sailors.

Footloose - The bottom of a sail is called  the foot. It is usually tied to a boom, but when it is footloose (or loose-footed) it often dances freely in the wind, as if with a mind of its own.

Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey - Between the guns, pyramids of cannon balls stood upon lipped edged trays called monkeys. In some ships these monkeys were made of brass (for ceremonial reasons). In cold weather, the different coefficient of expansion meant that the brass trays would contract faster than the iron cannon balls. Sometimes it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Let The Cat Out Of The Bag - Sailors would sometimes bottle up their rum ration for a time when they considered it might be more suitable for a wild session, but the sailor found drunk on duty would be required to fashion a cat o' nine tails or make a rod for his own back which would then be kept in a leather sack. When sailors let the cat out of the bag, bad fortune befell them, usually on punishment day, which aboard ship was Blue Monday.

Limey - In 1795 the issue of lime juice aboard British naval ships was implemented to prevent scurvy amongst sailors. British naval ships are still required to carry lime juice and American sailors persist in calling British sailors limeys.

Luff - Loef  is a Dutch word meaning windward. A-luff (or aloof) describes a vessel which may be sailing along a lee shore, bearing up, pinching her head high into wind to prevent her being set ashore. To luff up is to point the sail further in to wind - to pinch in fact

Nipper - The anchor warp in large sailing ships (cables) were too large to bend around a capstan. Smaller lines were used to heave the cables and these were nipped to the cable by small boys, who became known as nippers.

Port - (larboard) or left side, is an abbreviation of porta il timone (carry the helm)

Posh - In the days when the only way to India was by sea, it was customary for wealthy passengers to book cabins on the cool side of the ship - port out, starboard home, hence the acronym posh.

Rubbing Salt in a Wound - Roman sailors were paid a quantity of salt as part of their salarium (from the Latin sal meaning salt). These sailors did not take kindly to losing part of their salary when having to rub salt into wounds after battles.

Shake A Leg - In Portsmouth, women would come aboard naval vessels to aid ship morale. Shore leave was often forbidden for fear that pressed men (landlubbers who were forced into service by press gangs) would desert. Each morning the petty officer would shout for the occupants of hammocks to shake a leg. If the leg was smooth and shapely, the occupant was allowed to sleep in; if the leg was hairy, the officer turned out the hammock for the sailor to swab the deck

Ship Shape (And Bristol Fashion) - The Port Of Bristol was once famous for importing tobacco, sherry, chocolate and slaves. Slave ships smelled and could bring disease. They were not allowed into port until they were cleaned and made tidy (tides are predictable and ordered). Before entering Bristol, slave ships were rigorously inspected so as to be ship shape and Bristol fashion

Son of A Gun -   The gun decks offered convenient spaces for child-birth. Children born on the gun decks could never be certain of their father and were entered in the Deck Log as a son of a gun

Square Meal - If sailors were lucky, they could go below to eat a square meal off the square wooden platters that cook stowed in a rack.

Starboard - Steor is the Anglo-Saxon word for star and bord is a rudder or oar, always fitted on the right side of ships as most Saxon and Viking sailors were right handed. The steering bord side (starboard) is the right side of a ship (looking forwards).

The Cut of His Jib - The Bay of Biscay is notoriously stormy. French and Spanish ships which frequented this water, had their foresails cut thin, so that they should not be blown off the wind when pointing. Upon seeing an unexpected three decker crest the horizon, a smaller British frigate captain might not like the cut of his jib and decide to cut and run, the crew cutting the lashings on all sails to run off before the wind at speed.

Three Sheets To The Wind - On a Bermuda rigged (two sailed) vessel there are three sheets (two for the jib/foresail and one for the main sail). If a yacht is three sheets to the wind then the sails are not drawing wind and the boat will not make headway (forward progress) but will drift downwind. Sheets might have been let fly, to thrash out of control beneath the flogging sails. On land, windmills have four sails. The sails are covered with sheets of fabric. The windmill turns at full speed with four 'sheets' (sails) exposed to the wind but will work more efficiently in brisk winds with only two 'sheets'. If you put up three sheets to the wind the windmill will be unstable, wobbling on its axis like a drunken sailor. At sea, sheets should never be confused with sails.