Skull & Shackles
Pirates and sailors use many technical terms and also develop their own shorthand at sea. Many of the terms below have become common on ships and in port cities, particularly in dock districts.
Adrift: Floating loose at sea. Can also mean someone who has run away or gone missing.
Anchor: A person who wears heavy metal armor.
Avast ye: pay attention!
Besmara’s Fingers: A-cat-o’-nine-tails.
Binnacle: A glass-topped box fixed to a stand on the deck. The binnacle houses a compass.
Black Spot: A death threat
Blow the man down: A command to kill someone
Bubbles: A person who can’t swim.
Cackle fruit: chicken eggs
Cannon: A spellcaster with flashy offensive spells.
Captain’s Dance: When two ships meet in open water and wish to parlay, each ship sends out a boat. The two captains meet on one ship; the two first mates meet on the other.
Chase: A ship that is being pursued by pirates.
Coaming: A raised lip around a hatch to keep water from spilling belowdecks.
Duffle: A sailor’s belongings
Dungbie: One rear end
Fancy Jacket: Someone who dresses and talks like a pirate but has no real sailing experience.
Fast Colours: A country’s flag. Privateers sometimes fly pirate or merchant flags to lure pirate ships close, then raise their true flags when combat begins.
Fishslicer: A small blade, like a dagger.
Following Sea: Waves going in the same direction as a ship.
Frenzy: A fight, particularly a tavern brawl.
Gallows Jumper: Someone who has died and then come back to life, such as through a raise dead spell or similar magic.
Heave ho: An instruction to put strength into whatever is being done.
Holystone: Bars of sandstone used to scrub the deck.
Hornswaggle: To cheat
Jack Tar: A pirate.
Lights: Lungs. (The “lights” in famous exclamations like “I’ll have your liver and lights!” actually refers to lungs, rather than eyes, as landlubbers often imagine.)
Lubber: A clumsy or stupid person, often a “landlubber.”
Paying Cargo: Passengers.
Running Lunch: A rat or large insect. Sailors sometimes joke that a new crewman must “catch himself a running lunch.”
Scaly: A fish. Can also refer to a sea monster.
Sea Legs: The ability to maintain balance on a rolling deck.
Shiver me timbers: An expression of shock or disbelief
The Sweet Trade: Piracy.
Windbound: Unable to set sail because of wind conditions. Can mean any situation in which a person cannot act because of outside circumstances.
Windspinner: A spellcaster, specifically one who possesses weather magic.
X-er: A treasure hunter—someone always looking for “the X that marks the spot.” Can also mean an adventurer.
A list of common terms used by pirates and sailors with regards to their ships and sailing in general:
Abeam: At right angles to, or beside, the boat.
Aboard: On or in the boat or ship.
Above Board: Above decks, also meaning to be out in the open, visible to all; honest, straight forward.
Above Deck: On the deck.
Adrift: Loose, not on moorings or towline.
Aft: Toward the stern.
Aground: When the hull or keel is against the ground.
Aloft: Overhead or above.
Amidships: The middle of a vessel, either longitudinally or transversely.
Anchor: An object designed to grip the ground, under a body of water, to hold the boat in a selected area.
Astern: Behind the boat.
Avast Ye!: a hailing phrase to indicate that the hailed must “stop” and give attention.
Backstay: A support wire that runs from the top of the mast to the stern.
Bail: To remove water from the boat.
Ballast: Weight in the lower portion of a boat, used to add stability.
Beakhead: A platform or projecting structure forward of the forecastle.
Beam: The width of the boat at its widest. Also a timber mounted athwartships to support decks and provide lateral strength; large beams were sometimes called baulks.
Beam Reach: a point of sail where the boat is sailing at a right angle to the wind.
Bearing: A compass direction from one point to another.
Belay: To fasten a rope, by winding it several times backwards and forwards on a cleat or pin.
Below: Beneath the deck.
Bight: A loop.
Bilge: The lowest part of a boat, designed to collect water that enters the boat.
Binnacle: A kind of box to contain the compasses upon the deck.
Black Jack: A leather tankard made stiff with a coating of tar. Used by dockside pubs and taverns to serve wine and beer.
Black Spot: Tipping the black spot is a way pirates give a death threat.
Block: A pulley.
Board a Ship: To enter an enemy’s ship in an engagement.
Boat Hook: A device designed to catch a line when coming alongside a pier or mooring.
Boatswain: An officer in a ship who has charge of the rigging, sails, etc. and whose duty it is to summon the men to their duties with a whistle.
Bolt Rope: A rope sewn into the luff of a sail for use in attaching to the standing rigging.
Boom: The horizontal spar to which the foot of a sail is attached.
Boom Irons: An iron ring fitted on the yardarm through which the studding sail boom slides when rigged out or in.
Boom Vang: A line that adjusts downward tension on the boom.
Bore: Interior of a cannon barrel.
Bow: The front of the boat.
Bowsprit: A spar extending forward from the bow.
Brass Monkey Weather: Refers to very cold weather.
Breast Line: A docking line going at approximately a right angle from the boat to the dock.
Breech: The part of a cannon behind the bore.
Broach: To spin out of control, either causing or nearly causing a capsize.
Broad Reach: A point of sail where the boat is sailing away from the wind, but not directly downwind.
Broadside: A discharge of all the guns on one side of a ship both above and below.
Buoy: An anchored float marking a position or for use as a mooring.
By the Lee: Sailing with the wind coming from behind, and slightly to the side that the sails are on.
Careen: To careen a ship is to take it into shallower waters or out of the water altogether and to remove barnacles and pests from the bottom. Pests include mollusks (worms), shells, and plant growth. Usually this is done by using the tide on a lightly sloped sandy beach to move the vessel progressively higher out of the water. Often a pirate needs to careen his ship to restore it to proper speed. Careening is dangerous to pirates as it leaves the ship inoperable while the work is being done.
Cast Off: To release lines holding boat to shore or mooring, to release sheets.
Cat-o’-Nine-Tails: A whip made from knotted ropes, used to punish crewmen by “flogging”.
Centerboard: A fin shaped, often removable, board that extends from the bottom of the boat as a keel.
Chafe: Damage to a line caused by rubbing against another object.
Chain Shot: Two cannonballs chained together and aimed high to destroy masts and rigging.
Chainplates: Metal plates bolted to the boat to which standing rigging is attached.
Chock: A guide for an anchor, mooring or docking line, attached to the deck.
Cleat: A fitting to which a lined is secured.
Clew: The lower aft corner of a sail.
Close Hauled: A point of sail where the boat is sailing as close to the wind as possible Close reach – A point of sail where the boat is sailing towards the wind but is not close hauled.
Companionway: A stairway or ladder leading from one deck to another.
Dance The Hempen Jig: To hang.
Davy Jones’ Locker: According to sailor’s lore, Davy Jones is an evil spirit in the sea. His locker is the ocean where he receives dead sailors.
Displacement: The weight of the water displaced by the boat.
Dock: The area in which a boat rests when attached to a pier, also the act of taking the boat to the pier to secure it.
Downhaul: A line, attached to the tack, that adjusts tension in the sail.
Drift: The leeway, or movement of the boat, when not under power, or when being pushed sideways while under power.
Ease: To loosen or let out.
Fairlead: A fitting used to change the direction of a line without chafing.
Fathom: A measurement relating to the depth of water, one fathom is 6 feet.
Figurehead: A carved bust of a person or mythical being at the foremost extremity of the bow below the bowsprit.
Foot: The bottom part of a sail.
Forecastle: A short, raised foredeck, the forward part of the upper deck between the foremast and the stem, or the quarters below the foredeck.
Foremast: The forward mast of a boat with more that one mast.
Foresail: The jib.
Forward: Toward the bow of the boat.
Fouled: Entangled or clogged.
Freeboard: The distance from the highest point of the hull to the water.
Freezing the Balls Off a Brass Monkey: A brass monkey is a brass triangle, which is put on the ground and used to keep cannonballs in a neat pile or pyramid beside a gun. When the weather gets very cold the brass triangle contracts more than the iron and causes the cannonballs to roll off, hence the saying.
Furl: To fold or roll a sail and secure it to its main support.
Gallery: A balcony projecting from the stern or quarter of a large ship.
Genoa: A large foresail that overlaps the mainsail.
Gibbet: A wooden frame from which dead pirates are hung, often in a metal cage especially fitted for the dead man. This is done as a warning to others who would think of taking up a career in piracy.
Gimball: A device that suspends a compass so that it remains level.
Gooseneck: A device that connects the boom to the mast.
Ground Tackle: The anchor, chain and rode.
Gundeck: The deck where the guns were located; large ships may have as many as three gun decks called the lower, middle and upper gundeck.
Gunport: Exit in a gunwale or bulwark for the muzzle of a cannon.
Gunwale: The railing of the boat at deck level.
Halyard: The line used to raise and lower the sail.
Hang Him From The Yardarm: Pirate phrase for punishment for shipmates of captured prisoners.
Hard Alee: The command given to inform the crew that the helm is being turned quickly to leeward, turning the boat windward.
Hatch: A rectangular opening in a vessel’s deck.
Head: Top of the sail.
Head to Wind: The bow turned into the wind, sails luffing.
Headsail: A sail forward of the mast, a foresail.
Headstay: A wire support line from the mast to the bow.
Headway: Forward motion.
Heave To: To stop a boat and maintain position (with some leeway) by balancing rudder and sail to prevent forward movement, a boat stopped this way is “hove to.”
Heel: The leeward lean of the boat caused by the action of the wind on the sails.
Helmsman: The member of the crew responsible for steering.
Hempen Halter: The hangman’s noose.
Hike: Leaning out over the side of the boat to balance it.
Hoist: To raise aloft.
Hold: The interior of a hull, especially the part of a merchant ship’s interior where the cargo and ballast were stowed.
Hornswaggle: To cheat.
In Irons: Having turned onto the wind or lost the wind, stuck and unable to make headway.
Jib: A foresail, a triangle shaped sail forward of the mast.
Jibe: A change of tack while going downwind.
Jolly Roger: The pirate’s flag.
Keel: A fin down the centerline of the bottom of the hull.
Keel Haul: This is the act of throwing a man overboard at the bow, with a long rope tied around his ankles. He’d drift to the beam along the side of the ship while the other end of the rope would be brought to the other side, and then he’d be dragged from one side to the other and hauled out. Besides the torment of being dragged under water, this drags the victim across the barnacle-studded ship’s hull and causes great pain and injury. This is a serious punishment and not administered lightly.
Lanyard: A line attached to any small object for the purpose of securing the object.
Lateen: A triangular sail, or the style of rigging in which the sail is tied to a boom.
Latitude: Degrees north or south of the equator.
Leech: The back edge of a sail Leeward – Downwind.
Letters Of Marque: A commission or license issued by the government authorizing seizure of enemy property.
Lifeline: A rope fence surrounding the deck to help prevent crew from falling overboard.
List: The leaning of a boat to the side because of excess weight on that side.
Longitude: Degrees east or west from a fixed line which travels from the north to south pole along the surface of the planet.
Luff: The front edge of a sail, and the flapping in the wind of the front of the sail (luffing).
Mainsheet: The line that controls the boom.
Maroon: Pirates use marooning as an act of punishment. A transgressor of their codes will be stripped and left upon an isolated island with only a few supplies, if any at all. Most transgressors prefer a quick death to marooning, for it could mean starvation or worse, isolation for years, until rescue or death.
Mast: A long pole or spar of timber set upright on a ship’s keel to support the sails.
Measure Ye Fer Yer Chains: To be outfitted for a gibbet cage.
Mizzen: The shorter mast behind the main mast.
Monkey: A small cannon.
Mooring: An anchor or weight, permanently attached to the sea floor, with a buoy going to the surface, used to hold the boat in a certain area.
Outhaul: The line that adjusts tension along the foot of the sail along the boom.
Painter: A line tied to the bow of a small boat for the purpose of securing it to a dock or to the shore.
Pennant: A triangular flag.
Pinch: To sail as close as possible towards the wind.
Point: To turn closer towards the wind (point up).
Port: The left side of the boat.
Port Tack: Sailing with the wind coming from the port side, with the boom on the starboard side.
Quarter: Deriving from the idea of “shelter”, quarter is given when mercy is offered by the pirates. To give no quarter is to indicate that none would be spared. Quarter is often the prize given to an honorable loser in a pirate fight. If enraged, however, a pirate would deprive the loser any such luxury.
Reach: Sailing with a beam wind.
Ready About: Prepare to come about.
Reef: To reduce the size of a sail.
Rhumb Line: A straight line compass course between two points.
Rigging: The standing rigging is the mast and support lines, running rigging is the lines with which you adjust the sails.
Rode: The line and chain that connect the anchor to the boat.
Rudder: A fin under the stern of the boat used in steering.
Run a Shot Across the Bow: Command to fire a warning shot.
Running: A point of sail, going directly downwind.
Scull: Moving the rudder back and forth in an attempt to move the boat forward.
Shake Out: To release a reefed sail and hoist the sail aloft.
Sheave: The wheel of a block pulley.
Sheet: A line used to control the sail.
Shipwright: A master craftsman skilled in the construction and repair of ships. In many instances, the person in charge of a ship’s construction, including the supervision of carpenters and other personnel, control of expenditures and schedules, and acquisition of materials.
Shrouds: Support ropes for the mast.
Spinnaker: A large, light sail used in downwind sailing.
Spreaders: Struts used to hold the shrouds away from the mast.
Spring Line: Docking lines that keep the boat from drifting forward and back.
Starboard: The right side of the boat.
Starboard Tack: A course with the wind coming from starboard and the boom on the port side.
Step: The frame at the bottom of a mast.
Stern: The back of the boat.
Stow: To put away.
Strike: To lower or let down anything. Used emphatically to denote the lowering of colors in token of surrender to a victorious enemy.
Tack: The front, lower corner of the sail. Tack also refers to a course with the wind coming from the side of the boat, also to change course by turning into the wind so that the wind comes from the other side of the boat.
Tender: A small boat used to transport crew and equipment from shore to a larger boat.
Tiller: Controls the rudder and is used for steering.
Topping Lift: A line that holds up the boom when it is not being used, also the line that controls the height of a spinnaker pole.
Transom: The back, outer part of the stern.
Traveler: A device that the mainsheet may be attached to which allows its position to be adjusted.
Trim: To adjust the sails, also the position of the sails.
Under Bare Poles: When a ship has no sail set.
Wake: The swell caused by a boat passing through water.
Walk The Plank: This refers to blindfolding a prisoner, tying his hands to his sides, and forcing him to walk off a plank that is suspended out over the water.
Whisker Pole: A light spar which holds the jib out when sailing downwind.