Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: Up And Down

Manning the capstan aboard ship (model at the San Fransisco Maritime Museum website)

It probably goes without saying that anchors are heavy things. Even aboard smaller ships like sloops and schooners, you're dealing with tons rather than pounds. You can heave away at a cable with your mates until your hands are bloody but that's really not the most efficient use of your time. Human beings (and I like to believe sailors in particular) are pretty clever creatures so, of course, there is a better way.

Enter the capstan. The device, shown above in use on a small ship, is a essentially a winch and has been in use in different forms since ancient times. Both the Greeks and Romans had mechanisms for hauling up their blocky anchors. Viking longboats and Chinese junks used a form of capstan and by the 18th century the capstan as it is pictured above was an established feature on all but the smallest boats.

Obviously capstans come in many sizes and the shapes differ but the basic design is the same. The head of the capstan, which is barrel shaped and has an iron spindle passing through it under the deck on which it sits, is fitted with holes at even intervals for inserting the capstan bars. Looking at the picture, you can see why the bars (which our sailors are diligently pushing on) need to be removable. When the bars are "shipped" into the holes and their outer lengths are even, they are said to be "swifted".

Now it's time to heave, mates. The anchor could be any number of fathoms below the ship. Hauling her up was heavy, slow and grueling work so as many hands to the capstan as possible was the general rule. It was also nice if a ship's boy with a talent for a flute or recorder could hop up on top and play an invigorating tune. By literally pushing at the bars, the men made the capstan turn. The cable attached to the anchor (jog your memory of cables here) is also attached to the main body of the capstan and the it is literally wrapped around the barrel as the thing is pulled up.

In small ships, as shown above, a single mate can keep the rope from tangling. In larger ships, an entire system of men and trench-like leads was needed to keep the cable in line. For a pirate or privateer in a schooner or brig, a single capstan would do the job nicely.

Imagine, however, a first rate ship-of-the-line such as Nelson's HMS Victory carrying 102 guns and 850 men. The sheer size of the ship is mind boggling. Now think of her anchor. In such ships a double capstan was necessary. An extension of the capstan on the first deck drops into the deck below so that twice as many men can heave to. Also, a ship that can accommodate longer capstan bars can more efficiently pull up a heavier weight. It goes without saying that four or five men to a bar can apply more pressure than one or two.

But the ingenious capstan was no one hit wonder. Run aground on a shoal or reef and your capstan can jump to directly. A boat with the ship's anchor or anchors (again, in larger ships you may have more than one) would be sent out in the opposite directions from where the ship has run aground. The anchor is dropped and set, and then the men at the capstan are put to work to "haul off" the ship if at all possible.

This can also come in handy if a ship is already at anchor, crippled or becalmed and needs to move. The set of the anchor and the working of the capstan can literally get a ship from one place to another without the assistance of wind, oars or engine. An example of manpower at work.

Of course ships still utilize capstans, but now they are generally motorized objects that make a distasteful whirring noise. It's a shame really. Your humble hostess misses the days of hard working sailors with impressive muscles heaving to at the capstan bars until the cable is up and down and finally the anchor is clean and dry for weighing. Still, the anticipation of getting underway will never change and we have the capstan to thank, at least partially, for that.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Yes, well, we all know how you love "hard working sailors with impressive muscles"... but anyway, interesting post. The capstan was certainly an important and ingeneous nautical invention. I wonder how the expression to "haul off" a ship relates to "hauling off and hitting someone"? Just wondering, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Can't really help myself. As to the expressions, sounds like a job for "Sailor Mouth Saturday" to me.