A bitt is a piece of ship’s equipment that cannot be done without, especially in regards to her anchors. The word is often attached to another to describe it as in bitt-stopper. But I’m running ahead of myself. Let us start at the beginning.
A bit is a piece of eight amounting to what the Spanish called a reale and 12 and a half cents in American money circa 1790 until 1857 when Spanish money was no longer accepted as legal tender in the U.S. Two bits constituted 25 cents, the cost of a mug of ale. This “cut money” came in eight rectangular pieces that could be handily broken apart as a person’s spending needs dictated. Interestingly, bits were sometimes chiseled down by unscrupulous merchants, reducing their value and giving us our modern word for a swindler: “chiseller”. Though we think of pieces of eight as the gold coins pictured here:In fact, cut money was by and large made out of silver.
An anchor is said to bite when it catches the ground and holds fast. Because of this, a Bite is also a harbor where a ship might anchor securely as in the Bite of Benin off West Africa.
Bitts are frames made of two sturdy pieces of oak fixed upright in a ship’s bow. They are securely bolted to the beams and have the function of holding the anchor cables when a ship is riding at anchor. In large men-of-war, two sets of cable-bitts are necessary. With the use of chain to carry modern anchors, bitts began to be coated with iron to prevent untimely wear on the wood. Many times these items are not referred to as bitts at all, but as bitt-heads.
Bitt-pins are very similar in shape to belaying pins but are much larger. These are used to wrap the ends of the anchor cable – the bitter-end if you will – that stay inboard and do not go over the side around. This action produces the bitt-stopper that holds the anchor to the ship. A bitter is a turn of the cable around the bitts and/or the bitt-pins. Of course the bitter-end is the final length of the anchor cable that usually gets less wear than the portion that is exposed to water. Bitter-ends are therefore said to be more trustworthy. And yes, our modern expression about sticking with something to the “bitter end” comes from this nautical reference: if you are down to the bitter-end you’ve no more cable to let out and the effort is over.
To bitt the cable is to wrap it around the bitts. To loose the cable gradually once it has been bitt is known as veering away since the ship is, in such a case, slowly moving away from its anchor.
And that is enough of bitts and bites for one Saturday, I think. On a completely different note, if you’re in the neighborhood of the finest city in the U.S. at any point this week, pop in and visit NOLA Pyrate Week. While yer there, give a hale to my dear friend Captain John Swallow and his lovely Quartermaster, Seika Hellbound. Huzzah!
Header: Under Way by Gordon Grant c 1860