The Writer’s Guide: Introduction to Sailing Ships

There is something romantic, magical even, about sailing ships. Vessels with motors lack a certain enchantment. It should come as no surprise that writers love to include sailing craft in literature and many an adventure yarn starts with boarding a ship. The vessel can be a vital part of the story, such as the Hispaniola in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or just an enchanting element like the silver ship that carries Frodo and Bilbo into the West at the end of The Return of the King.

Yet since most people do not have hands-on experience with sailing, the average writer knows little about them. In this series, I will cover a wide sweep of topics, including the technology of the sailing ship, navigation, and the history of sailing. For today, I will go through the basics.

As always, magic is the exception to the rule. Because magic.

Basic Terminology

Ships and sailing have their own terminology, which can sound like their own language.

Hull – The outer body of the ship. Hulls come in a variety of shapes and can be made of wood, metal, or fiberglass.

Keel – The bottom structural ridge of the hull. It strengthens the hull and can serve a hydrodynamic or counterbalancing function.

Deck – The top floor and one that forms a ceiling over the compartments and cabins on the decks below. It helps hold the hull together, protects the lower decks from the weather, and is the main working surface for the crew. Not all ships have decks, with those that don’t use the inside of the hull as a deck.

Mast – A vertical spar secured to the deck that supports the sails. They were originally made of wood, commonly entire tree trunks, but have also been made of metal and fiberglass.

Yard – A horizontal spar attached to a mast from which sails are suspended. They are mostly used on square-rigged sails.

Sail – A large sheet of fabric suspended from a mast or yard used to catch the wind.

Rigging – The series of ropes, cables, and chains that secure the sails, yards, and masts. There are two types: standing and running. Standing rigging is fixed in position while running rigging is tightened or loosening to change the shape and position of the sails.

Rudder – A flat fixture on the back of a boat below the waterline that is adjusted to change the direction of the vessel.

Wheel – The device that controls the rudder. It is on the deck at the back of the ship.

Forecastle or Fo’c’s’le – A raised deck at the front of a ship. Forecastles can be only slightly higher than the main deck or significantly taller. Medieval ships had fortified raised front decks that looked like castles. In the following centuries, the name forecastle was shortened to fo’c’s’le.

Quarter Deck – A raised deck behind the mainmast. Traditionally, it was the location from which the captain commanded the vessel.

Poop Deck – A tall deck at the rear of a ship. It was usually taller than the quarterdeck and originally fortified like the forecastle. The name comes from the French word la poupe, which means stern, since it is at the back.

Anchor – A heavy device used to secure a vessel to the bottom of the ocean or other body of water. This prevents the craft from drifting with the wind or current.

Port – The left side of a ship.

Starboard – The right side of a ship.

Bow – The front of a ship.

Stern – The back of a ship.

The parts of a sailing ship. Image source.
The deck, quarterdeck, and poop deck of an 18th century frigate. Note the wheel on the quarterdeck. Image source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

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