a nautical bestiary


– a ring or hoop of wood or metal.


– not exclusively nautical, but rare is the ship without this; sounds like:
“I dont %&$&# LIKE sailing! Why don’t I go to the crafts festival and just take the train and meet you at the next %&$&# port?”
or “The hosting yacht club is serving ¿%&$&#what???”
or %&$&#! %&$&#! horse cock for dinner again??”


– wooden (usually) platform buffers between a ship and a pier; way deeper and heavier to move than you think. On this camel by Passenger Ship Terminal pier 90, rope was shredded into a soft nest, eggs were laid, and the parents-to-be waited while warships of Fleet Week 2009 tied up a few feet away.


– a heavy beam projecting from each bow of a ship for the purpose of holding anchors.

clamshell dredge


-an anchor is said to be cockbilled or a-cockbill when hung vertically by its ring stopper from a cathead ready for use, or, temporarily, during the recovery process.

constrictor knot

– not well known, but according to Hervey Garrett Smith, author and illustrator of the wonderful book, The Arts of the Sailor (1953), the constrictor knot is superior to most comment seizings or stoppings: “…quicker, neater, and can be drawn up more tightly. The harder you pull the two ends the tighter it grips, and it will not slacken when you let go…It can be set up so tightly that is is almost impossible to untie, and makes an excellent whipping. (The slipped version is easy to untie.) …Its superior construction and usefulness leads me to believe that it ultimately will achieve the popularity it rightly deserves.”

cow hitch

– also known in days of old as a lanyard hitch, the cow hitch is today more associated with any knot which is not a recognized maritime knot as used at sea; a lubberly hitch. Folks must be forgetting to use those lanyards.


– sideways maneuvering into a cross current or wind to compensate for drift.
To “catch a crab” is to make a faulty stroke in rowing that causes the blade of the oar to strike the water on the recovery stroke.


crow feet

crow’s nest




– pilings lashed together with heavy cable upon which vessels land to moor. Usually, one piling is called a dolphin, a group of more than one pile is called a cluster, as in “put out a line over the second cluster off the bow.”  When neglected, provides fine nesting for birds of the harbor.

donkey engine

– a steam-powered winch to hoist sails and anchors on old schooners; an auxiliary engine on a sailing craft (which does propel the vessel) is still sometimes informally known as the donk.

elephant foot

elephant table – (help! cannot find this one!)


fish tackle

– a large hook used to assist in maneuvering the anchor from under the cat-head, and brought to the side or gunwale, or to launch and recover boats.

flounder plate

– a triangular steel plate used as a central connecting point for the tows, bridles, and towline.


– the wedge-shaped part of an anchor’s arms that digs into the bottom. Sometimes painted yellow to lure full frontal admirers.


– made by twisting together two or more rope-yarns. A Spanish fox is made by untwisting a single yarn and laying it up the contrary way. (But, why? ¿por qué?)




– the state of a vessel when, by any strain, she is made to droop at each bow and stern, bringing her center up. Opposite of sagging.


horse cock

– “phoney baloney”. Mmmmm.



marlinspike, a marlinspike hitch

– a tool for opening the strands of a rope while splicing.


– a weighted knot wrapped around lead or a ball, found at the end of a heaving line. Illegal in NYHarbor. ME variety is especially lethal: you really won’t know what hit you.


– a seizing to prevent hooks from unshipping. Sling hitch on the hook’s back, go around the bill, make turns, wrap with frapping turns, then a set of riding turns, finish with a square or reef knot. Notice how Hervey Garrett Smith draws the same hook three times; that is love.

pelican hook

– a hook-like device for holding the link of a chain or similar, and consisting of a long shackle with a hinged rod which is held closed by a ring.

pigtail hook

– a screw hook having an eye in the form of a spiral for holding a loop, chain link, etc., at any angle. I am not fooled: this was designed to snag my sweaters.


– rope running across the shrouds horizontally like the rounds of a ladder and used to step upon in going aloft.


– curved cut in edge of sail for preventing chafing

rhino horn

– slips through a hole in the bow ramp of the LCU or LCM to hold the landing craft in position while vehicles embark/debark.

sea cock

– a valve to open a pipe to allow suction of sea water into your vessel either to supply fire pumps or for cooling if your engine is cooled with raw water. Also used generically.


– a kind of hitch or bend, used to shorten a rope temporarily.


snaking, snaked whipping

– snaking protects against chafing of turns on whippings at the end of ropes.


– fenders that were once upon a time real whale bodies, but today, are BIG black, heavy industrial strength rubber bumpers. One captain’s fender story is here.


– oops. another wildcat coming up…


– rigging of old ships were wormed, parcelled and served and lasted as long as the ships, or longer. Worming is the laying in of small-stuff between the strands of rope to fill in spaces to prevent moisture and rot. Parcelling is spirally wrapping rope with narrow strips of old canvas soaked with rigging tar, overlapping to repel moisture. Serving covers the rope by tightly winding marline or hemp against the lay. Heavily tar, and maintain regularly.

Worm and parcel with lay
Turn and serve the other way

zinc fish

– a “sacrificial anode.”  Metals (e.g. your propeller) in salt water, experience a flow of electrical current. The slow removal of metal is called “electrolysis”. Zinc is used as it has a higher voltage in the water so the current will tend to flow from it than from your props.

beasts of weather and water conditions:

dog days, ox-eye, mackerel scales, mares’ tails, white horses…

other waterborne beasts:

frogma, peconic puffin, the beagle project, the horse’s mouth (if any otters I missed, please do drop a lion.)

Look here for a beautiful post of hardworking animals here on the USCGC Escanaba!

Thank you, again for everyone’s help! drawings will be added, and please report any missing strays. Thank you!

34 Responses

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  1. […] by some of them (Jed!!), and cannot find a few of the ones mentioned. The new post is “a nautical bestiary“…Thank you, ODocker, Kennebec Captain, Jed, Willi, PaulYar!, Tugster and Towmasters. […]

  2. bonnie said, on 2009/12/07 at 01:19

    How about those most useful shipboard canidae, the ones that let you “dog down the hatches”?

  3. bonnie said, on 2009/12/07 at 01:29

    ps am told that Paerdegat is derived from Paarde Gat, the gate of the horse. Not sure if that’s quite right as the person who told me that said that the Paerdegat was so named because there was a rendering plant there & the name came from the horse carcasses, but that also happens to be the story behind Dead Horse Bay & I’m wondering if the person who told my friend that that’s the derivation of the Paerdegat name was mixed up.

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/12/07 at 01:34

      sounds like you’ve been hanging out with Tugster! he told me that, too, but I promptly forgot it. Thx! now it’s in writing!

  4. tugster said, on 2009/12/07 at 03:02

    wow! besides that, i’m speechless, so i’ll write. what a labor of love! wow!!!

  5. Maritime Monday 191 said, on 2009/12/07 at 03:43

    […] A New York Harbor Sketchbook opens the doors of The Nautical Bestiary » […]

  6. Bob Easton said, on 2009/12/07 at 07:29

    Just beastly!!
    Keep the watercolors flowing; they’re wonderful.

  7. Buck said, on 2009/12/07 at 10:28

    Love this!

  8. Mage B said, on 2009/12/07 at 12:24

    This is incredible, a work of art, and I am here cheering as I am learning. You inspire me….again. Wow.

  9. messing about said, on 2009/12/07 at 14:09

    There has to be an award for the work you do. It’s awesome.

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/12/07 at 14:40

      this is it!
      thank you, Adam! thank you, Everyone!

  10. Rick Spilman said, on 2009/12/07 at 16:46

    Great post. Do you have Hervey Garret Smith’s book, Marlinspike Sailor? A real favorite of mine.

    A bit of trivia (and a reference to the dreaded sea shanties) – a flounder plate can also be called a “deadman’s face.” Stan Hugill writes about a focsle shanty with the lyric “scrub the mud off the deadman’s face” which some folkies have changed to “scrub the blood off the deadman’s face” which is far more dramatic if a bid nonsensical.

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/12/07 at 17:05

      it might be the season, but I think the flounderplate looks like a xmas tree!

  11. Rick Spilman said, on 2009/12/07 at 19:28

    And speaking of trivia, a camel is also a floating drydock that can be used to lift ships over a bar. When the channel began to silt in in Nantucket they used camels to lift the whaling ship over the bar and tow then out to sea or to the docks, depending on which way they were heading.

    Abraham Lincoln, the only US president ever to hold a patent, developed an improved version of the Nantucket camel, PATENT No 6469, “Improvement for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals.”

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/12/07 at 22:59

      thank you, Pat and Rick!
      wow. a wet dock. Funny: a camel over a hump.

  12. Jeff Anzevino said, on 2009/12/08 at 03:24

    Incredible. Wittily written and wonderfully wrendered. Thank you for compiling and sharing.

  13. naveganteglenan said, on 2009/12/08 at 07:23

    Genial! bowsprite, both for the nautical bestiary and again for the watercolours 🙂

    Refering the Spanish fox, I only have found a (dense) page about ropes:

    A Spanish Fox is a single yarn twisted up tightly in a direction contrary to its natural lay-that is, left-handed, and rubbed smooth. It makes a neat seizing, and is used for the end seizings of light standing rigging, and for small seizings generally.

  14. lazerone said, on 2009/12/09 at 04:31

    Nautical slang is always complex: with this fantastic discussion I am learning a lot about crossrelating drawings with names (connecting the american names to the italian ones).

    Thank a lot!


  15. frank@nycgarden said, on 2009/12/09 at 14:42

    Your drawings and colors have become quite accomplished and confident over the time frame of your blog! By the way, you may be interested in the Thomas Chambers maritime paintings exhibit at the American Folk Museum on 53rd. The contrasty images are nothing like the high art of the time and beautifully depicted boats. Also, the waves have alife of their own in the foreground of each painting. Not strictly a “folk” painter as I see it.

  16. tabnabs said, on 2009/12/11 at 04:38

    There’s also the monkey island, the deck space on top of the bridge/wheel house

  17. Michael said, on 2009/12/11 at 16:55

    “Powder Monkey” didn’t make it? Jeez. In the ol’ cannon days thems were needed.

    “Sacrificial Anode” sounds like an album title.

    I’m going to have to try that constrictor hitch (slipped, of course…who wants to tie an untieable knot? There was that Gordian Knot, but Alexander the G sorted that out quick.

  18. Pat said, on 2009/12/12 at 04:16

    And the Cat’s Paw should be pretty similar to the Cow Hitch shown.

  19. Corto said, on 2009/12/13 at 07:17

    This is a wonderful series of illustrations. I’m looking forward to seeing it grow. I hope you get a book deal out of this, or something.

  20. TheLongIslandGuy said, on 2009/12/15 at 05:33

    Well done, beautiful!

  21. […] fish” affixed to the hull recalls Bowsprite’s recent –shall we say . . . “biological” . .. […]

  22. whalen said, on 2009/12/20 at 14:39

    Power boaters all have to worry about their shaft seals.
    Chief petty officers reside in the goat locker onboard USN ships.
    Besides dogging the hatches, you can also dog the watches (and stand them in the dog house).
    I have a clam cleat on my cat boat. I use it when I bear off to leeward.

    • bowsprite said, on 2009/12/20 at 14:49

      Many thanks, Whalen, and thank you for linking us to your site: Crystal River Boat Builders. I shall incorporate yours and other strays in an updated Beastiary…the Beast That Refuses To Lie!

  23. […] thanks to Bowsprite for the 1000 collage. If looking for specific "word" in archives, search […]

  24. Ben said, on 2010/03/03 at 11:06

    Elephant Table… huh, I’ve only sea one place where that gets used and I’ve never heard or read it out side on that context. When I sailed and the 2nd/Bosun for Sea Education Association both of their ship had a house midships between the masts that housed the lab, and just forward of the house was a metal rack (same hight as the house) built out of welded pipe. We stacked the unused, and spare sails on top of it, and the cook hung hammocks full of fruit there.

  25. […] 19, 2010 in Blogroll, East Coast, K-Sea, New York harbor, environment, photos For the definitive beastiary, bowsprite has me bested, but enjoy my beasts.  First, can you guess the creature shown below and […]

  26. Ugly Americans said, on 2010/05/16 at 00:17

    Hello, i found your site at yahoo and you are providing interesting stuff. I like it,

  27. […] favorite blog post of the year was Bowsprite's nautical bestiary. It speaks for […]

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