Naval Traditions,
Customs, & Etiquette


Nautical Trivia
Old Men Navy.bmp
  • Wardroom
  • Dog Watch
  • Hammocks
  • Skylarking
  • The Superstition of Friday
  • Yankee
  • Binnacle List
  • Knot
  • Sickbay
  • Bamboozle
  • Jack
  • Chit
  • Mind Your P's & Q's
  • Bully Boys
  • Sideboys
  • Carry On
  • Church Pennant
  • Eyes of the Ship
  • Cut of His Jib
  • "To Be Three Sheets in the Wind"


  • Nautical Trivia

    Dead Horse
    When a Sailor pays off a debt to the command (advance pay, overpayments, etc...) they say they've paid off a Dead Horse. The saying comes from a tradition of British sailors. British seamen, apt to be ashore and unemployed for considerable periods of time between voyages, generally preferred to live in boarding houses near the piers while waiting for sailing ships to take on crews.

    During these periods of unrestricted liberty, many ran out of money, so innkeepers carried them on credit until hired out for another voyage. When a seaman was booked on a ship, he was customarily advanced a month's wages, if needed, to pay off his boarding house debt. Then, while paying back the ship's master, he worked for nothing but "salt horse" the first several weeks aboard.

    Salt horse was the staple diet of early sailors and it wasn't exactly tasty cuisine. Consisting of a low quality beef that had been heavily salted, the salt horse was tough to chew and even harder to digest. When the debt had been repaid, the salt horse was said to be dead and it was a time for great celebration among the crew. Usually, an effigy of a horse was constructed from odds and ends, set afire and then cast afloat to the cheers and hilarity of the ex-debtors.

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    Manning the Rails
    This custom evolved from the centuries old practice of "manning the yards." Men aboard sailing ships stood evenly spaced on all the yards and gave three cheers to honor a distinguished person.

    Now men and women are stationed along the rails of a ship when honors are rendered to the President, the heads of a foreign state, or a member of a reigning royal family. Men and women so stationed do not salute. Navy ships will often man the rails when entering a port, or when returning to the ship's homeport at the end of a deployment.

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    Salutes
    The hand salute is the military custom you will learn first and use most while in the military. It is centruries old, and probably originated when men in aromor raised their helmet visors so they could be identified. Salutes are customarily given with the right hand, but there are exceptions. A Sailor, whose right arm or hand is encumbered may salute lefthanded, while people in the Army or Air Force never salute lefthanded.

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    Gun Salutes
    In the days of cannon, it took as long as twenty minutes to load and fire a gun. When a ship fired her guns in salute, she rendered herself powerless for the duration. By emptying their guns, the ship's crew showed shore batteries and forts that they were no threat. Over time, this gesture became a show of respect, with both shore and ship gun batteries firing volleys.

    While many people like to say the 21 gun salute was a tribute to the American Revolution, a number determined as a result of adding together the numbers 1+7+7+6, the truth is the 21 gun salute was an effort to cut costs. The habit of firing salutes became wasteful, with ships and shore batteries firing shots for hours on end. This was particularly expensive for ships, which had a limited space to store powder (which went bad quickly in the salt air). The British admiralty first dictated the policies now in place as a practical matter to save gunpowder. The rule was simple, for every volley fired by a ship in salute, a shore battery could return up to three shots. The regulations limited ships to a total of seven shots in salute, so the 21 gun-salute became the salute used to honor the only the most important dignitaries.

    Today, the U.S. Navy Regulations proscribe that only those ships and stations designated by the Secretary of the Navy may fire gun salutes. A national salute of 21 guns is fired on:

    • Washington's Birthday
    • Memorial Day
    • Independence Day
    • To honor the President of the United States
    • To honor heads of foreign states.
    Additionally, ships may, with approval from the office of the Secretary of the Navy, provide gun salutes for naval officers on significant occasions, using the following protocol:
    • Admiral-17 guns
    • Vice Admiral-15 guns
    • Rear Admiral (upper half)-13 guns
    • Rear Admiral (lower half)-11 guns
    All gun salutes are fired at five second intervals. Gun salutes will always total an odd number.

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    Bell-Bottom Trousers
    The Sailor's bell-bottom trousers, which came to epitomize '60s and early '70s fashion, are actually a practical item for Sailors living aboard ship. The wide, flared, legs are easy to roll up when swabbing a deck or wading through slightly flooded spaces.

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    Ornamental Sleeve Buttons
    The decorative bone buttons that are today sewn on many suit jackets, sports coats and blazers began as an effort by Lord Nelson to keep young midshipsmen and cabinboys from wiping their noses on their sleeves.

    In the days of sail, young boys, often as young as nine years old, would sign on sailing ships as cabinboys, usually becoming midshipmen as they got older. Many, particularly on their first voyages, would become homesick, tearfully tending to their duties in their fancy gentlemen's uniform. That uniform had no pockets for a hankerchief, so the young boys would, like all young boys, wipe their noses on their sleeves.

    To break his cabinboys and midshipmen of this ungentlemanly habit, Lord Nelson had large brass buttons sewn on the sleeves of all midshipmen and cabinboy uniforms. The decorative value of the buttons were soon realized, and in short order, London tailors were adding decorative buttons to frocks, coats, and dinner jackets. Though the buttons have become less gaudy, the practice continues.

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    Sally Ship
    "Sally ship" was not a ship but a method of loosening a vessel that ran aground from the mud holding her fast. In the days before sophisticated navigation equipment, ships ran aground much more often than today. A grounded ship could be freed with little or no hull damage if she could be rocked out of her muddy predicament.

    To free her, the order was given to "sally ship". The crew gathered in a line along one side and then ran from port to starboard and back and forth until the vessel began to roll. Often the rolling broke the mud's suction and she could be pulled free and gotten underway.

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    Dress Ship
    Commissioned ships are "full-dressed" on Washington's Birthday and Independence Day, and "dressed" on other national holidays. When a ship is dressed, the national ensign is flown from the flagstaff and usually from each masthead. When a ship is full-dressed, in addition to the ensigns, a "rainbow" of signal flags is displayed from bow to stern over the mastheads, or as nearly so as the construction of the ships permits. Ships not under way are dressed from 0800 to sunset; ships under way do not dress until they come to anchor during that period.

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    Marooned
    This old punishment for mutineers consisted of placing them on an island with musket, cutlass, and a breaker of water; and leaving them to their fate. It got its name from a certain Ci-maroon Indians who had been transplanted in the West Indies as cheap labor and, deserted by their Spanish masters, had been left to starve to death. The famous Captain Drake discovered them in a pitiable condition and gained the Indian's lasting gratitude by returning them to their far-off home.

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    Passing Honors
    Passing honors are ordered by ships and boats when vessels, embarked officials, or embarked officers pass (or are passed) close aboard - 600 yards for ships, 400 yards for boats.

    Such honors are exchanged between ships of the U.S. Navy, between ships of the Navy and the Coast Guard, and between U.S. and most foreign navy ships passing close aboard. "Attention" is sounded, and the hand salute is rendered by all persons in view on deck (not in ranks).

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    Dungarees
    Webster defines dungaree as "a coarse kind of fabric worn by the poorer class of people and also used for tents and sail." We find it hard to picture our favorite pair of dungarees flying from the mast of a sailing ship, but in those days Sailors often made both their working clothes and hammocks out of discarded sail cloth.

    The cloth used then wasn't as well woven nor was it dyed blue, but it served the purpose. Dungarees worn by Sailors of the Continental Navy were cut directly from old sails and remained tan in color just as they been when filled with wind. After battles, it was the practice in both the American and British Navies for Captains to report more sail lost in battle than actually was the case so the crew would have cloth to mend their hammocks and make new clothes. Since the cloth was called dungaree, clothes made from the fabric borrowed the name.

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    Fathom
    Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "fætm" meaning literally the embracing arms, or to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average sizes of parts of the body, such as the hand or foot, or were derived from average length between two points on the body.

    A fathom is the average distance from middle-fingertip to middle-fingertip of the outstretched arms of a six-foot tall man. Even today in our nuclear Navy, Sailors can be seen "guess-timating" the length of line by using the Anglo-Saxon fingertip method; crude but still reliable.

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    Boatswain & Coxswain
    As required by 17th Century law, British ships-of-war carried three smaller boats, the boat, the cock-boat, and the skiff. The boat - or gig - was usually used by the Captain to go ashore and was the larger of the three. The cock-boat was a very small rowboat used as the ship's tender. The skiff was a lightweight all-purpose vessel. The suffix "swain" means keeper, thus the keepers of the boat, cock, and skiff were called boatswain and cockswain (or coxswain).

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    The Bitter End
    As any able-bodied seaman can tell you, a turn of a line around a bitt, those wooden or iron posts sticking through a ship's deck, is called a bitter. Thus the last of the line secured to the bitts is known as the bitter end. Nautical usage has somewhat expanded the original definition in that today the end of any line, secured to bitts or not, is called a bitter end.

    The landlubbing phrases "stick to the bitter end" and "faithful to the bitter end" are derivations of the nautical term and refer to anyone who insists on adhering to a course of action without regard to consequences.

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    Gundecking
    In the modern Navy, falsifying reports, records and the like is often referred to as "gundecking." The origin of the term is somewhat obscure, but at the risk of gundecking, here are two plausible explanations for its modern usage. The deck below the upper deck on British sailing ships-of-war was called the gundeck although it carried no guns. This false deck may have been constructed to deceive enemies as to the amount of armament carried, thus the gundeck was a falsification.

    A more plausible explanation may stem from shortcuts taken by early Midshipmen when doing their navigation lessons. Each Mid was supposed to take sun lines at noon and star sights at night and then go below to the gundeck, work out their calculations and show them to the navigator. Certain of these young men, however, had a special formula for getting the correct answers. They would note the noon or last position on the quarter-deck traverse board and determine the approximate current position by dead reckoning plotting. Armed with this information, they proceeded to the gundeck to "gundeck" their navigation homework by simply working backwards from the dead reckoning position.

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    Chewing the Fat
    "God made the vittles, but the devil made the cook," was a popular saying used by seafaring men in the last century when salted beef was staple diet aboard ship. This tough cured beef, suitable only for long voyages when nothing else was as cheap or would keep as well, required prolonged chewing to make it edible. Men often chewed one chunk for hours, just as if it were chewing gum and referred to this practice as "chewing the fat.".

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    The Lucky Bag
    The so-called Lucky Bag was really a huge locker in which articles lost aboard ship were deposited. Once a month these articles were produced and handed back to their respective owners. But there was a catch to it...each lucky recipient of a lost article was then given three strokes from the cat-o'-nine tails to teach him not to lose anything again.

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    Jacob's Ladder
    Jacob's Ladder is a portable ladder made of rope or metal and used primarily as an aid in boarding a ship. Originally, the Jacob's Ladder was a network of line leading to the skysail on wooden ships. The name alludes to the biblical Jacob, reputed to have dreamed that he climbed a ladder to the sky. Anyone who has ever tried climbing a Jacob's Ladder while carrying a seabag can apreciate the allusion. It does seem that the climb is long enough to take one into the next world.

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    Log Books
    Today, any bound record kept on a daily basis aboard ship is called a "log." Originally, records were kept on the sailing ship by inscribing information onto shingles cut from logs and hinged so they opened like books. When paper became more readily available, "log books" were manufactured from paper and bound. Shingles were relegated to naval museums but the slang term stuck.

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    Wardroom
    The Wardroom originally was known as the Wardrobe Room, a place where officers kept their spare wearing apparel. It was also the space where any loot secured from enemy ships, was stored. In an effort to have some privacy on a crowded ship, officers would sometimes take their meals in the Wardrobe Room. Today, the wardroom aboard ship is where officers take their meals, relax, and socialize.

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    Dog Watch
    Dog Watch is the name given to the 1600-1800 and the 1800-2000 watches aboard a ship. The 1600-2000 four-hour watch was originally split even to prevent men from always having to stand the same watches daily. As a result, Sailors dodge the same daily routine, hence they are dodging the watch or standing the dodge watch. In its corrupted form, dodge became dog and the procedure is referred as "dogging the watch" or standing the "dog watch."

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    Hammocks
    Swinging beds for Sailors were first used by Columbus, who discovered their practical use from natives in the West Indies.

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    Skylarking
    Originally, skylarking described the antics of young Navy men who climbed and slid down the backstays for fun. Since the ancient word "lac" means "to play" and the games started high in the masts, the term was skylacing." Later, corruption of the word changed it to "skylarking." Skylarking is a familiar term to most Sailors and a popular pastime for others. Today, it is generally looked upon with disfavor both onboard ship and ashore.

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    The Superstition of Friday
    The reluctance of seaman to sail on a Friday reached such epic proportions, that many years ago the British Government decided to take strong measures to prove the fallacy of the superstition. They laid the keel of a new vessel on Friday, launched her on a Friday and named her HMS Friday. They then placed her in command of one Captain Friday and sent her to sea on Friday. The scheme worked well, and had only one drawback...neither ship nor crew were ever heard from again.

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    Yankee
    Americans are known by their nicknames from Hong Kong to Timbuktu; one of the most widely used is "yankee." It's origin is uncertain but one belief is that it was given to us by the early Dutch.

    Early American sea captains were known but not revered for their ability to drive a hard bargain. Dutchmen, who were also regarded as extremely frugal, jokingly referred to the hard to please Americans as "Yankers" or wranglers. The nom de plume persists to this day.

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    Binnacle List
    Many novice Sailors, confusing the words "binnacle" and "barnacle," have wondered what their illnesses had to do with crusty growths found on the hull of a ship. Their confusion is understandable.

    Binnacle is defined as the stand or housing for the ship's compass located on the bridge. The term binnacle list, in lieu of sick list, originated years ago when ships' corpsmen used to place a list of the sick on the binnalce each morning to inform the Captain about the crew's health. After long practice, it came to be called the Binnacle List.

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    Knot
    The term knot, or nautical mile, is used world-wide to denote one's speed through water. Today, we measure knots with electronic devices, but 200 years ago such devices were unknown.

    Ingenious marines devised a speed measuring device both easy to use and reliable, the "log line." From this method we get the term "Knot." The log line was a length of twine marked at 47.33-foot intervals by colored knots. At one end a log chip was fastened. It was shaped like the sector of a circle and weighted at the rounded end with lead. When thrown over the stern, it would float pointing upward and would remain relatively stationary. The log line was allowed to run free over the side for 28 seconds and then hauled on board. Knots which had passed over the side were counted. In this way, the ships speed was measured.

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    Sickbay
    In the days of sailing ships, it was customary to uncover when entering sick bay, out of respect to the dying and dead. Through modern medicine the sickbay has transformed into a place where people are usually healed and cured, so the custom remains. As in any hospital, silence is maintained.

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    Bamboozle In today's Navy, when you intentionally deceive someone, usually as a joke, you are said to have bamboozled them. The word was used in the days of sail also, but the intent was not hilarity. Bamboozle meant to deceive a passing vessel as to your ship's origin or nationality by flying an ensign other than your own -- a common practice of pirates.

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    Jack
    The Jack is a replica of the blue, star-studded field of the National Ensign that is flown by ships at anchor from 8 a.m. to sunset. The Jack is hoisted at a yardarm when a general court-martial or a court of inquiry is in session. It is half-masted if the Ensign is half-masted, but it is not dipped when the Ensign is dipped.

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    Chit
    One tradition carried on in the Navy is the use of the word "chit." It is a carry over from the days when Hindu traders used slips of paper called "citthi" for money, so they wouldn't have to carry heavy bags of gold and silver. British sailors shortened the word to chit and applied it to their mess vouchers.

    Its most outstanding use in the Navy today is for drawing pay and a form used for requesting leave and liberty, and special requests. But the term is currently applied to almost any piece of paper from a pass to an official letter requesting some privilege.

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    Mind Your P's & Q's
    There are few of us who at one time or another have not been admonished to "mind our P's and Q's," or in other words, to behave our best. Oddly enough, "mind your P's and Q's" had nautical beginnings as a method of keeping books on the waterfront.

    In the days of sail when Sailors were paid a pittance, seamen drank their ale in taverns whose keepers were willing to extend credit until payday. Since many salts were illiterate, keepers kept a talley of pints and quarts consumed by each Sailor on a chalkboard behind the bar. Next to each person's name, a mark was made under "P" for pint or "Q" for quart whenever a seaman ordered another draught.

    On payday, each seaman was liable for each mark next to his name, so he was forced to "mind his P's and Q's" or he would get into financial trouble. To ensure an accurate count by unscrupulous keepers, Sailors had to keep their wits and remain somewhat sober. Sobriety usually ensured good behavior, hence the meaning of "mind your P's and Q's."

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    Bully Boy
    Bully boys, a term prominent in Navy chanties and poems, means in its strictest sense, "beef eating Sailors." Sailors of the Colonial Navy had a daily menu of an amazingly elastic substance called bully beef, actually beef jerky. The term appeared so frequently on the messdeck that it naturally lent its name to the sailors who had to eat it. As an indication of the beef's texture and chewability, it was also called "salt junk," alluding to the rope yarn used for caulking the ship's seams.

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    Side Boys
    Side boys are a part of the quarterdeck ceremonies when an important person or Officer comes on board or leaves a ship. Large ships have side boys detailed to the quarterdeck from 0800 to sunset. When the side is piped by the BMOW, from two to eight side boys, depending on the rank of the Officer, will form a passageway at the gangway. They salute on the first note of the pipe and finish together on the last note.

    In the days of sail, it was not uncommon for the Commanding Officers of ships sailing in convoy to convene aboard the flagship for conferences. It was also not uncommon for COs to invite each other to dine aboard their vessels. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to bring visitors on and off a ship while underway. And there was no dignified may for a high ranking officer to scurry up or down a rope ladder hanging down the side of a ship.

    Often the boatswain's chair, a rope and wood sling, would be used to hoist the guest onto and off the ship. The Boatswain's Mate would control the heaving by blowing the appropriate commands with a whistle known as a Boatswain's Pipe. The number of "strong backs" needed to bring the visitor aboard depended upon the size of the "load" being hoisted. Somewhere along the line, it was noted that the more senior the visitor's rank, the more Sailors were needed to "man the side." Over time, the need to hoist visitors onto and off of Navy ships went away, but the custom of mustering the Sideboys and piping distinquished visitors aboard ship remains.

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    Carry On
    In the days of sail, the Officer of the Deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in wind, so sails could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to "carry on" would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry. Pity the poor Sailor whose weather eye failed him and the ship was caught partially reefed when a good breeze arrived.

    Through the centuries the term's connotation has changed somewhat. Today, the Bluejackets Manual defines "carry on" as an order to resume work -- work not so grueling as two centuries ago.

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    Church Pennant
    The Church Pennant is the only flag ever flown over the National Ensign at the same point of hoist. It is displayed during church services conducted by a Chaplain, both ashore and afloat.

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    Eyes of the Ship
    Most of the early ships had heads of mythological monsters or patrons carved in the bow; hence, the terms "figure head," "the heads" and the term "eyes of the ship" followed from the eyes of the figures placed there. Large "eyes" are still painted on the bows of Chinese junks.

    Sailors also believe that these "eyes" help them and their ship through a storm by magically seeing the right of way. One particular Sailor's tale says that on the day before he was to sail, he bought his wife two beautiful, green emeralds for earrings. He was heartbroken when she did not like them, so instead he used them as the eyes of the female "figure head" on the bow of his ship.

    His wife had a change of heart that night, and unbeknownst to her husband, removed the emeralds from the wooden figure. She planned to wear them upon his return, but he never did. One day after sailing, his ship steered right into a typhoon and sank. Some say it was because the ship could not "see" as his wife had stolen the ship's "eyes." When the wife heard the news, she cried for days until she fell asleep. When she awoke, she was blind...and the two beautiful emeralds had dissappeared.

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    Cut of His Jib
    In the days of sailing ships, nationality and rigs could often be distinguished by ther jibs. A Spanish ship, for example, had a small jib or none at all. Large French ships often had two jibs and English ships normally had only one.

    From ships, the phrase was extended to apply to men. The nose, like the jib of a ship arriving in harbor, is the first part of the person to arrive at a designated place. Figuratively, it implies the first impression one makes on another person.

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    "To Be Three Sheets in the Wind"
    In the days of sailing ships, this is a phrase which refers to the lines used to control the sails of sailing vessels. When these sheets are cast to the wind (let go), it would cause the old sailing ships to shudder and stagger. The resulting track would be the same as that of a drunken Sailor, out of control, and hence "three sheets in the wind."
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