Unusual Nautical Terms

Unusual Nautical Terms Onboard a Boat or Ship

Here are some of the more unusual nautical terms used aboard a seafaring vessel.


A baggywrinkle is a material, often old or scrap rope, that is used to wrap around parts of the rigging or mooring lines to prevent chaffing. 


In nautical terms, a caboose was a small box that housed the galley on the deck of a small ship.  The word derives from the Dutch word Kombuis meaning cooking stove.

Devil Bolts

These were “bolts” that were used by corrupt shipbuilders to save money.  Rather than using a copper bolt to hold the ship’s timbers together, the builder would use a “bolt” that had a copper head and tail but the middle would be made of wooden dowel.  The sight of the copper head and tail would give the impression of a proper copper bolt but in fact would be a poor substitute and would be responsible for many a sunken ship.

Dutchman’s Log

This was a way to measure the speed of a vessel.  In the early days of sail an object or log attached to a rope was thrown over the bow of the ship and then timed (with a sandglass) to see how long it took for the log to reach the stern.  Using the known length of the vessel and this time, the speed of the ship could be determined.  This was then recorded (logged) so they could estimate the distance travelled in a day.


My favourite unusual nautical term has to be Gollywobbler.  A gollywobbler is a type of staysail that is placed between the foremast and mainmast.  It is used to increase the speed with a reaching wind.


The orlop is the area of deck above the hold of a ship and the lowest deck.  It derives from the Dutch word overloopen to run over.  On HMS Victory the orlop was painted red.  It was here that the injured sailors were taken to be attended to by the ship’s surgeon.  This lower deck was safer, away from cannon shot, and the blood was not so noticeable against the red paint.

Smoking Lamp

This was a lamp positioned in a particular part of the ship and was a safety measure.  It was placed in a certain area of the ship so the sailors could smoke away from the tarred woodwork which was highly combustible.  The sailors could also light their pipes using the lamp.  The lamp was extinguished at times when smoking was forbidden.


This is a well known nautical term referring to the action of cleaning the decks with a mop usually made of old rope (swab).  The word derives from the Dutch word zwabberen meaning to mop.

Image courtesy of Berthon

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