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Parts of a Pirate Ship

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on January 7, 2023. In Boats

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The golden age of pirates is long in our past, though there are still modern pirates terrorizing the seas in some parts of the world. But the vessels they use are nothing like what anyone pictures when they hear the term “pirate ship” or run through a list of those famous pirate ship names. For that, we need to look back into history and the massive, remarkable vessels that used to sail the seven seas. Though they were used for nefarious purposes, the pirates who manned them needed to be skilled and needed to know the ship like the back of their hand. That meant being familiar with a number of features that may be very familiar to boaters today, and some that are very strange indeed.

Any Sailing Vessel Could Have Been a Pirate Ship

One thing worth remembering before we start is that a pirate ship is very much a label, not a kind of ship by any means. Pirates were often not finicky about the ships they used since, very often, they were simply stolen. If it had a hull and some sails, it could be a pirate ship. For that reason the parts of a pirate ship are not 100% consistent from ship to ship since pirate ships could be very different vessels. That said, let’s look at some of the more common features for boats of the golden age of piracy.

Bittacle

This was a box located on the deck of the ship where the compass was kept. In later years this word evolved into binnacle. 

Blood Flag

Also called a bloody flag, these predate the current system of flags and visual signals used on boats. A vessel flying a pure red flag was signifying its intentions to engage in battle with any ship it encountered and it was going to offer no quarter to its enemies, meaning it was going to kill whoever it ran across. The flip side of this meant that any ship that encountered a vessel flying a blood flag would likely attack it as soon as possible. 

Bow Chaser

While most cannons were mounted along the sides of a vessel to allow the ship to fire as it passed port or starboard, the bow chaser was a cannon pointed forward and mounted on the bow. It was used when the ship was directly behind another vessel that was, as the name suggests, being chased. 

Bowsprit

The bowsprit was the pole or spar that extended from the front of some ships. Sometimes a figurehead would be mounted on the bowsprit, but it could also just be part of the rigging that helped balance the stays which held the mast in place.

Brass Monkey

Have you heard this story before? That there was a tray on an old wooden ship that held cannon balls and the tray was called a brass monkey? And when it got cold, the metal would contract and the cannon balls would fall out, hence the expression “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey?”

Well, it’s not true. There is no historical evidence of any ship, sailors, navy or anyone ever using something called a brass monkey. Real cannonballs were stored on the gun deck in racks designed to hold them just for this reason, so they couldn’t roll around and become a danger. The brass monkey store is just fake.

Crow’s Nest

Located up near the top of a mast, a crow’s nest was a platform that had room for a lookout to get a clear view of the surrounding sea in all directions.

Deadlights

Shutters made of wood or metal that would close over portholes on a ship to keep them more secure during bad weather. 

Fighting Top

Also simply called a top, the fighting top was on a mast but not nearly so high as the crow’s nest. Gear could be stored on the platform but, during a battle, soldiers/pirates would man the top with muskets so they could fire down on invaders on deck or fire across to enemies on attacking ships. 

Fore and Aft Sail

Parallel to the ship’s keep, the fore-and-aft sail was a triangular sail attached to a boom and gaff behind the mast.

Forecastle

Located at the forward of the ship, hence, the name, the forecastle could sometimes just mean the forward part of the upper deck, or refer to the whole portion of the ships upper deck where crew quarters were located, typically on merchant type ships. 

Foremast

As with forecastle, the fore means “front” and the foremast is the front mast on a sailing vessel

Forepeak

Another part of the ship located near the front which earns the “fore” name, the forepeak is the front part of the hold. This is located right where the left and right sides of the hull come together at the bow inside the ship and would therefore be the narrowest part of the ship as well. 

Gaff

A pole that supports the fore-and-aft sail and helps extend it away from the mast. It can be swung in different directions.

Gangplank

One of the most infamous terms associated with a pirate ship, a gangplank was a simple plank of wood that extended out from the hull of the ship. It was a simple walkway that could be established between two boats or between the ship and a dock or pier. However, more notoriously and as seen in some pirate movies, a gangplank could be set up over open water and an enemy or prisoner could be forced to walk out into the water where they’d then drown. 

Gunport

Because pirate ships had to be outfitted for battle, they often had gun ports. These were port holes or other openings that cannons or other manned guns could be lined up with.

Gunwale

The gunwale is still a part of modern vessels where it refers simply to the top edge of the ship’s hull. In pirate times, the gunwale would have had a more appropriate purpose for the name as it was still the top edge of the hull, but it was also the strengthened edge on which guns or other armaments could have been mounted. 

Jacob’s Ladder

This is a Biblical reference to a dream that Jacob had of a ladder leading to heavy. However, on a ship it was a literal ladder that was made of rope and wooden rungs that could be rolled up and lowered to allow people to board the vessel from a dock or pier or smaller boat, for instance. 

Jibboom

A jibboom lengthened the bowsprit on a ship and was itself another pole or spar. Like the bowsprit, it was part of the rigging system for the sails in this case it held the tacks for the jib sails and possibly the flying jib sail as well. 

Jolly Roger

The infamous skull and crossbones pirate flag was known, in English, as the Jolly Roger. Its use was most common during the 18th century. The name Jolly Roger actually just referred to a black flag flown by pirates and the skull and crossbones were not even used at first. Where the name first came from still remains a mystery.

Jury Mast

If a ship got into a battle and had its mainmast destroyed but they still survived, they could rig a temporary mast called a jury mast in its place. 

Killick

Not likely to be found on larger boats, but smaller vessels may have made use of one. Killick’s were stone anchors

Mainmast

No mystery in this one. The mainmast was the primary mast on a ship, found in the middle. 

Mizzenmast

While the mainmast was the central or primary mast, it wasn’t always the biggest. The mizzenmast qualified as the largest mast and it was usually the third mast, located aft of the main mast. 

Orlop

If a ship had three or more decks, the lowest deck was the orlop deck. It comes from a Dutch word which meant to run or extend. 

Poop Deck

At the stern of a ship, the highest deck is called the poop deck and you’d likely find it above the captain’s quarters. The name, while silly in modern times, comes from Latin and then French and basically just means “stern.”

Quarterdeck

Usually located behind the main mast on the upper deck of the ship, the quarterdeck was where the captain controlled the vessel. You could also find the ship’s colors here as well. It was located fore of the poop deck. 

Rigging

This is a bit of a catchall term and it’s still very much in use today for all sailing vessels. The rigging means everything involved in controlling the sails so we’re talking the masts, the ropes, the chains, and the many sails themselves like the square, jib or lateen sail, everything. 

Rudder

The rudder was what controlled a ship’s direction and was controlled by the steering wheel. In older vessels, like pirate ships, a rudder was little more than a large, flat piece of wood mounted at the stern on the sternpost that could be controlled by the ship’s wheel. In smaller vessels it was operated directly by hand from the stern.

Scuppers

Any ship is going to have to deal with water on the ship’s deck. Scuppers were holes in the deck that let water drain out back into the sea instead of down into the bilge.

Square Sail

Any number of square or rectangular sails rigged on a ship.

Sternpost

A beam located at the stern of the ship that the rudder was mounted to. 

Yardarm

This is an infamous part of any pirate ship. For practical purposes, the yardarm was the main arm attached to a mast that held the sails. But it’s also infamously known as a place from which prisoners were hanged to death. In a battle, a yardarm was also a vulnerable target as destroying the yardarm could severely cripple a ship. 

Differences Between a Merchant Ship, A Naval Ship and a Pirate Ship

In the golden age of piracy there was really only one difference between a merchant ship and a pirate ship and that was who was sailing it. If merchants ran the ship, or a crew on behalf of merchants, it was a merchant ship. If sailors operated it for the navy, it was a naval ship. If pirates took the ship in a battle, it was a pirate ship. They were not super choosy and if they could overtake a merchant ship, a navy ship, a transport ship or any other ship that looked like it would be useful to them, they’d take it. 

Often, if pirates successfully took a ship in a battle, they would refit the vessel with guns if need be and make it part of their own fleet. Some famous pirates actually had multiple ships under their control but only one would be the flagship. 

The Bottom Line

There are likely many more parts of a ship that could qualify for the list. As we said, any vessel manned by pirates would technically be a pirate ship so the full scope of what could be part of a pirate ship covers literally everything that could be a part of any ship. That said, hopefully this was a good starter to explain some of the more common terms. 

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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