Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Random Magic Tour: Pirates! May 18 Feature: Finding Starboard

Random Magic Tour: Pirates!
May 18 Feature: Finding Starboard


 Ahoy, matey! For this stop on Random Magic Tour: Pirates!, we’ll share a quick read to help us find our way around a pirate ship - or just about any sailing ship. Several scenes in Random Magic take place on ships, including this one:

‘Ughhhhh,’ Henry groaned, holding his nose. His hand came awaywet. He looked down. Blood. He staggered towards the pile of torncanvases piled along the other railing. Maybe there’d be something hecould use to mop up the blood. The rising wind slammed the loosened sails against the masts of theship, until the t’gallant of the main mast snapped in half, hurtlingdown towards him. He pressed back against the mast as the crow’s nestslammed into the forrard deck, shattering into splintered wood. The mooring links on the foremast sail broke free, and the slide ofheavy canvas whipped downwards, beating against the wind like awounded bird of prey. He’d have to cut it free… No. No time.

So, what’s a crow’s nest or a t’gallant and where can they be found on a pirate ship? We’ve got answers! A t’gallant (topgallant) would be near the top of a mast. Usually there’d be three masts, those are the upright poles, let’ssay, making a place for rigging and then the sails. Masts would look like this, see ‘em?:

Shown above: Diagram (#1), Parts of a ship.
And a t’gallant is near the very top of the mast. In the quote from Random Magic,
‘The rising windslammed the loosened sails against the masts of the ship, until thet’gallant of the main mast snapped in half…,’
we can tell that if the rising winds are strong enough to damage the uppermost part of the mast on this particular ship, well, that’s one heck of a storm for the ship to be caught in. Partly a supernatural tempest, too - in this case…There’s a photo of a t’gallant (topgallant mast) here:
File:Balclutha main topgallant mast.jpg

Shown above: Contemporary t’gallant.
There’s a quick explanation about rigging, here, and here’s a quick bit from that page of rigging information, specifically discussing the placement of a topgallant or t’gallant:
A fully square rigged mast consists of three spars - the lowermast, the topmast, and the topgallant mast. The rig has at least threesquare sails: the course on the lower mast, the topsail on the topmastand the topgallant sail on the topgallant mast.
So, you know what a mast is and what it looks like. You know what the t’gallant bit of a mast is and where it’s located. Now, the next bit of the quote from Random Magic talks about a crow’s nest and a forrard deck. Forrard - that’s easy, it’s just an alternate way to say ‘forward.’ In nautical usage, anyway. So, the forrard deck - what’s a deck? What you’d be standing on. The part underneath all the rigging and sails, like a living room floor,the first flat bit, there’s your deck. If the ship was caught up in rough waters or a storm and someone yelled, ‘All hands on deck,’ well, the deck’s where the action happens.
File:Vasa-weather deck view.jpg
Shown above: Deck view of the warship Vasa, Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden
And the forrard part of the deck, then, would be the forward part of the deck - at the front of the ship, rather than at the back of theship. Actually, the forrard part of the deck even has its own name, the forecastle, also spelled 'fo'c'sle.' Here’s a great painting illustrating a crew hard at work during a storm - all hands on deck!

Shown above: Hoisting The Upper T'Gallant, John Michael Groves, pastel. Date unknown, depicts scene from 1900s (Via: Tall Ships gallery, More works by this artist: Screensaver and exclusive prints.
 Now, to continue with the Random Magic quote,
‘He pressed back against the mastas the crow’s nest slammed into the forrard deck, shattering intosplintered wood.’
What’s a crow’s nest? It’s a look-out spot on the ship, usually built out from an elevated spot on the main mast. Before the invention of radar, the best way to spot approaching hazards, like land, storms, other ships and so on - or pirates! - was just to get to one of the highest points available and have a look around. So, that’s what seafarers did. The structure itself might’ve been just a barrel or basket for the sailor to sit in, to offer some protection against the possibility of being flung from the mast during a sail through rough waters. Contemporary ships might have something more sophisticated, a special platform, but still with some kind of protective railing or screen.
File:StateLibQld 1 214520 Christmas greeting card showing two boys waving from the crow's nest of a ship.jpg
Shown above: Vintage greeting card, the illustration shows two young fellows waving from the crow’s nest of a ship. Boy, oh, boy - are theygonna be grounded.
And why was it designated a ‘crow’s’ nest? The origin of the term, like a lot of maritime lore, has an interesting back-story:
The crow was an essential part of the early sailors' navigation equipment. These land-lubbing fowl  were carried on board to help the navigator determine where the closest land lay when the weather prevented sighting the shore visually. In cases of poor visibility, a crow was released and the navigator plotted a course that corresponded with the bird's because it invariably headed toward land. The crow's nest was situated high in the main mast where the look-outstood his watch. Often, he shared this lofty perch with a crow or two since the crows' cages were kept there: hence the ‘crow's nest.’ (Origin of Navy Terminology, via the Navy Department Library)
In the quote from Random Magic, then, the storm was violent enough that the wind tore down the crow’snest and smashed it down onto the deck below. So far, you’ve already learned about these parts of a ship -t’gallant, crow’s nest, forecastle (forward deck) - and can pick these out, now, if you happen to see a ship at harbor. We can’t cover all the parts of a sailing ship, or this feature would be really long. But here’s another diagram showing some additional info on the various parts of a ship: 
Shown above: Diagram (#2), Parts of a ship.
There’s just enough time to cover one more basic thing - a quick way to orient yourself when you first step aboard. It’s simple if you keep four directions in mind. The four directions, like the main four points on a simple compass (North, South, East, West), would be ahead and behind you, to the left and right of you, that should keep things simple. The bow: That’s the front of the ship. The stern: That’s the back of the ship, the part behind you, when you’re facing the bow. Port side: Face the bow - port side is to your left. Starboard: Face the bow - starboard is the side to your right. You can remember where the bow happens to be, if you think of taking a bow to an audience. Where’s the audience? In front of you. There are also other ways to remember the difference between port side and starboard. It might help to first understand the history of both terms - here’s a quick definition of ‘port side,’ viaWikipedia:
Port side: An archaic version of ‘port’ is larboard. The term larboard, when shouted in the wind, was presumably too easy to confuse with starboard and so the word port, and phrase ‘port side’ came to replace it.
File:Spanish Galleon Firing its Cannon.jpg
Shown above: Spanish galleon firing its cannons. Date and artist unknown. View of the ship is the port side. Derived from the practice of sailors mooring ships on the left side at ports in order to prevent the steering oar from being crushed.(Wikipedia) Here’s more on the possible origin of the term ‘larboard,’ and the later use of the term ‘port side,’ from a nautical history fact sheetprovided by the NMM (National Maritime Museum, UK):
In Old English, the term was bæcbord, perhaps because the helmsman at the steorbord had his back to the ship’s left-hand side. This did not survive into Medieval and later English, when ‘larboard’ was used. Possibly this term is derived from laddebord, meaning ‘loading side’;the side rudder (steorbord) would be vulnerable to damage if it went alongside a quay, so early ships would have been loaded (‘laded’) with the side against the quay. In time laddebord became larboard, as steorbord became starboard. Even so, from an early date ‘port’ was sometimes used as the opposite for starboard when giving steering orders, perhaps deriving from the loading port, which was in the larboard side. However, it was only from the mid-19th century that, according to Admiral Smyth’s The Sailor’s Word Book, published in 1867, ‘the left side of the ship is called port, by Admiralty Order, in preference to larboard, as less mistakeable in sound for starboard’. (NMM)
Shown above: Wooden model ship depicting a Spanish galleon, MuseoStorico Navale di Venezia (Naval History Museum) in Venice, Italy.View of the ship is the starboard side.
Starboard: Before ships had rudders on their centerlines, they were steered by use of a specialized steering oar. This oar was held by an oarsman located in the stern (back) of the ship. However, like most of society, there were many more right-handed sailors than left-handed sailors This meant that the steering oar used to be affixed to the right side of the ship. The word starboard comes from Old English steorbord,literally meaning the side on which the ship is steered, descendant from the Old Norse words stýri, meaning ‘rudder’ and borð, meaning‘side of a ship.’ (NMM)
So, back to bowing to the audience - you’re facing the front (bow) of the ship. The producer of the show is behind the scenes, looking stern (the back of the ship.) It’s boring being a star, so even though you’re standing there waving (most likely with your right hand - sorry, lefties!), you’re really bored. You’re a star and you’re bored, doing a limp royal wave. Starboard - the right hand side of the ship.

Shown above: The royal wave, translated: We are a star and we are so bored. And in the meantime you’re making small talk, with a glass in the other hand - and it has some port in it. Port side - the left side of the ship when facing the bow. There, all done! For the lefties, it might just be easier to remember,‘Star light, star bright, starboard is to the right.’ If the whole ‘star light, star bright’ doesn’t really stick in your head, can always memorize a music tune about the difference between port side and starboard. Well, look here! There just happens to be a cute music video out there about this very topic. How very fortuitous:

Shown above: Port Side, by Captain Bogg and Salty. There we are - next time you find yourself aboard a ship, you’ll know a little bit more about where you are and what things are called. You already know what all of these mean: Bow, stern, port side,starboard, t’gallant, forecastle (forward deck), crow’s nest, and the masts. Don’t believe you could learn that much in just five minutes? Give yourself a pop quiz, you’ll see:

Shown above: The Straits of Hormuz, John Michael Groves. Year and medium not indicated.(Via: In the image above, take a look at the ship on the left - what are you seeing, from your point of view as an observer? That’s right, the stern. Now, the ship in the center, what are you seeing? That’s right, portside - plus the main mast, the deck, can also point out where the forecastle is and where the t’gallant and crow’s nest are likely to be. Lastly, the ship all the way on the right, what are you seeing? That’s right, the bow of the ship is the first thing you see, and just a bit of - yes, the starboard side just coming into view. Hope you enjoyed reading about the different parts of sailing ships and have fun exploring the topic.

Feel free to visit the rest of the tour to read some other cool features about ships, trips and, above all, pirates!
RandomMagic Tour: Pirates! Browse Scedule.

If you’d like to know more about Random Magic, feel free to check out the trailer above, or pick from one of these delicious Random Magic links. There might or might not be pirates involved, but for sure there’ll be fun!

Image credits: Diagram 1 - 2 
Image credits: Header image or header image


  1. Very interesting! Now I actually know the parts of my pirate ship model :)

  2. Excellent feature - I have always gotten everything mixed up, and I usually just roll with wherever they're going.

    But I totally love the video! I may just listen to it a few more times - and then find myself more savvy! :D

  3. Why did you post a video from the Onion? You know it's satire, right?

  4. @Anonymous I think Sasha sent it to me because it shows lots of clips of the queen waving. :)

  5. I really enjoyed this. In the middle of writing my own fantasy novel I suddenly found myself with action happening on a pirate ship. I found your site has the best data of any on the internet and is very fun as well.