Tutorial - The Captain of the Capstan
This tutorial is complete
Updated with clearer, more succinct illustrations
Hello all! In the spirit of Horry's recent tutorials based around making more historically accurate nautical vessels I've decided to help him spread the wealth of knowledge that is to be had.
I plan to update this thread every so often with a new capstan design for all the different ships that are of interest to the great patrons of these forums.
Seeing how it seems most applicable I first present the capstan assembly for rated men-of-war from the late 17th century till the end of the age of sail.(Those being frigates and ships-of-the-line.)
Part I: Rated Men-of-War from pre- and post-Napoleonic era.
"'All hands unmoor ship,' said Jack, raising his voice to the pitch of an
order, though every man had been at his station these ten minutes past,
angrily willing the pilot to stop his prating, to stash it, to pipe down;
and instantly the bosun sprung his call.
'See,' cried Stephen, 'the carpenter and his crew put the bars in the
capstan - they ship them, pin them and swift them.'
'They bring the messenger to the capstan: the gunner ties its rounded
ends together. What are they called, Maturin?'
'Let us not be too pedantic, for all love. The whole point is, the
messenger is now endless: it is a serpent that has swallowed its own tail.'
'I cannot see it,' said Standish, leaning far out over the rail. 'Where is
'Why,' said Martin, 'it is that rope they are putting over the rollers just
beneath us in the waist, a vast loop that goes from the capstan to two
other stout vertical rollers by the hawse-holes and so back.'
'I do not understand. I see the capstan, but there is no rope round it at
'What you see is the upper capstan,' said Stephen with some
complacency. 'The messenger is twined about the lower part, under the
quarterdeck. But both the lower and the upper part are equipped with
bars: both turn: both heave, as we say. See, they undo the deck-stoppers,
or dog-stoppers as some superficial observers call them - they loosen the
starboard cable, the cable on the right-hand side - they throw off the
turn about the riding-bitts! What force and dexterity!'
'They bring the messenger to the cable - they bind it to the cable with
'Where? Where? I cannot see.'
'Of course not. They are right forward, by the hawse-holes, where the
cable comes into the ship, under the forecastle.'
'But presently,' said Stephen in a comforting tone, 'you will perceive the
cable come creeping aft, led by the messenger.'
John Foley, the Shelmerston fiddler, skipped on to the capstan-head; at
his first notes the men at the bars stepped out, and after the first turns
that brought on the strain, three deep voices and one clear tenor sang
Yeo heave ho, round the capstan go,
Heave men with a will
Tramp and tramp it still
The anchor must be weighed, the anchor must be weighed
joined by all in a roaring
Yeo heave ho
Yeo heave ho
five times repeated before the three struck in again
Yeo heave ho, raise her from below
Heave men with a will
Tramp and tramp it still
The anchor's off the ground, the anchor's off the ground
'There is your cable,' said Martin in a very much louder voice, after the
first few lines.
'So it is,' said Standish; and having stared at it coming in like a great
wet serpent he went on, 'But it is not going to the capstan at all.'
'Certainly not,' said Stephen in a screech above the full chorus. 'It is far
too thick to bend round the capstan; furthermore, it is loaded with the
vile mud of Tagus.'
'They undo the flippers and let the cable down the main hatchway and
so to the orlop, where they coil it on the cable-tiers,' said Martin. 'And
they hurry back with the flippers to bind fresh cable to the messenger as
it travels round.'
'How active they are,' observed Stephen. 'See how diligently they answer
Captain Pullings' request to light along the messenger, that is to say pull
along the slack on that side which is not heaving in -'
'And how they run with the flippers: Davies has knocked Plaice flat.'
'What are those men doing with the other cable?' asked Standish.
'They are veering it out,' answered Martin quickly.
'You are to understand that we are moored,' said Stephen. 'In other
words we are held by two anchors, widely separated; when we
approach the one, therefore, by pulling on its cable, the cable belonging
to the other must necessarily be let out, and this is done by the veering
cable-men. But their task is almost over, for if I do not mistake we are
short stay apeak. I say we are short stay apeak.'
But before he could insist upon this term, better than any Martin could
produce, and reasonably accurate, a voice from the forecastle called
'Heave and a-weigh, sir,' whereupon Jack cried 'Heave and rally' with
great force. All the veerers ran to the bars, the fiddler fiddled extremely
fast, and with a violent, grunting yeo heave ho they broke the anchor
from its bed and ran it up to the bows.
The subsequent operations, the hooking of the cat to the anchor-ring,
the running of the anchor up to the cat.head, the fishing of the anchor,
the shifting of the messenger for the other cable (which of course
required a contrary turn), and many more, were too rapid and perhaps
too obscure to be explained before Jack gave the order 'Up anchor' and
the music started again; but this time they sang
We'll heave him up from down below
Way oh Criana
That is where the cocks do crow
We're all bound over the mountain
to the sound of a shrill sweet fife.
The ship moved easily, steadily over the water - the tide was making fast
- and presently West, on the forecastle, called 'Up and down, sir.'
'He means that we are directly over the anchor,' said Stephen. 'Now you
will see something.'
'Loose topsails,' said Jack in little more than a conversational voice, and
at once the shrouds were dark with men racing aloft.
He gave no more orders. The Surprises lay out, let fall, sheeted home,
hoisted and braced the topsails with perfect unity, as though they had
all served together throughout a long commission. The frigate gathered
way, plucked the anchor from its bed and moved smoothly up the
- excerpt from The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O'Brian
The capstan assembly is the device used to raise and lower the ship's anchor(s). The capstan is a vertical-axled machine passing through at least two decks depending on the size of the vessel. It is operated by up to 100 men, again depending on the size of ship.
Here we see an exterior view of the bow of a 2 decker ship-of-the-line. The cable anchor passes through the hawse holes. It does not connect directly to the capstan (as we'll see). At this time in history the anchor was so large that it would break the capstan was it to wrap directly around it. It also took several men to handle the cable.
Okay. So here we can see all the inner workings. The way it all works is this: the messenger cable is wound around the trundlehead. (It would have been wound much more than once as pictured, but can't do it in LDD with those tubes.) The messenger cable then ran around the rollers and rode on the bits to keep it off the deck. (Also when the ship is "at anchor" the anchor cable is wove around the bits. This is how it keeps the ship in place. Otherwise the end of the anchor cable would just slide out the hawse hole and someone would have to handle another rope's end. ) The anchor cable was lashed to the messenger cable with bits of rope called nippers. (The nipper lashings would have extended from the hawse holes down the length of cable all the way to the hatch, not just the two I have pictured.) As a nipper reached the cable hatch a small boy (called a Nipper) would untie the lashing and run up to the forward bulkhead to tie it onto the cable that was just coming through the hawse hole. Down in the orlop were several strong and hearty lads who man-handled the anchor cable to lay and stack it neatly. (Though not displayed here, since the pre-fab hull pieces cut off some depth, the area of deck the cable was laid on had several planks missing so that air could circulate about the cable to dry it.
A note on the deck location for different sized men-of-war. As previously stated the displayed ship would be a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th rate "two decker." Were this a 1st or 2nd rate three-decker the trundlehead would extend up one more deck and there would be a second drumhead there. On a frigate: the deck where the trundlehead is shown would be the single gun-deck and the drumhead would be on the main deck (aka weatherdeck). With most frigates the capstan was light enough that when not in use it was bodily lowered into the gun deck to clear the main deck and a ship's launch was stored there.
A note on capstan location within the ship: Whilst pictured here just abaft the foremast the location of the capstan (trundlehead and drumhead) could be as far aft as just fore the mainmast.
I think that's about it. I'll probably do un-rated napoleonic ships next.
Questions, comments, concerns, critiques and criticisms are all welcome.