Old Navy Terms

This is a list of Old Navy terms and their meanings.  You may recognise a few, which are also still in (non-nautical) use today.


Clean Bill of Health

A certificate signed by the Port Authority to say the ship on departure had no contagious diseases aboard.


Clean Slate

The daily log kept by watch-keepers was written on a slate slab, and cleaned before handing over to the next watch.


Even Keel

A ship that floats upright without listing is on an even keel.


First Rate

The mark of a first class wooden ship registered at ‘LLoyds’ with a 100 guns or more.


Flotsam & Jetsam

Flotsam is the cargo of a ship that is lost by accident at sea and found floating on the water.

Jetsam or Jettisoned is cargo or equipment deliberately thrown overboard to make the ship stable in rough seas.



The bottom part of a sail is called the foot, if this part of the sail is flapping or dancing in the wind and not secured, it is called footloose.


Foul Up

Is a term used when something is caught up, an anchor caught on another cable is ‘fouled up’. Or foul bottom is poor anchor-holding ground.


Jury Rig

A temporary repair to a ship’s mast or rudder to keep it on course, or to head back to port, with a broken mast that’s temporarily fixed.


Keel Hauling

An old naval punishment whereby the offender was tied up thrown over the side, pulled under the ship and keel, across the barnacles and up the other side


Long shot

The gunpowder used in a muzzle loading canon to fire an iron ball, was of unknown quality and the shot of a considered 1000 yards maximum sometimes did a long shot of nearly 2000 yards.


Loose Cannon

In heavy weather situations a cannon could come loose on the deck and create havoc, in some instances severe injury could result as the sailors tried to hold back the out of control cannon.


Pipe Down

The last call from the Bosun’s pipe at the end of the day meaning ‘lights out’ and into your hammocks.



Scuttle is to make a hole in something, generally the ladle so that sailors couldn’t hang around the water butt too long drinking and chatting.


Turn a Blind Eye

Admiral Lord Nelson’s reaction when told to stop the action at the Battle of Copenhagen, by putting his spyglass to his blind eye, insisting he didn’t see the signal and carried on fighting.


Under the Weather

Sailors who had to stand watch on the windward (weather) side of the bow. It was windy, wet and cold, the worst place to stand watch.



A sudden unexpected wind from an island or close to shore pushing the ship away from the shore.


Fits The Bill

The Bill of Lading was checked and signed off by the ship’s master whilst ashore. Upon delivery to the ship the goods were checked against the Bill of Lading, and if they were all there they would ‘fit the bill’.


All Hands on Deck

A gathering on deck by sailors to carry out a task.



A ships measure to give the depth of water under the ship. One fathom equals six feet. Trying to fathom the distance or get to the bottom of it.


Give a wide berth

To anchor a safe distance away from another anchored ship.


Clean Slate

The daily log kept by watch-keepers was written on a slate slab, and cleaned before handing over to the next watch.

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