Deck Nomenclature

On another thread the question regarding the term “towline” came up.

Here’s from a Navy training document:

Rope is a general term and can include both fiber and wire rope. In the Navy, Sailors generally refer to fiber rope as line, and wire rope is referred to as rope, wire rope, or wire. A better definition of a line is as follows: A line is a length of rope, either fiber or wire, that is in use or has been cut for a specific purpose, such as a lifeline, heaving line, or lead line.

It’s not uncommon for tugs to sometimes use wire for a headline. The usage of ‘line’ in that case is similar to its use in the term “towline”. Could be wire or fiber.

Here’s the link: BASIC SEAMANSHIP

USN YTM and WTB tugs used to use what is called “swede” wire or spring lay line that was wound on a special capstan on the bow and used as a head line. It is a combination of wire and rope wound together and has no stretch at all. I didn’t care to handle it to much and a good pair of gloves was required. Easy to get wire splinters.

We used to call parted wire strands fishhooks


It’s been a lot of years since my last USN shipboard duty, but mooring lines were synthetic line and when storm lines were called for we used spring lay. Each ship would lead their storm lines to the bollards across the pier, for a much improved angle on the line. Of course, no vehicular traffic after those were rigged.

USN ships, as well as Allied navy ships, did “tow and be-towed” exercises fairly regularly. IIRC, the ship being towed would have a chain lead through the bullnose, while the towing ship had a large towing hawser crossing a large piece of wood on the fantail, with an axe close by if needed.

As I said, it’s been a long time, but the US Navy Towing Manual (522 pages long) has this small entry:

6-6 Tow and Be Towed by Naval Vessels
*All U.S. Navy ships (except submarines and aircraft carriers) are capable of towing, using their own emergency towing hawsers. When two Navy ships are involved in a “tow and be towed” operation, each provides its own emergency towing hawser to form half of the total towing system (see *
Figure 6-8).

Some Navy ships may be equipped with old, little-used hawsers. These ships may not be aware of the recently understood problems with deterioration of nylon rope over time. All should be alerted to current directives concerning replacement of emergency towing hawsers. Double-braided polyester hawsers (MIL-R-24677) are preferred.

Some people say anchor cable for an anchor chain.

I don’t hear that many people saying anchor cable anymore, not many people from non-english speaking countries say it.

I have seen that somewhat recently but only once. I worked on a semi-sub that was built in Norway and it had MacGregor anchor winches, they were labeled as Cable Units on the HMI screens and drawings.

It is quite a common term among old school British seafarers, but younger ones tend to say chain rather than cable.

One thing I warn fledgling mariners about; most things nautical have three names. Hence:
anchor chain
anchor cable
anchor rode (mostly a yachting thing, I think, and maybe a Briticism)

The meaning of words sometimes change over time. The nautical usage of the term “cable” is a good example. The entry for “cable” in " The Oxford Companion of Ships and the Sea" is fairly long. Cable at one time meant hemp rope over a certain size. The entry uses the term “chain cable” which come into use in about 1800 but that term doesn’t make much sense out of context. Today “cable” often means a method of getting a TV signal.

Aboard ship sometimes using the less technically correct term makes more sense. For example aboard ship using the term “gangway” instead of “accommodation ladder”. An argument could be made depending on context that “gangway” is in fact sometimes correct based on usage. When ordering parts however there’s no drawing of the gangway.

“Cable” was also an old unit of measure equaling 1/10th of a nautical mile.

Still used extensively


In most of the world 1 Cable length = 1/10 N.Mile = 185.3184 m (SI base unit)

But of course it is not that simple for those who still use traditional Imperial or US units:

Or do you want to convert Cable length (US) to Steps:

BTW; Ropes are still sold in coils of 220 m., which is eqv. to 1 Cable length (US):

Mostly used in anchorages, warning other ships to stay clear. I think it survived as a distance because it’s short, two syllables. Better on the radio, same as “gangway”

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Anchor rode is the common term on sailboats. It can be chain, rope, or a combination. One of my chores is redoing the rope to chain splice in my rode.

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I agree that “cable”, used as a term of distance does seem to be a little more easily understood by most international sailors. Better understood than numbers or fractions of miles, etc. I always used the term when speaking to other sailors, mostly Asians, and the info seemed to flow well.

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I’ve been asked a handful of times what a cable is when using the term. Aside from Bug’s impressive ability to regurgitate minutiae from Google, US sailors understand a cable to mean one-tenth of a nautical mile which for practical purposes is 600 feet.

That is because they all use the same system of measurement (IS) and decimal not fractions for part of a unit.
So the problem is not with the majority of “international sailors” but with the few “laggards” that is stuck in the old obsolete systems of measurements.

We still do!

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Another nomenclature item; the car ships (at least the ones I’ve been on) do not have a deck named 'main deck". The “uppermost complete deck extending from bow to stern” is called the “boat deck”.

I always thought the freeboard deck, where the stern ramp is, was a better candidate for the term but all the decks below the boat deck are numbered, not named.

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In your never ending crusade to criticize America, you’re inventing a problem where none exists. A tenth of a nautical mile is the same distance whether a sailor thinks of it as 600 feet or 185 meters.