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Sailing the Ancient Way - Knots, Watches, and Traverse Boards

Updated on October 2, 2013

Standing the Watch

Young boys and men signed on as ship boys and sailors to find a way to American because they couldn’t afford passage to America. Often the younger men wanted to learn the skills to become sailors. When the young men decided sailing was the life for them, they would have to work their way across the ocean as sailors. They had to learn to stand the “watch.”

Transverse Board.  The sailors would not have the areas in color.  The color helps the reader review the parts.
Transverse Board. The sailors would not have the areas in color. The color helps the reader review the parts.


Ship boys and sailors would stand watch for a four hour period. There were many things happening during a watch.

  • There could be storms, other ships could approach, or the watchman might doze off to sleep neglecting his duties. It was important to stay on course. If a sailor drifted off to sleep, the results could mean extra days at sea which in turn could cause the ship to run out of previsions.
  • They could run ashore or end up in an entirely different place than they wanted to land. It was important of have a record of which way the wind was blowing, how fast the ship was moving, and in which direction the ship was moving.
  • Unfortunately, the sailors didn’t have satellites and advance maps to help them on their journey. Early sailors had to keep records so they wouldn’t get lost and could return home.

Watches were for four hours. There would be an hourglass that would measure every thirty minutes. When thirty minutes or half-hour had passed a bell would ring. So at the end of the first half-hour, there would be one bell.

  • Second half hour – two bells and so on.
  • If a sailor had been on watch for two hours –The bell would have ringed 4 times.

Log Line

During the watch the sailor would have to know the speed of the ship. The method that was used was called a Log Line. These log lines were handmade.

  • The sailors would take a piece of rope that had 7 sections. The sections were marked by knots. Each section would be six feet long (or a fathom) followed by a knot.
  • On the end of the rope was a piece of wood called the log. It was a piece of wood that was weighted in a way that the wood would not sink, but would float behind the ship.
  • There would be enough friction from the water to pull the wood chip away from the ship as the ship moved forward. The sailors taking the reading would count the number of knots that passed over the rail in a period of half a minute. This would give the knots-per-hour.

The Compass Rose

The Compass Rose also came into play. The four cardinal directions are North, South, East, and West. Then there are intermediate points. There were 32 directions on a Transverse Board to mark while the sailor was on his watch. The top of the board had holes that radiated from the center. The holes in the center would be filled first to mark where the ship was located at the end of the first four hour. The ship had passed that particular location. The next reading would be marked on the second circle out from the center.

  • The four rows at the bottom of the board record the four hours of the watch and the number of knots the ship was traveling. If a ship was traveling at 3 knots during the first hour of the watch, the hole would be mark on the third block going from left to right on the first row.
  • At the end of the watch, these readings would be given to the ship’s master to record in the permanent record of the ship or the log.

Jamestown was the first colony, but Williamsburg was the first city. Unlike Jamestown, Williamsburg had women and children. Currently there is a fine replica of the type of one of the ships that would cross the ocean bringing new settlers to the colonies in Jamestown. It is apparent when why so many people died along the way. The areas below deck were small, and there was a lack of sanitation. If food or water was lost during a storm, there was little crews could do to replenish their stock.

Sailing was a perilous adventure when settlers first started populating the colonies. It was the brave or the desperate that became sailors.


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