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Pin Rails and Belaying Pins

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  • Member since
    December 2002
  • From: Greenville,Michigan
Posted by millard on Friday, December 30, 2005 7:23 PM

Jtilley has bought up and interesting point about the debut of belaying pins.I had read our heard somewhere that belaying pins didn't come along until the late 1600's.I don't have anything to substantiate this.Perhaps someone has a history of them.I know the model's I do from the 1400's and and earlier have belaying pins molded in.I cut them off and just use the rail or carve a cleat for tieing off my rigging..


  • Member since
    July 2004
  • From: Monterey Bay, CA
Posted by schoonerbumm on Friday, December 30, 2005 1:05 PM

Captain Paasch's 1894 marine dictionary 'From Keel to Truck' defines 'fife-rails' as being 'fixed around masts, pumps, etc.', while 'pin-rails' are 'fixed immediately inside of the bulwark or immediately above the deadeyes in the wake of the various masts'.

In modern parlance, 'fife-rail' has pretty much disappeared, being replaced by 'pin-rack' ( a short one) or 'pin-rail' (a long one)  I've seen the terms hyphenated (Captain Paasch's usage), two words and combined into a single word.

Relative to the Hancock, I think that the presence of pin rails was highly probable; 

Marquardt's 'Eighteenth Century Rigs and Rigging' shows pin rails within the bulwarks 'around 1780'.

Boudriot's '74 Gun Ship' "of the 1780's" uses pin rails within the bulwarks.  His 'La Belle Poule' of 1765 does not have them. His reconstruction of the Bonhomme Richard has pin rails within the bulwarks for both the main and mizzen masts (1778-79). 







"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Benjamin Franklin

  • Member since
    May 2003
  • From: Greenville, NC
Posted by jtilley on Friday, December 30, 2005 8:50 AM

The term "pinrail" shows up in lots of contemporary accounts and manuals.  So does "fife rail."  The latter term generally seems to have been used fairly specifically to refer to a rail with belaying pins in it at the foot of a mast.  (Sometimes, especially from the mid-nineteenth century onward, the fife rail consisted of a ring attached to the mast itself.  But the term seems to have been used just as often in reference to the rails that were mounted on stanchions on the ship's centerline.)  "Pinrail" (or "pin rail") generally referred to the timber (pierced for belaying pins) that ran along the inside of the ship's bulwark.  By the middle of the nineteenth century the term "pinrail" was showing up on structural plans, to refer to the heavy railing that topped the bulwark stanchions.  (The "monkey rail" above it often - though by no means always - had separate, lighter stanchions that were secured to the pinrail.)  The pinrail often ran in one piece all around the ship (or at least the length of the main deck), sometimes increasing in breadth abreast the masts (where it was actually pierced for the pins).  The Cutty Sark is a good example.

I can't recall seeing "fife rail" on a contemporary set of plans in reference to anything but the fittings next to the masts.  But the old boys frequently weren't as precise in their use of terminology as we'd like to think.  If we'd been around during the seventeenth or eighteenth century I rather suspect we might have heard those terms used almost interchangably. 

One point about which I've been curious for a long time is the date of the introduction of the belaying pin.  It seems to have been around, with virtually no change in form, from at least the time of the Spanish Armada.  I assume the first belaying pins were made of wood, but iron ones were in use by the last quarter of the eighteenth century.  (The detailed inventories of the Continental frigates Raleigh and Alliance, made during the American Revolution, mention both wood and iron belaying pins - though with no indication of any distinction between their uses.) 

I'm also unclear about the dates when the various forms of pinrail got introduced.  My general impression is that the first belaying pins appeared in the crosspieces of topsail sheet bitts, on the ship's centerline.  I think the concept of the pinrail inside the bulwark appeared sometime late in the eighteenth century - but I'm not sure.  (Contemporary plans, such as British Admiralty drawings, usually are extremely vague about this sort of thing.)  I have a copy of James Lees's The Masting and Rigging of English Ships of War, 1625-1860 in front of me.  Mr. Lees includes a section on belaying point plans, based primarily on contemporary models.  His earliest example of pinrails inside the bulwarks is a frigate of about 1810.  His belaying point plan for a 20-gun ship of about 1719 includes pinrails secured to the mizzen shrouds and small, vertical "belaying racks" on the mizzen mast - but not inside the bulwarks. 

I put pinrails on the insides of the bulwarks of my model of the frigate Hancock (1776), but that may have been a mistake.  There's no doubt, though, that belaying pins were in widespread use - somewhere or other - by the time of the American Revolution.  Quite a few of them (all wood, so far as I know) have been found in the wrecks of the warships and merchantmen that were scuttled in the York River in 1781.

Fascinating stuff. 

Youth, talent, hard work, and enthusiasm are no match for old age and treachery.

  • Member since
    April 2004
Posted by Chuck Fan on Friday, December 30, 2005 1:39 AM
I believe the commonly used term for a rail holding the belying pins is fife rail. Although pin rails the point across.
  • Member since
    July 2004
  • From: Monterey Bay, CA
Pin Rails and Belaying Pins
Posted by schoonerbumm on Wednesday, December 28, 2005 3:44 PM

Here is a shot showing how lines are belayed on the replica brig  Lady Washington. Bare belaying pins can be seen in the foreground. 

Lines leading aloft are taken around the lower half of the pin and then criss-crossed in a figure eight pattern around the top and bottom of the pin to secure the line. The lines are not tied or knotted, the last 'turn' is wedged between the top of the pin rail and the first turn with a firm yank on the 'tail' end of the line. The free line is then coiled and secured to the top of the belyaing pin by taking the last foot or so of line (actual length depending on size of the coil) between the pin and coil and making a half twist which wraps through the coil and around the top of the pin.  

To work a line, the half twist loop is removed from the pin and the coil 'capsized' on to the deck, so that the line will run free as it uncoils. The wraps on the pin are undone until a single 'S' shaped wrap remains with a crewmember maintaining tension on the 'tail'.

If the line is to be hauled, one or more crew members will pull on the line above the pin. The crewmember providing the 'tail' will haul the line through the 'S' wrap on the pin and maintain tension. The friction of the 'S' wrap prevents the line from pulling back. Final tension on the line is provided by a process called 'sweating'. When the line is as taught as pulling will provide, one or more crew members will pull together perpendicular to the line. Laws of trigonometry provide a huge amplification of force on the line. In choreographed 'dance' the crew on the upline side of the pin yank the line sideways and then down, gaining fractions of an inch at a time, while the member(s) on the tail haul the resulting slack through the pin.

If the line is to be 'eased', a crewmember 'tends' the line, feeding line into the pin as required. Lines may be traken off the pin to reduce the exertion on the crewmembers hauling on the other end of the yard, etc., but must be tended to prevent tangles or knots from fouling blocks. Removing a line from a pin is inherently dangerous though, comic as it may appear to others, getting a line wrapped around your ankle could spoil a perfectly good day. 

In light of the above, belaying pins are not normally removed in line handling. Their lack of permanent attachment is for other practical reasons (moisture entrapment and resulting dry rot is one good one).

In the background, just past the cannon (which is not realistically rigged here) is a 'kevel', ( a board mounted across structural supports) used in securing heavy lines (in this case, normally the fore course sheet, but here it looks like it's being used with a dock line). Again the figure eight criss-cross is used to secure the line. Note that instead of a hanging coil, the larger line is 'flaked'on the deck.  Flakes can be of various configurations, depending on the size of the line, space available and task at hand. Shown is a 'figure 8' flake. A rope coil on deck is a form of a flake.   

To the upper left is a line secured to a cleat.

Hope this helps.




"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." Benjamin Franklin


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