Sailor Speak of the Week – Keelhauling

A Tudor period woodcut of the practice of keelhauling.


Alternatively spelled: keel hauling, keel-hauling


  • A (often lethal) form of punishment involving dragging a sailor underneath the keel of a vessel from one side to the other.


Probably earlier than the 17th century. From the Dutch word, kielhalen.


A punishment that reportedly originated in the Dutch Navy, there were several ways of carrying out this practice. One involved dragging the culprit underneath the keel of the vessel athwartships. The person would be lowered from a yardarm on one side of the vessel and, having another rope tied to them that led underneath the vessel to a yardarm on the opposite side, would be dragged under the vessel, perpendicular to its keel. If the vessel was short enough, the person could be dragged longitudinally under the vessel from one end to the other.

This practice was particularly brutal if done in cold water. The culprit could also suffer injuries from striking the bottom of the vessel or from being dragged along the barnacles and other fouling along the hull. Supposedly, the victim could be keel-hauled several times in a single punishment before succumbing to their wounds, drowning, or reaching the point of exhaustion.

This practice was slowly phased out in the British and Dutch Navies by the early 18th century in favor of floggings with the cat-o’-nine tails.


King, D., Hattendorf, J.B, & Estes, J.W. (1997). A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales (2nd Ed.). Owl Books.

Rogers, J.G. (1985). Origins of Sea Terms. Mystic Seaport.

One comment

  1. I remember a letter written by a USN Captain to his crew on the occasion of the banning of some of the more sever forms of corporal punishment. In it he expressed his sorrow that he’d no longer be able to use devices like thumb screws for punishment, but would have to flog. a worse from of punishment in his eyes. I found the letter in an issue of Mariner’s Mirror.


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