Sailor Speak of the Week – Capstan

(Hattendorf & Estes 1997, 68)



  • A large vertical-axis drum-head engine that is used to hoist anchors or heavy equipment.


Probably earlier than the early 17th century. Likely from the Portuguese, cabestan, which is further traced to the Latin, capistrare, meaning to fasten with rope.


There are a number of different types of capstans. Generally speaking, capstans are vertical machinery, usually mounted on the forecastle deck, used to hoist an anchor, whereas a windlass does the same thing, but is horizontally oriented. The two can be connected, as well. A traditional capstan, such as the one illustrated above, is manually operated. The barrel is lined with vertical whelps to grip the hawsers or cables that are being hove in. At the top of the barrel is a drumhead with pigeon holes into which capstan bars can be inserted. The bars would then be manned and pushed which would rotate the capstan and weigh the anchor. It’s the classic image of sailors sweating and complaining as they walk around in a circle, pushing some wooden poles.

A series of pawls is beneath the barrel which engages with a pawl-ring. This prevents the capstan from running back on itself under heavy load and sending men flying (unlike in cartoons). Two cable holders are usually geared to the capstan engine so that the bower anchors can be weighed directly without their cables being led to the capstan barrel.

Modern versions are steam, electric, or hydraulically driven. As such, they do not have the drumhead on the top since the machinery is reliable enough to not require manpower to operate. There’s much more that can be said about the use and arrangements of such gear, but I won’t go into it here (and I’m no Boatswain’s Mate).


Kemp, P. (1994). The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea. Oxford University Press.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s