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A holystone is a block of sandstone used to sand the deck of a ship. The typical procedure is to spread a mixture of sand and water on the deck, place the stone atop it, and scrub back and forth with the stone. The scattered sand would scrape away any dirt on the deck, smooth down any pitch which had worked its way up from the seams on deck, and remove the top layer of wood from the deck. The combination produced a slightly lighter colored wood, somewhat more tacky feel, and smooth seams. The sand and detritus would be swept, scrubbed, and washed from deck with swabs, buckets, and hoses and the deck then flogged dry as part of the morning routine. This was typically done every morning and both Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are often awakened -- or not, depending on how tired they are -- by the noise, which tends to echo throughout the ship with a sound quite unlike any other.

The name is thought to derive from the fact that such scrubbing is done by hand, requiring a seaman to kneel; thus, the holystone brings a man to his knees. Building off the etymology, smaller stones were termed "prayer-books". As Preserved Killick once explains to Maturin, "a bear, at sea, was only a holystone writ large".[1].


  1. O'Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. (c)1996, W.W. Norton & Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY: p. 91
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