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To weigh is to raise the anchor (or rather anchors, since it was usual to moor a ship with two) from the sea-bed. The expression "to weigh anchor", referring to the fact that the full weight of the suspended anchor is felt or measured by the falls, should not be confused with the expression "under way", which means that the subject is moving, viz., making its way.



In the days before powered machinery, the task of weighing anchor was a major one involving more than half the crew. On the order 'All hands to weigh anchor!' the greater part of the seamen, together with their supervising officers, would divide into five main groups as prescribed by the ship's watch book.

  • Capstan The largest body, consisting of strong but unskilled men (a large proportion being Royal Marines), would man the principal capstan aft of the mainmast, first shipping the bars (that is, fitting them into their sockets) and running the swifting line between their extremities, then taking their places to heave the capstan round; with 4-10 men at each of the bars (which might number between 10 and 14) and one or two at each sector of the swifting-line, the total number might be over 160 on a ship of the line.
  • Stowing party Up to 60 men would go to the cable tier to handle the cable of the first anchor as it came in, coiling it down in neat fakes.
  • Veering party Another substantial group would attend to the cable of the second anchor, their task being to veer or pay it out, since there was a natural tendency for the tension to increase on this cable as the other was hauled in.
  • Messenger As the main cables were far too thick and rigid to be coiled round the barrel of the capstan, a lighter though still strong rope was used as a messenger or carrier. Thirty or more men might be assigned to this. They would give it several turns round the lower barrel of the capstan, lead it through a series of pulleys suspended from the deck-beams on the larboard (port) side and round two rollers extending the whole height of the deck at the forward end, take it aft again on the starboard side (where the anchor cable would be secured to it by means of coils of rope called nippers), and hook its two ends together to make a continuous loop.
  • Forecastle The final group would take a stand on the forecastle to manipulate the anchor once it broke surface.


A fiddler or fifer, squatting cross-legged on the head of the capstan, strikes up a rhythmical tune to regulate and encourage the men as they begin to thrust at the bars, turning the capstan clockwise so that the starboard side of the messenger is hauled taut and begins to move aft, bringing the anchor cable with it. As each of the nippers reaches a point almost above the hatchway leading to the cable tier, it is released by boys who then run forward to attach it to the new length of cable that has just come in through the hawse hole. (From this task, the term 'nipper' came to be applied colloquially to the boys themselves, and subsequently to any child.) This continues until the first anchor comes free and hangs directly downward from the cathead (the anchor is then said to be a-trip). The officer supervising the forecastle party then calls out 'Up and down. sir', and the captain or first lieutenant in charge of the whole operation replies 'Thick and dry for weighing' - meaning that the cable must be allowed to resume its normal girth after the stretching and attenuation which it naturally suffers during the hauling process, and that as much water as is reasonably possible must be drained from it, before any more of it is brought inboard. When these conditions are fulfilled, the forecastle party attaches the cat hook to the ring of the anchor and pulls it up to the cathead. The last stage is to fish the anchor, using a special tackle to draw the foot of the anchor upwards and backwards until the shank is nearly horizontal and finally securing it to a belaying pin. Meanwhile, the cable of the second anchor is attached to the messenger and taken through the same sequence of operations.

Other methods of weighing

  • Weighing by the longboat is a method sometimes used when the anchor could not readily be cleared from the sea-bed. The longboat would be rowed out to the buoy which marked the position of the anchor, and the free end of the buoy-rope would be attached to a tackle suspended from the boat's davit. The crew of the boat would haul on this until the anchor came free. The anchor-cable could then be wound in by the ship's capstan.
  • Weighing with a voyol was an archaic technique, occasionally used when the principal capstan was out of action. A shorter messenger would be passed between the secondary capstan (jeer capstan) near the mainmast and a block fixed to the mainmast itself, and by this means the cable would be brought in directly over the ship's side.
  • Weighing with a windlass was the usual method on merchant ships, which lacked the manpower necessary for the use of the capstan.

In the Canon

In The Far Side of the World, when the iron pawls of the capstan are damaged, Aubrey declares, "We shall weigh with a voyol to the jeer-capstan." Explaining, "This is a voyol with a difference", he describes the process to the midshipmen thus:

He makes [a big, single-sheaved block] fast to the cable -- he reeves the jeer-fall through it -- the jeer-fall is brought to its capstan, with the standing part belayed to the bitts. So you get a direct runner-purchase instead of a dead nip, do you understand?[1]


  1. O'Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. (c)1984 by William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd. Published as a Norton Paperback 1992: p. 237
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