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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. A vessel that is carrying out this process is said to be under weigh, a phrase which is often corrupted to under 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 drum 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, is 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 breaks surface and hangs directly downward from the cathead. 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.

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