Saturday, February 25, 2012

Deck Hardware

Panama Canal line handlers work with deck fittings on the R/Y Alucia.

A cleat (top), open chocks,
and bitts. From The American
Merchant Seaman's Manual
I was new to the maritime industry, working as a bartender on a small cruise ship. We were in port that morning, most of the passengers off on tours ashore, most of the crew rushing through their morning duties in hopes of grabbing a few precious minutes off the boat. I stood on deck with a cup of coffee a few minutes before I had to report for work, just taking in the scenery and enjoying some peace and quiet. Suddenly, a passenger popped her head out of the door of her stateroom behind me. "Excuse me," she said. "I have a question. What do you call that?" She was pointing at two metal cylinders, each about knee-high and eight inched in diameter, sticking up from the deck on a common base. "I dunno, " I said. "A trip hazard?"

Working with an H-bitt on Belle of
The cylinders were called bitts, and they were part of the ship's deck hardware, or deck fittings. Deck hardware is used to secure or change the direction of a ship's mooring or other lines. Bitts may have more specific names, such as an H-bitt which is used to during towing operations. To secure a mooring line to a bitt, the line handler would turn the line once around each of the two bitts, then make figure-eight turns around both bitts to secure the line. The number of turns required varies: the American Merchant Seaman's Manual recommends at least three for synthetic line, at least one for natural fiber line.

Panama Canal chock
A cleat is a t-shaped fitting that can be very small (a form of cleat is used in some homes to tie-off the cord controlling venetian blinds) to two or three feet long. Cleats are common on vessels ranging from small sailing boats to large commercial ships. To tie a line to a cleat, make at least three figure eights with the loops below the horns of the cleat and the cross-over point above. Sometimes, the line is "locked down" by passing the end of it under the last loop.

Open chocks (with or without rollers) and Panama Canal chocks are used to change the direction of a line, making it easier to use a more conveniently-placed bitt, cleat or capstan (part of a powered winch). Similar to chocks are staples, closed loops most often seen on a ship's bulwarks. A staple is also sometimes called a bull nose, donut, or D-ring.

Confusion on Deck. Even to experienced mariners, deck hardware terminology can be inconsistent. One frequent misuse is replacing bitt with bollard, which more properly refers a similar object on land, or a pier or wharf. This confusion may stem from the use of the phrase bollard pull to refer to the pulling force a given tug or other vessel is able to exert.

There are even regional differences. According to an article in the May 2011 Professional Mariner, crews on and East and West coasts of the US sometimes use different terms to define the same piece of equipment. That's one of the reason that representatives from the towing industry and the various maritime academies recently met in an attempt to standardize the nomenclature.

Good luck. Mariners are notoriously resistant to change. And even individual ships own may have their own terms for various fixtures. One ship I worked on, which had small, single bitts at various places along its rub rail, called them "R2 units," after the little robots from the Star Wars movies. Imagine my surprise the first time I was told to tie a tender's line "off on that R2 unit."

Related Posts
Tug Boats, Part 3: Tug Boat Tidbits
Avast! Ahoy!
"Heave! Ho!" To Misused Nautical Terms

Related Articles Equipment on the forecastle deck of a ship.
Travel & Leisure: Does Your Boat Have Bitts or Bollards?
Professional Mariner: Side bitt or shoulder bitt? Mariners invited to standardize towing terms.


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  2. Do you know the definition of box, like "throw him a box?", kind of like a life saving ring or floating device or something? Sentence is "his shipmates were so glad to get rid of him they wouldn't throw him a box and he drowned"