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Lookout in the Crow's Nest

Discussion in 'Other Topics' started by Arun Vajpey, Feb 25, 2019.

  1. Arun Vajpey

    Arun Vajpey Member

    I have always wondered about one nautical aspect and was hoping that with so many people with seagoing experience here someone may have the right answer.

    Does anyone know who, when and where discovered the concept of using lookouts positioned at a height much higher than the topmost deck? I checked on-line and the information was somewhat vague, suggesting that in the West at least it was around the early 19th century. But I thought ship lookouts were used much earlier, perhaps in other cultures? In fictional tales like Sinbad the Sailor, there appear to be lookouts high up on the mast.
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2019
  2. Dan Kappes

    Dan Kappes Member

    Yeah, I think there has always been lookouts high up on masts of ships, but sometimes they are at the prow of the ship, as the lookouts on the Californian can be seen on the prow in the 1958 film A Night to Remember.
  3. I have looked at photographs of several ships - past and present - and the crow's don't appear to be very much higher than the bridge deck. The lookouts in the crow's nest would not have had too much advantage in the distance they could see compared to those on the bridge.

    However , the advantages of crow's nest have been explained to be.
    (1) The duties of the lookouts is to be just that, whilst those on the bridge are busy with other duties.
    (2) The view from the crow's nest is less cluttered than that from the bridge.
    (3) The lookouts have a wider field of view than those on the bridge.
    (4) While the height difference doesn't seem too much, the difference of a mile or two might be critical.

    I have seen some reports that officers on the bridge some times see things before those in the crow's nest did not.

    So I would be interested in any comments from experienced persons as to the advantages of lookouts in the crow's nest over lookouts on the bridge ...in practice ?

    Just another comment from one who is not familiar with the ins and outs of crow's nest.
    One person has mentioned the lookouts in the crow's seem to be more exposed to the weather than those on the bridge.
    I have only seen one or two examples of there even being a windshield on a crow's nest. Considering that the lookouts are always involved with wind in their eyes because of the speed of the ship, why was there no windshield or shelter from the weather in most crow's nests ?

    P.S.Before I had looked at those ship's photographs I had envisioned crow's nests at the very top of the highest map on a ship rather than being lower than they really are. LOL
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2019 at 4:21 AM
  4. Rancor

    Rancor Member

    You'd have to think that during the age of sail even in the crows nest you wouldn't get much of a view with all the sails in the way.
  5. They were usually arranged in a way that gave them a good view with multiple lookouts and if need be multiple crows nests.
    Rancor likes this.
  6. I have often wondered that myself. Maybe because if they weren't sophisticated enough the look outs would be spending more time keeping the windshield/screen cleared than actually looking out. But it seems some ships figured it out.
  7. Arun Vajpey

    Arun Vajpey Member

    An interesting point would be if lookouts were used in ships in the ancient times. If they knew that a person at a higher level could see much further into the horizon, they should have realized that the earth was spherical long before they did.
  8. They knew in ancient Greece that the earth was round. When I was in grade school it was often said Columbus discovered the earth was round but that was just lazy educators reading from their scripts. The Greeks figured it out 2000 years before Columbus thru mathematics and observations such as the earths round shadow on the moon. Sailors knew it too by observing constellations rising and setting after transversing an arc thru the sky. Plus the famous experiment with the sticks in the ground at different locations measuring the shadows degree differences at noon. It was later confirmed that his caluations of the earth circumference were only off by a .001 or something like that. Pythagoris comes to mind but I think it was some other smart greek who figured that out. I could look it up if you want. I think lookouts are probably as old as ships masts. Hope your day is going good. Later.
    Arun Vajpey likes this.
  9. Arun Vajpey

    Arun Vajpey Member

    So did they in ancient India. In a LOT of ancient stories, admittedly fictional, the Earth is referred to as "bhoo gola" which in Sanskrit translates roughly as "Earth sphere".

    I confess that was the point of my original question although I did not say so. Somewhere along the line humans, irrespective of which culture, discovered that they could see further into the horizon from a great height. A ship's lookout was the most obvious practical application of that knowledge.

    Although Sinbad the Sailor is a fictional character, in almost every graphic story of his adventure there is a very high crow's nest with a lookout gazing at the horizon. That suggests that other cultures also knew, or suspected that the earth was spherical.

    In America, there was a guy named William Shenton presided over something called The International Flat Earth Society from Lancaster, California. He died in the early 1970s but I do not know if the society still exists.
    Steven Christian likes this.
  10. I did not know that about ancient India. Thanks I will look it up. Yes sailors long knew about seeing the sails first and many came to the conclusion of a round earth I have read. It seems lately that the Flat Earth Society has been making a resurgance lately. Why I have no idea unless its a joke or trolling thing.
  11. Arun Vajpey likes this.
  12. Arun Vajpey

    Arun Vajpey Member

  13. Jim Currie

    Jim Currie Member

    These were fighting platforms for archers and crossbow men, Steven.
    Steven Christian likes this.
  14. Yes I have read that but also that they did double duty for lookouts. I also read that after firearms were starting to be used they also added more platforms on some ships for the marines to snipe the opposing crew from before they tried to board.
  15. Jim is right, the photos show an early version of "fighting tops" fitted to war vessels. These appear to be on an Elizabethan-era galleon of northern European origin. However, no matter where the ship was knocked together, they were a development of the "top," a platform which originated with the development of multi-sectional masts. These platforms usually had gratings for sailors to walk and work running rigging.

    Technically, the "mast" (fore, main, mizzen, jigger, etc.) is the section that buries at the keel and goes through the decks to end just above the course. This uppermost reach of the mast was the top until rigs grew taller and more sections were added above the mast. Sailors being somewhat stuck in their ways still called the top of the mast "the top." It was also known as the "head" of the mast but we'll go there later.

    The next section up was the top mast and, then came the upper top mast. It was easy enough to attach shrouds (standing rigging from the port and starboard sides) to the mast. It became necessary to put a special structure for wide enough support the upper shrouds at the top. Being built at the old mast top, these were dubbed as "tops" on commercial ships and "fighting tops" ob men o'war. The significant difference was more space on warships for marines to place musket fire on the decks of enemy vessels.

    Admiral Lord Nelson was killed by an enemy musket ball in this manner. Look up the story.

    Above the mast came the topmast and then the upper topmast. Weight that far aloft was a problem, so on most ships crosstrees served in the place of platforms. If there was an origin of the crow's nest as we know them, it was at the crosstrees. They were high for visibility and gave full view of the horizon. Many whaling and fishing vessels had iron hoops installed to hold the man on lookout firmly in place against the heave of the ship.

    The topmast was usually the uppermost vertical spar. It was generally crowed with a piece of wood intended to keep water from coming into the vertical grain of the mast. This was the "truck," and the word remains in the nautical lexicon to describe the upper reach of the mast (nowadays, usually a single piece metal tube).

    White lights indicating a steamship (showing 225 deg of arc) are sometimes called "mashead lights" because of their location partway up the mast. However, with the demise of "tops," their placement is somewhat arbitrary with the broad limits of the Rules of the Road.

    Anyway working from the highest position to the keel the key parts of a muti-section mast are:

    1. Truck
    2. Upper Topmast
    3. Crosstrees (or sometimes "trestle trees")
    4. Topmast
    5. Top or fighting top
    6. Mast
    7. Bury (section of mast inside hull)
    8. Heel Lower end of mast keyed into keel.

    A silver coin was traditionally placed under the foremast heel, gold under the main mast, and copper under the mizzen.

    Oh, yes, a "ship" by definition is a three-masted, square-rigged vessel. Titanic with only two masts and no yards was a schooner.

    -- David G. Brown
    Steven Christian likes this.
  16. Nice info. Thanks. This is a little off topic but you mentioned the coins under the masts. I was reading an article a while back on different naval customs,traditions,superstitions and lore. In the article they said sailors (mostly pirates) often wore gold earings not so much as jewlery but it was a way for them to always have enough to pay the undertaker so they would get a decent burial or service at sea. Have you heard anything like that?
  17. Rob Lawes

    Rob Lawes Member

    Hi Steven.

    I think that may be folklore perhaps among pirates.

    Sailors in the Royal Navy were often pressed into service to meet the additional demands during conflict. They wouldn't have had to brass pennies to rub together let alone access to gold jewelry. It was traditional for a dead man's belongings to be auctioned off to his shipmates and any monies raised go to his family (if he had one). Failing that, he was wrapped in canvas and committed to the deep.
    Steven Christian likes this.
  18. You could be right about that. I wasn't sure thats why I asked. I've also read that it was customary for sailors who had a ship shot up from under them, wore gold earrings as sort of a survivors medal. I've read that in more than one article but the authors gave no sources for those statements...so? It could have been as simple as pirate fashion from days gone bye. Well maybe not days gone bye as I see a lot of guys now days wear earrings. Its not my thing. I wont wear anything..especially rings...but thats a safety thing. To each his own in that regard. But you have to admit some pirates did have a flair about them. And without pirates, privateers and buccaneers the US Navy never would have got started.