Sunday, 8 January 2017

Where are the Belaying Pins?

A while back I wrote about how most ships, right up to the 18th century, not matter how large, didn't have wheels to steer them (Where's the Ship's Wheel?). I also wrote about the movable target that is the ship's galley (Where's the Galley?). I'm at it again. This time it's belaying pins.
A fight breaks out, my hero has no weapon, he's near the ship's rail so grabs up a belaying pin and...are belaying pins there? Would you use one for a weapon? In the Golden Age of Hollywood hardy sailors were always grabbing belaying pins to use as weapons. They look like clubs and are in racks ready for snatching in that desperate hour to save the ship. When I found out what they were, I started to wonder. It might be like pulling the gear lever off your car to hit someone while still expecting the car to function.

What's a Belaying Pin?

It's wooden 'pin' usually as thick as the rope it holds and is used for coiling up spare line and rope, weather that rope is loose or actively part of the rigging. It provides an anchor point for the line thus keeps ropes and lines tidy. On a ship tidiness is next to...not dying in a terrible accident because some idiot left a line loose.

They were also used to keep lines taught; that is hold a boom and/or sail in the correct position and are designed as as quick release for lines. Pull the pin out of its rack and the line is free for re-trimming the rigging or in a heap on the deck.

Have a look online and you'll see wonderful pictures of them in use. The web site below describing hand-to-hand weapons suggest they'd make a handy club. I'm not sure you'd yank one out if it was going to release rigging thus change a set sail or dump a pile of neatly coiled spare rope on the deck. Tripping over is a quick way to get killed in a fight, your ship lurching unexpectedly because some fool pulled the quick release on a sail is another. However, I'll admit, if I was in a personal life/death situation and needed a club creating a tripping hazard or ruining the smooth motion of the ship would not be the first thing on my mind. I did some research and there are accounts of them being used as weapons. Interestingly the ones I found tended to recount events when the ship was docked meaning the sails would be furled and the criticality of pulling the quick-release would be less important. 

When did they start being used?

My story was foggily set some where between 1620 and 1650 and I thought belaying pins would have to be there. Then I started my research...belaying pins start appearing when ships gained more complexity; that is, as size increased and typical cargo vessels changed from a single main mast to multiple masts. One article I found suggests the 14th century with them becoming more common in the 15th. I found a model builders' discussion site proposing an even earlier use ( discussion) and I can see the logic in that. Often something is invented but is uncommonly used before becoming the default solution to a problem. Trouble is the Internet must always be treated as an unreliable witness and I wanted to find a definitive answer. The discussion did mention the Mary Rose. I've visited that fantastic time capsule and didn't see a belaying pin; that doesn't mean the person saying they saw them was wrong because I might have been looking in the wrong place. I checked out the models in the museum and couldn't see anything and searched the solid historical books I use (see below) with little success. Then I had an idea and checked out the websites of historical vessels rebuilt. My first thought was of the Golden Hind. This would be before my story's time and therefore a clincher - hopefully.
Model of Mary Rose at the Museum of the same name
There are two versions of Drake's ship in the UK: one in Brixham, Devon and the other, known as Golden Hind II, docked in London (its website is here). I had a good look at both websites and found the Brixham version had a page showing belaying pins ( Checking through the London one and on a page describing Tours of the ship there are belaying pins (look behind the two men fencing).

Both sites admit there are no plans for this famous ship; however, the shipbuilders of these replicas will have done far more research than someone simply wishing to spin a good yarn. I think that shows they were in use by the late sixteenth century and well ahead of my story.  Could they have been used earlier? I haven't found anything concrete yet, like most things, existence and commonality didn't happen together, think mobile phones. I shall keep searching and if I find something update this entry.

For my story it was too easy that where the fight broke out, there would be waiting belaying pins, even if they were standard furniture on a galleon they wouldn't be in long lines waiting for my brave lad's hour of need. What happened in my hero's desperate fight? He had to be inventive, a rope end is a good weapon, throwing a trencher - a square wooden plate - would work or knowing barrels used to be disassembled when empty to save space, gives useful clubs. He survived but the ship was a mess.

Useful Links

A Webpage describing hand-to-hand weapons and the belaying pin is in there.
A Modeller's View on the Belaying Pin
Good article on the history of belaying pins - it gives all the other names for them too.
The Mary Rose Museum

Useful Books

Tudor Sea Power by David Childs
The Galleon by Peter Kirsch