Belaying pin

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A belaying pin is a device used on traditional sailing vessels to secure lines. Their function on modern vessels has been replaced by cleats, but they are still used, particularly on square rigged ships.

A belaying pin is a solid metal or wooden bar with a curved top portion and cylindrical bottom part. It is inserted into a hole in a wooden pinrail, which usually runs along the inside of the bulwarks as shown (although free-standing pinrails are also used). Although the belaying pin can be lifted out and removed, it is usually left in place.

To secure a line, it is first led around the bottom of the pin and then the top, to form a complete turn. It is taken once more around the bottom of the pin, and then three cross-shaped turns are applied by looping the line round alternate sides of the top and bottom. This pattern can be remembered as "one hug and three kisses". Other arrangements are possible, but ensuring that the same pattern is used on a particular ship means that sailors know what to expect when releasing a line fastened by someone else - possibly in the dark.

Belaying pins with coils of line

Once the line is secure, the belaying pin is also used to store the excess. The line should be coiled, starting from where it is secured so that the twist can be worked out of the free end. The completed coil is held next to the pin, and the short length of line between the pin and the coil is pulled through the centre, twisted once (or more if necessary to shorten it) and hooked over the top of the pin, holding the coil in place. The twist is very important as it prevents the "short length of line between the pin and the coil" becoming longer by pulling more line from the coil, eventually dumping the stored line on the deck.

Making fast under load

Lines are normally made fast to belaying pins after being hauled on by a team of sailors. It is important that as little line as possible be let out in the process of securing it to the pin. When the line to be hauled on descends vertically to the pin (like the clewlines and buntlines in the top picture) half the first turn can be left in place, so that the line comes down, round the back of the bottom of the pin, and then out across the deck. Simply hauling on the end of the line, though, will be very inefficient because of the friction produced by the half-turn on the pin. Instead the team is divided into "sweaters" pulling on the vertical part and "tailers" on the horizontal section - usually with more sweaters than tailers. When the line is to be secured, the half turn enables the tension to be held until it is properly made fast.

Some other lines run horizontally past their pins, and it is harder to maintain the tension between stopping hauling and making fast. Generally the line is held against the pin and the rail by hand - which helps a little but not much - and the transition between hauling and securing is then made as quickly as possible. At a shout of "come up!" the hauling team instantly provide the front man with slack line, and he snaps on the first turn. Inevitably some line will be lost in this procedure.

Finally, lines under very heavy load such as topsail halyards are equipped with short stopper lines attached near their pins. These are wound round the hauling line and held, to prevent it moving once the team stop hauling to allow it to be made fast.

Lines under tension can be let out in a controlled manner by leaving the first turn on the pin to provide friction. However, the hands must be kept a safe distance back along the rope or they may be dragged around the pin too.

Other uses

  • Belaying pins were apparently commonly used as improvised weapons (as well as a method of discipline) on both military and civilian ships. Certainly their shape and weight would make a formidable short-range club.
  • A belaying pin can also be tied to the end of a line being thrown, the extra weight helping it carry further. This is also an improvised use - the proper tool for the job is a monkey's fist - a lump of lead wrapped in a woven rope cover to form a small but heavy ball with a loop for attaching the end of a line.

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