Belaying pins have been used for centuries on square rigged ships as a means of securing running rigging. To examine the historical development of the belaying pin, we must study the development of the square rigger. Belaying pins are also known as belaying bitt, chess tree, kevel, cleat, riding bitt and belaying cleat.
Belaying pins were likely used in some fashion prior to the 14th century. The word first entered the English language sometime during the sixteenth century.
The period of most intense development of the sailing ship got underway with the use of the perpendicular square sail in the Mediterranean in the mid-14th Century. Until the 15th Century, the square-rigged ships mainly carried one mast with one sail. There had been examples of an additional mast raised above the aft castle as early as the late-14th Century, but not until the 15th Century did these installations become common. It was during the 15th Century that masts and sails were expanded on sailing vessels not just in numbers but also in size. As the rigging developed with more mast and sails, the size of the sailing vessel also increased. As the rigging became more complex it would be safe to assume the fitting elements used to control the sails would also become more widespread.
Cleats started to replace kevels with the advent of steam power in the 19th Century.
As hulls became more expansive however, this development affected the use of rigging and thus their sailing characteristics of the vessel. The towering castles made the ship top-heavy and more prone to topple in strong winds. The large superstructures also caused wind drag as the ship sailed, and could reduce the wind hitting the courses, or lower sails, i.e. the mainsail and foresail. The belaying bitt was an excellent tool that allowed speed and ease with which a line could be deployed, made fast, or released. When the pin is pulled, the line falls to the deck in an untangled flaked-out pattern, ready to run freely.
A belaying pin is a solid wood or metal object used to secure lines of running rigging. They were made of hardwood, usually locust, and sometimes bronze, iron, or brass. Metal pins of the size needed would be massively heavy. Cast metal would not have been able to withstand the stress.
The size of the pin is directly related to the size of the ship as the diameter of a belaying pin was never less than the diameter of the rope which was to be belayed. As only one size of kevel was kept on board, its diameter was that of the thickest rope to be belayed. Pin shapes varied slightly but all had rounded ends (handles), most have shoulders on the upper portions and a slight taper to the shaft. The shaft is 2/3 of the length of the pin and ½ the thickness of the handle.
The shaft is inserted into a hole in various strategically located wooden pin rails (lining the inside of the bulwarks, surrounding the base of masts, or free-standing, called fife rails) up to the base of the handle. Short pin-rails, fastened to the standing rigging are called “pin-racks,” and around the mast on deck, rectangular or u-shaped racks, called “fife-rails,” are used to make fast and store halyards.
Advantages of a belaying pin are the coiling and storing of excess line. Hanging excess lines on these pins prevents moisture entrapment and the resulting dry rot. Another advantage is the speed and ease with which a line that is made fast, can be released. When the pin is pulled, (not really recommended though) the line falls to the deck in an untangled flaked-out pattern, ready to run freely. Belaying pins provide increased friction to control a line. Pirates used these fittings as extra weapons on hand to knock out their victims.
A line is led under and behind the base of the pin then around the top in a Figure-8 pattern until at least four turns are complete. The lines are not tied or knotted, the last ‘turn’ is wedged between the top of the pin rail and the first turn with a firm yank on the ‘tail’ end of the line. The free line is then coiled and secured to the top of the belaying pin by taking the last foot or so of line (actual length depending on size of the coil) between the pin and coil and making a half twist which wraps through the coil and around the top of the pin.
If the line is to be hauled, one or more crew members will pull on the line above the pin. The crewmember providing the ‘tail’ will haul the line through the ‘S’ wrap on the pin and maintain tension. The friction of the ‘S’ wrap prevents the line from pulling back. When the line to be hauled on descends vertically to the pin 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
Lines under tension can be let out in a controlled manner by leaving the first turn on the pin to provide friction. 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.
Excess line is coiled and stored neatly by taking a bight from the upper part of the final strand, looping it over and round beneath the coil, then twisting it once or more before slipping the twisted end over the top of the belaying pin to secure the coil in place.
For the model ship builder, belaying pins can be turned out on the most basic of lathes from brass, bronze, or scrap hardwood… or better yet contact Cast Your Anchor at Cast Your Anchor or contact us at Cast Your Anchor 416-686-8529 for all your ship modeling needs.