Bowsprits, Bumpkins, and Belaying Pins


Bowsprits, bumpkins, and belaying pins

By Donald Launer

Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 4, Number 6, November/December 2001.

Tried and trusted old fittings give character to modern yachts

Dolphin figurehead

you remember when all sailboats had wooden spars, manila lines, galvanized
fittings, and cotton sails, chances are you have problems with your waistline,
your hairline, and the number of teeth you can call your own. Those of
us who fit this category have a special feeling for those sailboats of
our youth, but those fond memories don’t include the maintenance
involved in boats of that period.

When people see our
schooner sail by, they see a boat from the turn of the century: a schooner
rig with bowsprit, figurehead, bumpkin, belaying pins, wooden blocks,
bronze portholes, lazy-jacks, and a graceful sheer. Yet she’s only
21 years old, with fiberglass hull, aluminum spars, and modern conveniences
throughout – a modern version of a small Down East schooner of
the last century. She’s one of the breed sailors call “character
boats,” befitting her skipper. Boats such as this are the “rediscovery”
in fiberglass of traditional cruising boats, such as schooners, catboats,
Friendship sloops, and other designs from the past.

Bumpkin, short boom in the stern

the conscious mind is thinking, “She looks dated . . . slow,”
sneaking into the subconscious are thoughts of coastal trading, Tahiti,
and the whole mystique of other times, faraway places, and nostalgia.
But traditional beauty doesn’t necessarily mean being impractical.


Take the bowsprit,
for example. On our schooner it provides a sailplan longer than the boat’s
hull. With a lower center of effort there is less heeling, and more sail
can be carried. This translates into drive power.

When tied up at a
mooring buoy in an area with wind, current, and tide changes, a “bull
rope” from the tip of the bowsprit can prevent the hull from striking
the mooring buoy. This bull rope consists of an extra line from the ring
of the buoy to the tip of the bowsprit, with just enough tension to keep
the mooring buoy away from the bow.

Bowsprits traditionally
found homes on cruising boats, but then for several decades they were
abandoned. In the last few years, a resurgence in the use of bowsprits
has occurred in reproductions of old designs as well as in the racing
classes that allow them. With a bowsprit, more of the headsail is free
from interference by the main, and in fresh winds the center of effort,
which is farther forward, reduces weather helm and pressure on the rudder.

Belaying pins

many racing boats, the bowsprit is made retractable, either into the hull
or along the deck, and unguyed carbon-fiber bowsprits are now emerging
on the scene.

Our solid teak bowsprit
provides a perfect platform on which to sit and watch the bow wave or
the dolphins. Besides, without a bowsprit where would we put the figurehead?


A millennium before Christ, the Egyptians carved the heads of deities
on the bows of their ships, and the Romans, Greeks, and Phoenicians carried
on this tradition, dedicating their ships to their gods and goddesses
in the hope of ensuring safe voyages. The “dragon ships”
of the Vikings were adorned with menacing snarling dragon heads carved
from oak which were intended to terrify the raiders’ victims and
to guard against evil spirits at sea. The power of figureheads was thought
to be so great that at one time Iceland insisted that foreign ships remove
them before entering her waters.

Captain Bligh reported
that the Tahitians were fascinated with the figurehead on the HMS Bounty
(see photo on Page 48). He described it as “a pretty figure of
a woman in a riding habit,” who was lifting her skirts over the
seas with her right hand as she looked ahead of the ship. This painted
likeness was the first representation of an Englishwoman the Tahitians
had ever seen. Bligh wrote: ” … and they kept gazing at it for

Bounty figurehead replica

Above, the replica of the HMS Bounty figurehead stands as a proud lookout on a reproduction of Captain Bligh’s Bounty, built in 1960 in Nova Scotia.
Below, while admiring the figurehead on Delphinus, the author’s granddaughter, Jenny, becomes a figurehead in her own right.

Young girl with Dolphin figurehead

Although a century
or two ago figureheads became merely ornamental, many American commercial,
and even Naval, ships were still sent to sea with elaborate carvings at
their bows. The frigate Constitution was launched in 1797 adorned with
a bust of Hercules. But Hercules was not up to the foray with the Barbary
Coast pirates at Tripoli, where the figurehead was destroyed.

Our schooner, Delphinus,
is named for the constellation of the dolphin and, therefore, sports a
carved teak figurehead of a leaping dolphin beneath her bowsprit (pictured
at left above). It serves not only as a decorative appendage, but also
as a bowsprit brace. It’s a great hit both on the water and at
dockside. It seems to have a special attraction for children.

As enlightened sailors,
we know our figurehead is purely decorative, yet sometimes there’s
the feeling of a “presence” at our bow, guiding us through
foggy and unfamiliar waters.

Belaying pins

Another rare item on sailing vessels nowadays is the belaying pin. The
closest most sailors come to them is during visits to the tall ships or
when watching a deck fight in an old pirate movie. Who would think of
using them on today’s craft? They’re out of fashion, impractical
and archaic . . . and I love them.

In the olden days,
belaying pins were made of hardwood, usually locust, and sometimes bronze,
iron, or brass. They were used to secure and store lines, particularly
the running rigging. Securing a line to a belaying pin is the same as
to a cleat. The added advantage is the speed and ease with which a line
that is belayed, or made fast, can be released. When the pin is pulled,
the line falls to the deck in an untangled flaked-out pattern, ready to
run freely.

Belaying pins are
used to provide increased friction to control a line by taking a single
round-turn and one or more “S” turns around the pin. This
is to “belay” the line. When a single hitch or slip-hitch
is added to the belayed turns, the line is “made fast” (see

The large sailing
ships of yesteryear frequently set their belaying pins in holes in the
“pin-rail,” which was fixed inside the bulwarks or incorporated
as part of the bulwark or main rail as in the photo below. 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. A variation of the fife-rail
is used on modern sailboats, where the mast pulpit is combined with a
small pin-rack. A “spider band” was sometimes fitted around
the mast a little above deck level, with holes for the belaying pins.
This was sometimes called a “spider hoop” or “spider
iron.” Stanchion-mounted pin-racks are used for storing coils of
line and are both decorative and utilitarian.

For the do-it-yourselfer,
belaying pins can be turned out on the most basic of lathes from brass,
bronze, or scrap hardwood. But remember, those metal ones don’t
float! With today’s teak prices, it’s nice to know that
those teak scraps can be turned into beautiful belaying pins for onboard
use or home decoration.

Our schooner is rigged
in the old Grand Banks manner with no sheet winches. To attain mechanical
advantage, multiple-part block and tackle is used for each of the sheets.
This presents the problem of long coils of line ending up in the cockpit
due to the 4:1 block ratio. This would be a colossal spaghetti pot if
it weren’t for the pin-racks we’ve installed, not for belaying
as such, but rather as an attractive and practical way of keeping our
sheets out from underfoot.

When I built our
schooner, I added belaying pins because they “belonged”
on a schooner with traditional lines, not because I had ever used them
before. Now, I couldn’t imagine sailing without them. As well as
being useful, they add that needed touch of character. And they’re
good for dispatching that fish you caught on the lure trailing astern
or for fighting off pirates.

The bumpkin

Bumpkin knots

And, oh yes,
the bumpkin (sometimes called boomkin or bumkin). This is a short boom,
frequently V-shaped, extending from the stern, to which the backstay or
mizzen sheet block is attached. When used for the backstay, along with
an associated bumpkin stay, it allows for a longer mainsail boom and frequently
eliminates the need for running backstays. It provides a more practical
lead angle for the mizzen sheet for a ketch or yawl. On our schooner,
the mainsail extends all the way to the stern of the boat, with the bumpkin
keeping the permanent backstay well out of the way (see photo).

For years we looked
for a retirement boat that would fill our specs until we happened to stumble
across our little schooner design from the board of Ted Brewer. It meets
our needs completely, and seems appropriate for our vintage years. When
we sail by with everything up, people turn to watch or take pictures.
With that gray-haired and bearded character at the wheel, they probably
think it’s an apparition from the past. After all, how often do
you see a small schooner with bowsprit, wood blocks, figurehead, belaying
pins, and bumpkin?

Don is a Good
Old Boat contributing editor. He holds a USCG captain’s license
and is a frequent contributor to boating magazines. He built his traditionally
rigged schooner from a bare hull and keeps it next to his home on a waterway
off Barnegat Bay on the New Jersey coast.

Join Our Sailing Community. Subscribe Now!

Complimentary monthly supplement

  • featured articles
  • news from the helm
  • mail buoy
  • book reviews
  • sailor photos
  • and much more

Good Old Boat News Flash!

Our website is getting some long overdue improvements! has merged with

Thanks for your patience while our website is under construction.