All Hands

Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 13 February 2023, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.

In a maritime environment, hand is short for shiphand, and is meant to describe one of the ship’s sailors. Hands is the collective version of the term, meaning the entire ship’s company, as used in pipes and announcements; e.g., “Hands to dinner!” Although mostly used in this way, at times it refers to the junior ranks only; e.g., “Hands to muster on the jetty. Store ship!”

“All hands” is a term meant to refer to the entire ship’s company, both officers and non-commissioned members. E.g., the pipe “All hands muster on the quarterdeck” means the entire ship’s company is ordered to gather on the quarterdeck.

“Hands to clean into night clothing” is a pipe commonly made in the evening, giving allowance for off-watch personnel to switch to a slightly relaxed order of dress. The wording of the pipe implies that the crew will remove dungarees soiled from a hard days work and don clean clothing. “Call the hands” describes the act of waking the ship’s company; i.e., “Wakey wakey!”

Hand over hand describes the act of a sailor passing a rope through their hands alternately one before, or above, the other. It is often used as a line-handling instruction indicating the rope should be handled at a normal pace, i.e., “Check away, hand over hand!” Handsomely describes handling a line with a slow, even motion, i.e., “Heave in handsomely!” Roundly means to handle the line fast, or rapidly, i.e., “Heave in, roundly!”

Hand over fist is a term used when there is good progress being made, i.e., “Bloggins was splicing the lines hand over fist.” This term was drawn from the steady motion of an experienced sailor climbing the rigging on a sailing ship, the very action being one free hand reaching over a gripping hand that had made a tight fist on the rigging. Although derived in a naval environment, the term is commonly used in the context of business, i.e., “making (or losing) money hand over fist.”

The term handraulic refers to manual labour, i.e., “No winches required. We’ll use handraulic power.” Sometimes, in a clever manner, performing a task manually may be referred to as armstrong or as using an armstrong lever. E.g., “How are we going to move that pallet of stores to the quarterdeck? Answer: Armstrong lever!”

A dab hand describes someone who’s considered to be an expert in a particular field. For example, a ship’s cook might be considered a “dab hand” with a chef’s knife, or a boatswain might be a “dab hand” with tiddly ropework. More common in the British Commonwealth, the origin of the term may be associated with sailors who were charged with the continuous touch-up of a sailing ship’s paintwork.

Old hand literally describes an older sailor with extensive experience or is used to describe a sailor who has mastered a particular piece of kit, i.e., “Bloggins is an old hand at handling a zodey boat.”

Since many shipboard pipes begin with “Hands…”, such as “Hands carry on with departmental work,” visiting civvies and newcomers often wonder why this “Hans” person is the one who does all the work.

 You will find over 4000 examples of Jackspeak in my book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).

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