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I'm reading Washington Irving's Life of Christopher Columbus, where he writes:

Two of them were light, half-decked caravels; the Santa Maria, on which Columbus hoisted his flag, was completely decked.

Does 'half-decked' refer to how the decks were constructed? Or perhaps something to do with how the ships were loaded with cargo?

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2 Answers 2

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1. lit. A deck covering half the length of a ship or boat, fore or aft: in this sense still used in some small partly open craft.

a. In old ships of war: A deck extending from the mainmast aftward, situated between the then smaller quarter-deck and the upper or main deck. After the two decks above the main deck were reduced to one, for which the name ‘quarter-deck’ was retained, ‘half-deck’ survived only in the expression ‘under the half-deck’, applied to the part of the main deck from the main mast aftward, formerly covered by the ‘half-deck’.

b. In colliers: A deck under the main deck, extending forward to near the after-hatch and containing berths, etc., for the crew (obs.). OED

It's definitely not referring to b., because none had more than one deck. None of the ships were war ships, so I doubt it would be definition a.. Definition 1. seems the most likely given the small size of these ships.

Half-decked is a common term used to describe the construction of boats. It was first used in the early seventeenth century and is still in use today.

A whole deck, on the other hand, has a deck covering the entire length of the ship, i.e., not open-topped.

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In contemporary wooden boat terminology, as mentioned in the other answer, half-decked has two senses:

  • a small open boat with a partial deck to improve seaworthiness and strength. The deck is installed around the perimeter and at the bow and its function is to prevent water ingress and strengthen the boat structure. The boat is otherwise open.
  • a large sailing ship with an additional raised deck platform above the primary (main) deck of the vessel. This created additional indoor space on the vessel (usually reserved for the use of officers) and additional working space above where the activity on the main deck could easily be observed.

The Niña was a small ship by the standards of the great warships of the 18th century, but is still far to big to lack a main deck. For one thing, it would be impossible to tend the sails and operate the ship from deep in the hull. For another, the main deck would have been an essential structural feature of the ship - in essence preventing it from collapsing under the inward pressure of the water.

There are no depictions of the Niña surviving from that period, so contemporary reproductions are based on knowledge of other ships from the era and general boatbuilding principles. They do agree on the inclusion of a main deck though, and the addition of a raised half-deck in the after part of the boat.

In this image of a full-sized reproduction the main deck is not clearly visible, but one can imagine that if there were no working platform generally at the level of the top of the hull, it would be impossible to work the boat - one would be too deep inside the hull to manage the rigging or to see over the sides.

In fact, looking closely, we can see a row of scupper holes along the side of the boat. This would have been the level of the main deck, set a few feet lower than the upper part of the hull. The holes were provided so that any water deposited on deck by breaking waves could drain away.

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