Capstan shanties are tunes that were sung by sailors as they were working the capstan or windlass to bring up the anchor, or any other work that was done by the capstan. These capstan shanties were usually marching songs. But not the same sea shanty was always used for the same job on all ships. They were changed around quite a bit. A marching song was sung at the capstan at the beginning of a job, such as taking in the slack of a cable, but then may have been changed after the job had been done. When they were heaving in, for example, the shantyman would change the tune of the shanty to a slower tempo.
Capstans were also used for hauling on ropes that set the sails and so, quicker, more up-tempo songs would be used because there was less weight on the halliards. The sailors borrowed many songs in marching time and converted it to their own work needs at the capstan. Capstan shanties were also often used for pumping out the bilges of the ship. As a rule, the tunes and choruses were longer than those used in the hauling songs and they had more variety in their rhythm, possibly to counteract the boredom of pumping out for hours and hours, especially in bad seas. Usually there were a few capstans located at strategic places on the upper deck of the square rigger ship. The largest was on the raised part of the upper deck of the ship's bows, which was called the forecastle.
Sir George Nares, in his book "Seamanship", defines a capstan as being a "barrel of wood or iron, turning around horizontally on a centre spindle: it is used, with the assistance of capstan bars, or by connection with a steam engine, for lifting the anchor, lifting heavy weights, etc." As the capstan revolved, the cable, haweser, or large diameter rope, was pulled on by sea men while the capstan revolved, and the outboard part of the rope was slowly hove in. The capstan was turned by men pushing against wooden bars, called handspikes, which were fitted into slots on the head of the capstan.
The windlass did the same job, except that it was a horizontal drum rather than a vertical one. It was an older system than the capstan and it is deduced that the capstan superseded the windlass from around 1870 onwards. The old windlass was turned by means of spokes.
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