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October 27, 2012

How to Batten a Hatch
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:19 PM * 49 comments

This weekend we’re seeing an awful lot of stories with headlines like, “Hudson County municipalities batten down the hatches in preparation for Sandy’s arrival.” So it occurs to me: How many people actually know how to batten down a hatch?

Actually “battening down” a hatch isn’t something that’s been much practiced since the days of wooden ships. Therefore, not too many photos exist of hatches, battened or not. But this won’t deter me: Illustrations here are mostly taken from sites specializing in model ships, where the model-makers are rightfully proud of their craft.

Right then. To batten a hatch, you need: A hatch. A tarpaulin. Battens. Nails. (Optionally: batten boards, wedges, line.)

A hatch is an opening in the deck of a ship, usually rectangular in shape. The hatch has raised sides around the opening, called the hatch coaming. Inside of the hatch coaming you have a lip. Hatches are used for gaining access below decks, either for people or for cargo. After you’ve done stowing cargo below, through your cargo hatch or your main hatch, you’ll want to place a wooden grating on top of the hatch, inside the coaming, on the lip, to allow air and light to get below, but keep sailors from falling down the hatch.

Air and light are all well-and-good, but when you have heavy weather you could get water below too. When you’re shipping white water over the bow you don’t want openings in your deck. So, to prepare for high winds and heavy seas, you would batten down your hatches.

To do this you need is a big piece of canvas tarpaulin, larger than your hatch. Put the tarpaulin over the hatch, as tight as you can make it. Fold the corners, much like your basic hospital corners on a bed, with the openings of the folds leading aft (so that seas breaking over the bow don’t catch in them). Wet canvas, as you know, is watertight.

Things you need after this are battens. These are long strips of wood, the length of the hatch coamings. Nail these over the canvas, into the sides of the hatch coamings, and there you have it: A battened hatch. Yes, you’ll still ship some water, but the pumps should stay ahead of it.

Now, some variations. You can remove the grating and, in its place, put solid boards. These are called “hatch boards” or “batten boards.” Put the canvas over top of the hatch as before, and batten it down.

Nailing the batten boards to the coaming isn’t the only (or even necessarily the best) situation. If you have a metal coaming, or you don’t want to destroy your nice shellaced wood, provided you have cleats installed on the deck alongside the coaming, put the battens in place, then drive wedges between the cleats and the battens to hold the battens in place. Have the broad end of the wedge face forward, so the seas will tend to drive the wedge more securely home.

If you don’t want to or can’t nail into the hatch coaming, and you have no cleats alongside the coaming, you will tie the tarpaulin across the hatch. The hatch coaming should angle slightly in as it approaches the deck, so the line won’t slip up and off. Put your tarpaulin over the hatch, as before, and tie it on in this manner: Take a piece of line and tie a bowline in one end. Lead the line around the hatch, then put the bitter end through the bowline. A ways back, in the working part, tie a single bowline-on-a-bight, lead the bitter end through that, then haul away. Take the end back again to a fixed attachment point somewhere nearby and fashion a Spanish windlass to tighten it down as far as ever you can. Make fast.

The resulting knot is not dissimilar to this Trucker’s Hitch.

Model ships linked above for use as illustrations:

Comments on How to Batten a Hatch:
#1 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2012, 11:27 PM:

In fact, item #3 in the NYC Hurricane Prep!Fail sidelight looks to me an awful lot like somebody was trying to come up with a field-expedient battened hatch (having derived its necessity from first principles) without the proper equipment and, probably, the requisite training.

#2 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2012, 11:36 PM:

I always pictured a batten as a wooden handle or peg or pegs used to really crank down on a hatch.

The reality sure is more complex!

#3 ::: BonnyAnne ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 01:20 AM:

There's also an excellent 7 step description of securing a hatch in the equally excellent Tall Ships Down (in the section on the Pamir disaster). Tallow and hand stitched tarpaulins and buntline wire.

(If you are a fan of sailing, especially of the quasi-romantic, modern day Arrrrrg-we-be-sort-of-like-pirates sort but have not read Tall Ships Down you must stop whatever you are doing, however worthwhile, and go find a copy right now.)

#4 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 01:27 AM:

Western boom town shacks were often board-and-batten. They were hastily constructed of green lumber set vertically, and despite crowding the boards as tight together as possible, when they shrank "you'd have to lift your feet so's the rabbits could go through". Narrow battening strips were nailed to one side and extended over the expected gap.

This is the first full explication of battening down the hatches, pretty much as I'd imagined. Makes me want to dig out some cord and my book(s) of knots.

And re-read O'Brian.

#5 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 02:04 AM:

Trivial and un-germane correction:

"Thing you need after this are battens." Er, no. Thing you need after this is battens. Doesn't matter whether the predicate is singular or plural; the subject is singular.

So there.

#6 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 02:09 AM:

Things you need are battens.

Fixed, even though I don't agree it was wrong to start with.

#7 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 04:25 AM:

Thank you for the link to the Animated Knots site. Because rope work is essential to website maintenance fun.

#8 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 06:28 AM:

Batten 'em down again. We'll show those hatches.

#9 ::: MNiM ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 08:47 AM:

I mostly lurk, beyond a few scattered comments, which I sometimes feel a little guilty about; but all the same, among the reasons I couldn't possibly stop visiting Making Light is that I don't think I know anywhere else that I can read things like:

So it occurs to me: How many people actually know how to batten down a hatch?

Actually “battening down” a hatch isn’t something that’s been much practiced since the days of wooden ships. Therefore, not too many photos exist of hatches, battened or not. But this won’t deter me

And I was smiling before I'd read further. Thank you.

#10 ::: archergal ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 11:24 AM:

Reading Patrick O'Brian introduced me to the idea that there are hatches and battens, and that "battening down the hatches" was a specific set of actions. It was one of those "So THAT'S where that term came from!"

He also helped me understand terms like "clear for action", "by and large", and "the bitter end", as well as others I can't remember right now.

#11 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 12:41 PM:

"Wet canvas, as you know, is watertight."

Dry canvas is not watertight? How can you tell?

(Brain exits, stage left, on digression involving supercritical CO2.)

#12 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 12:42 PM:

Hatches, I knew. Coaming, I learned what that was when Captain Sawyer struck his head on one -- I do not believe Hornblower pushed him, no matter what theories others propound. Battening down, I understood the general concept, but, as I knew what batten board was from living in old apartments with wainscoting, I had somehow pictured the process to be achieved with something like a shutter, rather than tarpaulin. Interesting to know! (I may yet use it in a story.)

Also, I am distressed to learn that no library participating in the linked Connecticut system possesses a copy of Tall Ships Down, and the cheapest used copy on Amazon is $9.85 plus shipping, and I'm over my book buying budget for the month. It'll have to wait. I'll have to console myself with the biography of Cochrane I've got out of the library.

#13 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 12:44 PM:

Also, thank you for the link to the model of the Pickle. It's been in my mind lately, with Trafalgar Day so recently past.

#14 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 12:48 PM:

Andrew Plotkin @11: My memory of Pennsic tents is that dry canvas drips a bit until it gets saturated. The fibers then swell when wet and don't let more water through.

#15 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 12:56 PM:

If you are trying to catch any breath of wind you wet your sails to make them tighter.

#16 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 01:00 PM:

Rikibeth @12

The University of Connecticut at Avery Point has Tall Ships Down, if that's a possible thing for you.

Otherwise, what about ILL? I've borrowed books from as far away as Georgia that way. Or does the Connecticut system not allow for interstate ILL?

#17 ::: Ben ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 01:09 PM:

I am a big fan of modern hatch dog (camming steel handles usually 8 to a hatch). Given that there are easily 100 biggish tradition schooners/brigs/ships/etc in the U.S.A. the term batten the hatches does get used though not ofter. The replica of Bounty built for the Brando file is the only ship I have sailed on where we actually had hatch boards, battens, and such. Everywhere else has gone to more modern systems (things designed in the late 1800s). For more reference material on such things I am a fan of A Sea of Words, a lexingcon of nautical terms (the reference written for the O'Brien books), Seamanship in the Age of Sail, and A Young Officers Sheet Anchor to Ships of the Line.

#18 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 01:25 PM:

Cally: Avery Point's kind of a hike. I'll see if Goodwin College is on a network with them, though.

As for ILL -- I hadn't looked into that! Appears you can't do it from the library's website, the way you can use the CT linked system, but you can fill out a request at the main branch. I'll do that after the hurricane is over. I may be spending a LOT of time at the library when the hurricane is over, if this year is anything like last year -- I was without power for nearly eleven days, but the library was back on the grid pretty quickly.

#19 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 01:52 PM:

Huh. And here I always visualized a hatch-battening as sort of a wooden slidey click-down majigger, somewhat in the nature of the top element of this sort of hatch.

#20 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 02:16 PM:

I looked into it some fifteen years ago when my husband talked me into buying a sailboat (by the simple yet remarkably effective technique of muttering, quietly, "I-wanna-boat" under his breath at least three or four times a day for approximately a year) and I found out that the flat wooden slats that stiffen the sail were called "battens". Which led me to wonder how, exactly, a flat wooden slat would be used to secure a hatch. Until then, I thought a batten must, from context, be a hatchcover.

#21 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 03:37 PM:

Jacque, the sort of hatch in your picture is called a companionway.

In case you were interested.

(And yes, hatch covers with dogs are so much better and easier and faster and more secure than battened hatches that as soon as they were available everyone went that way. Loves me my quick-acting-watertight-hatches I does.)

#22 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 04:14 PM:

I knew what battens were, more or less, after we moved into a house with board-and-battened front. (The battens cover the gaps between the boards.)

I hadn't realized what all went into battening down the hatches, though I was aware that doing so was preparation for bad weather (or bad something).

#23 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 05:11 PM:

This looks like something you do from the outside. It occurs to me you can't do the same thing to the last hatch because you need to close it from the inside on the way in.

#24 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 05:18 PM:

Erik, not everyone on a sailing ship gets to be under hatches in heavy weather. Possibly even fewer people than who'd get to have their watch below in ordinary weather. Someone's still got to sail the ship, after all, and it might take a larger crew to handle the sails, until it gets to the point where everything's close-reefed. Then, likely as not, most people would be below manning the pumps.

At least if I'm reading O'Brian correctly.

#25 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 08:25 PM:

Dialog this morning at Madhouse Manor:

Doyle: Why is there a paper towel on top of the bread?

Me: I was battening down the loaf.

Doyle: Figures.

#26 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 09:08 PM:

Jim @ 25

Did you use cloves or toothpicks to nail it down?

#27 ::: Tom ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 09:28 PM:

I actually used to work on an old wooden ship. Specifically, the Golden Hind, now once again moored in London.

It's interesting that in common parlance, to 'batten the hatches' means to take extreme measures of preparation, since on board ship, we battened the hatches pretty regularly. It's just like making sure the car door's shut properly before you drive off.
There are, of course, more serious measures you take to prepare the ship for heavy weather (including the business you describe with nails and other things besides just the battens), but the order 'batten the hatches' is, in itself, not too exciting.

A related phrase that I learnt on the Hind is 'Hatches lively!' It is important to shout this when you have opened the hatches, in order to warn everyone not to fall through them.

#28 ::: Tom ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 09:35 PM:

On further thought, nailing the hatches down strikes me as something you'd only do for a fairly long voyage where you didn't expect to be taking cargo in or out very often.

It would be a bit of a hassle if you needed to open the hatches on a regular basis.
Brackets and battens (with wedges as necessary) are much more convenient.

#29 ::: BonnyAnne ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2012, 10:13 PM:

Tom: I used to work on a new "old" wooden ship, and one of my favorite parts was the depth and breadth of new vocabulary.

"Reave" was my favorite of all the words I learned, because of the conjugation possibilities: reave (present tense), rove (perfect), and rivven (pluperfect?). I may have made up rove and rivven, but nobody ever argued with me on it.

We also used "hatches lively" in a variety of contexts, one involving open hatches and another involving trousers, zippers, and men changing in communal areas. Good times...

#30 ::: CZEdwards ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 02:55 AM:

When you’re shipping white water over the bow you don’t want openings in your deck.

Okay... so I think I get white water (that's when the stuff breaks up as it comes over the edge, turning into spray?) but the term I kept running over was green water. Despite being a Navy brat, I spent very little time around water. (Seebee father. He built runways. On land.) Green water was always bad but... ?

And why does my mind insist oakum caulking belongs in the battening equation?

#31 ::: CZEdwards ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 02:59 AM:

Post just above got held for moderation. No URLs, but possible double spaces or other typing errors. Sorry, sorry, sorry. May I offer the gnomes blueberry muffins and tea?

#32 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 06:47 AM:

obStan Rogers:

Well we patched her rents, stopped her vents, dogged hatch and porthole down,
Put cables to her fore and aft, and girded her around.
Tomorrow noon we hit the air and then take up the strain
And watch the Mary Ellen Carter rise again!

Earworm? Don't mention it. Glad to oblige.

#33 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 09:54 AM:

HMS Bounty has just been sunk by Hurricane Sandy off Hatteras. Two missing. A bad day at sea. Our thoughts and prayers are with the crew.

#34 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 10:13 AM:

CZEdwards #30:

White water is all foamy and frothy, like the top of a breaker. It's called this because it appears white.

Green water is solid water. It's called this because, yes, it really is green.

(The first photo is an official US Navy photo from the cruise of the Great White Fleet; the second is from USS Barnstable County's web page. (I once served on one of her sister ships, USS Manitowoc.))

#35 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 10:47 AM:

Thank you Jim!

I have always known what battens are ( board-and-batten was still a common siding where I grew up, and the one I used for my own house) but I had always assumed that battens were used to hold boards down, rather than tarpaulin.

#36 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2012, 08:48 PM:

Interesting. I didn't know that about canvas (that it becomes watertight once thoroughly wet). But that reminds me that I've wondered much the same thing about sandbags -- once the sand is saturated, doesn't the water just flow thru?

#37 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2012, 03:43 PM:

Deanna Zandt had exactly this problem last night, but had no battens available.

#38 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2012, 04:11 PM:

BonnyAnne @29, what is "reave" in a nautical context? It's not one that I've encountered before, and the danger for confusion with "reef" (the verb, as in "reef the sails", not the noun as in "watch out so you don't hit that reef") seems somewhat alarming. Not that danger of confusing two similar-sounding words stopped anyone from using "larboard" and "starboard" for directions for a long while, of course!

#39 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2012, 04:19 PM:

Lee @36, you may find this article about how sandbags work, and why they use sand rather than other options, interesting. One of the key points is that they aren't trying to hold back pure water, but water with suspended silt and mud particles in it; those particles get stuck between the sand grains and make a more watertight barrier than the dry sandbags alone would provide.

#40 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2012, 04:23 PM:


You'll note that the rig she has in this photo isn't a "turnbuckle"; it's a Spanish windlass.

Yes, nylon line will stretch. A lot. For something like this you need manilla or sisal (or polypropylene).

I suspect that the wind blowing horizontally across the opening was creating low pressure that was sucking the air up from inside.

#41 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2012, 05:21 PM:

Lorax #38:

I'm not BonnyAnne, but I can answer that question. "Reeve" in a nautical context is the act of threading a line through an opening. Thus one reeves line through a block.

As an example you reeve your shoelaces through the eyelets on your shoon when lacing them up.

#42 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2012, 06:32 PM:

lorax, #39: That link doesn't seem to go where you said it would (it was showing a different video), but you provided the key information in your summary, so thanks anyhow -- that answers my question.

#43 ::: Flack ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2013, 12:03 AM:

How can I batten hatches in a fiberglass boat? Nails seem like a bad idea here.

#44 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2013, 12:35 AM:

Okay, Flack, do you have cleats beside the hatch coamings?

If so, put on the canvas, put battens on the sides, then hold those battens in place with wedges.

Or, you could lash the tarpaulin down with line.

Aren't most of the hatches on fiberglass boats fitted with hatch covers that can be dogged down?

#45 ::: peter barton ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2014, 03:25 PM:

I stumbled across your site and must comment. The remark that hatch battens were mostly used in the days of wooden ships is a bit aging. Most US WWII cargo ships had beams and hatch boards and tarps and battens and wedges to secure the hatch openings. I sailed C2's, C3's and Victory ships in the 60's and we had to "batten" all hatches. Also bet Liberty ships used the same system.

#46 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2014, 06:23 PM:

Welcome aboard, peter barton! It's almost obligatory here that we ask if you write poetry, but your personal knowledge of ships is quite enough to make me hope you'll stick around and find other areas to comment.

#47 ::: Hazel Owens ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2016, 10:59 AM:

I've heard the phrase "batten down the hatches" plenty of times, but I never really understood what it meant. After this article, I not only know what the phrase means; I know how to do it! It's good to know how to use a tarp and some other tools to make a hatch watertight. Thanks for all the information!

#48 ::: Mary Aileen wonders if that's spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2016, 01:44 PM:

Maybe I'm being too suspicious; if #47 is spam, it's certainly hand-crafted with care. But would a marine supply company really not be familiar with battening a hatch? And enthusiastic praise from a new commenter on an old thread always makes me twitchy.

Hazel, if you're real, I apologize.

#49 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2016, 02:20 PM:

Mary @48: Regardless as to whether or not #47 is spam, it did bring me back to this post and comment thread, which was enjoyable to reread.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of links in the original post are now 404 links, which limits the usefulness of the post.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Jim Macdonald, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

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