What are the different types of sea shanties?

Capstan and halyard songs were both used by shanty singers on board merchant ships to help crews with their chores

UNSPECIFIED - MARCH 10: American merchant ship, engraving by Giuseppe Fedi Aliprandi, 19th century. Genoa Pegli, Civico Museo Navale (Boat Museum) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Because of the ad-hoc nature of shanty singing, there is no strict categorisation of sea shanties, but there are two main subdivisions which have long been used on merchant ships: capstan and halyard songs.

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Sea shanties are divided according to the tasks which the seamen would have been carrying out and refer to the two main physical actions a human is capable of: pushing and pulling. In maritime lexicon, this is referred to as ‘heaving’ and ‘hauling’.

What is a capstan shanty?

Capstan songs are associated with ‘heaving’ activities. They are named after the ‘capstan’ on a vessel, which is a revolving cylinder with a vertical axis that is pushed around by the crew in order to move heavy weights.

Around the middle of the 19th century, the capstan fell out of use on vessels and was replaced with a different mechanism which helped with efficiency. As a result, this changed the types of sea shanties sung onboard because the nature of the work had evolved.

Capstan and ‘heaving’ songs tended to be used over a longer period of work, because the arduous task of pushing the capstan could often take a whole day and was continuous and intensive.

What is a halyard shanty?

The halyard song is predominantly used for helping hoist sails and is associated with ‘hauling’ activities, such as pulling ropes. While ‘heaving’ songs tended to be used for longer bouts of work, ‘hauling’ songs were sung during tasks which required breaks. As a result, the focus in halyard songs tends to be on the roaring chorus, with breaks taken during the verses.

The name ‘halyard’ comes from the ‘halyard’ line or rope used to raise the sails.

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You can find the lyrics to many of your favourite sea shanties here