In large ships of war the capstan was found on the gundeck in the middle of the ship. In some cases it would connect with one on the deck below so that the crew could add their weight on more than one deck simultaneously.
When ready to weigh anchor small drawers, which could contain things like bandages when the ship went into action, were removed and capstan bars, about 10 feet long were fitted. An endless loop of rope passed round the capstan and one or more pulleys. This rope the ‘messenger’ was seized to the anchor cable with short lengths of rope called ‘nippers’. This method was used as the anchor cable was too thick to pass round the capstan and tying things to the wet rope would have caused difficulty when it came time to untie the wet knots.
The crew put their weight against the bars and walked round slowly, sometimes to the sound of a fiddle with the crew singing a ‘forebitter’. As the cable reached the hatch to the cable tier below the seizing was undone and ships boys would run the rope back to the other end of the messenger to be used again. (These activities giving rise to children being called ‘nippers’).
Initially the anchor would be well ahead of the ship but as the cable came on board it’s angle in relation to the ship changed. As it came into line with the rigging the officer in command would call out ‘at long stay’, ‘at short stay’ etc. to let the captain know what progress was being made. Finally the cable was ‘up and down’ just before the anchor lifted off the sea bed when it was ‘Anchors aweigh’.
When the anchor had cleared the water a loop was passed round a fluke and it was hauled up and secured to the side of the ship. This was known as catting the anchor. If the ship was putting to sea for a period or in rough weather the cable was untied from the anchor and the hawsehole was covered with a buckler.