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What Is a Poop Deck?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Okay, let's all get it out of our systems right now. The poop deck of a sailing ship has absolutely no connection with a certain bodily function. That sort of business is generally handled in the area below the ship's bow called the head. A poop deck is actually the roof of a poop cabin located in the rear (aft) section of a sailing ship's main deck.

The word poop for our purposes comes from the Latin puppis, meaning "stern." Shipbuilders often designed a cabin space in the very rear of the ship called a poop cabin. This poop cabin extends a few feet above the level of the main deck, and is finished off with a flat roof. The flat roof of a poop cabin also serves as an observation platform called the poop deck. Officers and high-ranking sailors often used this area as an ideal position for observing the crew at work.

The poop cabin on a sailing ship generally served the same purpose as the raised bridge area does on a modern ship. The poop cabin could be used as an officer's mess hall during meals, as well as a storage area for maps, journals and official logs. The poop deck itself was a good vantage point from which to assess the condition of the ship's sails, since it was usually positioned behind the shorter third mast, or mizzenmast. If the captain was not at the helm himself, he could generally be found on the poop deck issuing orders to the helmsman.

As sails gave way to engines, the need for a functional poop deck decreased significantly. Almost all of the vital command orders could be issued from a centralized bridge which overlooked the entire ship. Modern sailing ships may still have an elevated cabin in the aft area, but the poop deck is little more than a raised platform suitable for sunbathing or other recreational uses.

Why Is It Called a Poop Deck?

While "poop" has a distinct connotation in English, a poop deck doesn't have anything to do with fecal matter. It's actually the product of a long game of inter-language telephone.

The English term "poop deck" is from the French "poupe," which means stern. The French term, in turn, comes from the Latin word "puppis," which also means stern. The origin of "puppis" isn't clear, but it was also used to denote a person's backside. So perhaps "poop deck" isn't so far off after all.

Where Is the Poop Deck on a Ship?

The poop deck is (ironically) at the very back of the ship. It's raised higher than any other deck and serves as a roof for the poop cabin. Again, the poop cabin isn't the bathroom -- that's at the very front of a ship.

What Kinds of Boats Have a Poop Deck?

Most sailing ships are designed with poop decks. Even modern sailing versions tend to have them, though larger commercial ships don't.

Cutter

Cutters were designed for speed and were used as warships in the 18th century. Modern cutters are still used today by government agencies such as the Coast Guard.

This type of ship has only one mast and typically has square sails. While optimized for sailing, it can also be propelled by oars.

Brig

When most people think of the traditional sailing vessel, they probably imagine a brig. This type of ship has two masts and is quite large. Due to its size, it was a common sight among the various militaries and merchant fleets. Brigs have several square sails as well as fore and aft sails.

Clipper

Clipper ships came into fashion in the 19th century. Though larger than cutters, clippers were smaller than other shipping vessels and designed for speed over carrying capacity. Their large sail area helped them catch the wind, though the exact number of sails varied by ship.

Schooner

While brigs were designed for trans-Atlantic travel, schooners were built to navigate coastlines. Their many fore and aft sails allow them to agilely move around rocky coasts that would prove dangerous to larger, bulkier vessels. During the 18th century, they were popular for fishing and coastal trade.

Carrack

Carracks dominated the seas in the 14th to 17th centuries. These ships were enormous and sometimes had four masts. Used for exploration and cargo, these ships helped expand the known world for Europeans.

What Was the Purpose of a Poop Deck?

If the poop deck isn't for pooping, then what was it used for? As it turns out, its high elevation was designed for three purposes:

Navigation

Before the modern-day, sailors had to navigate by the celestial bodies and landmarks. A high point, such as the crow's nest, gave sailors a better view of the surrounding ocean. However, reaching the crow's nest was arduous, and the space itself was cramped. In contrast, the poop deck was relatively spacious and flat, allowing officers to stand comfortably while getting a good look at the sky and sea.

Observation

Ranking officers were like supervisors over ordinary sailors, as they gave orders and made sure they were being followed. The poop deck was ideally situated to observe sailors as they worked. If officers didn't like how a job was being done, they could intervene immediately. Additionally, sailors were less likely to slack off since they knew they were being watched.

Protection From Waves

When sailing ships were the predominant vessels on the sea, even the largest were much smaller than today's giant cruise and shipping boats. Since they were smaller, they were at a bigger risk of capsizing when storms hit. Waves can easily reach 30-feet tall during a storm, putting even the mightiest ships of the day in danger. The poop deck created a kind of buttress that protected the ship from waves coming over the aft.

Why Don't Modern Boats Have a Poop Deck?

Modern ships are large enough that they don't need a buttressed aft to protect them from high waves. Now, captains generally command from the bridge, which is enclosed.

So, when did shipbuilders stop including a poop deck? The last ship to have one was the RMS Titanic. The boat that famously sunk had a poop deck that measured 128 feet long and was reportedly the last refuge of about 1,100 passengers who fled there as the Titanic started to list. It's important to note that the Titanic's untimely demise had nothing to do with the decision to do away with poop decks -- the construction of ships without one was already in motion.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WikiMotors, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon996199 — On Jul 23, 2016

Poupe in French is stern in English; poupee in French is doll in English - that extra e makes all the difference.

By anon950700 — On May 12, 2014

I work on a cruise ship and I am in charge of the ship's sanitation and I can't tell you how many times inebriated people think it's funny to leave a pile of excrement on the poop deck. I wish I could see the humor in this. Maybe if they were in charge of cleaning the defilement of our beautiful ship's deck, they wouldn't do it.

By anon97940 — On Jul 21, 2010

On sailing ships I have crewed, rather than have a facility at midships -or even "somewhat astern", there was a double bar setup full astern where all waste was kept away from the hull. E G

By anon92104 — On Jun 25, 2010

this is why you don't believe everything you read on the internet.

Here is the truth: Poupe as in puppet.

In the ancient times the god image was carried there to watch the ship. A statue of whatever your protector was placed there to watch over the crew.

I quote as a source, Leland Lovette 1938 "naval customs and traditions." he was an instructor at Annapolis.

There is a 1950s film of Jason and the Argonauts with the statue on the rear deck.

By anon53694 — On Nov 23, 2009

The name originates from the French word for stern, la poupe, from Latin puppis. Thus the poop deck is technically called a stern deck, which in sailing ships was usually elevated as the roof of the stern or "after" cabin, also known as the "poop cabin".

In sailing ships, with the helmsman at the stern, an elevated position was ideal for both navigation and observation of the crew and sails.

By anon44176 — On Sep 05, 2009

I am truly grateful for the excellent information. I also appreciate the word origin! You are wonderful. Thanks!

By anon39138 — On Jul 30, 2009

Actually it was the British sailors who went to the head to relieve themselves. Early British ships had an eagle's head with a beak or just the beak at the ship's prow. Going to the "beak's head" to relieve yourself eventually got shortened to "the head". Other nations like the Spanish used a board suspended out over sea midships, or even somewhat astern for the same purpose. Upon entering a harbor, the lowest level seaman (usually young boys) were suspended over the side with scrub brush and bucket to clean off the dried dump so the ship would look presentable to the harbor and not offend people with human waste when it was tied up at dock.

ancient mariner

By anon27188 — On Feb 25, 2009

poop deck ha ha

By tugboats — On Apr 28, 2008

I'm so glad someone finally explained what a poop deck is! It is sure to make kids (and many adults!) giggle like crazy every time it is mentioned, but my friend who is a sailor gets really frustrated with that.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WikiMotors, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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