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What Is the Gunwale?

By Gerard S. Walen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A gunwale is basically the top edge and sides of a boat. Traditionally, the term was used to described the reinforced ledge surrounding the decks of warships where artillery, including guns, was mounted. The siding gave soldiers and warriors a way to grip their weaponry to improve accuracy, and also helped buffer the force of any shots fired. Boats and ships made for military and other combat use today often have more sophisticated protections, but the term remains. It’s used to describe the reinforced sides of almost any boat, from yachts to canoes, regardless of whether they will ever see firearms. Most often in modern times, the reinforcement is designed primarily to improve balance, and, in smaller boats, may also serve as a place to anchor oars.

Basic Concept

Artillery, especially heavy artillery like cannons and firearms designed to sink ships, are not only heavy but also quite powerful when they blast. Water-based fighting usually depends on these weapons being fired from on board a ship or boat, but in most cases the boats need to have at least some special provisions to prevent damage both to vessel and nearby personnel. One of the simplest solutions is to reinforce the boat’s siding, which is to say, the ledge across which shots are most likely to be fired. Boat builders typically reinforce the sidings around gun decks with metal, aluminum, or plastic, and this added siding is traditionally known as the gunwale — a combination of “gun” and “wale,” which is a word meaning “narrow raised surface.”

On a Warship

Old fashioned warships often look quite dissimilar from anything used by military forces around the world today. Most were made of wood, and they were typically powered by the wind, manual rowing power, or both. Soldiers and crew members needed a raised rail both to prop their weapons and to protect against the backlash of firing, particularly as related to larger weapons like cannons that tend to blast backwards quite a bit after each shot.

In a sense, the gunwale provided dual protections: it helped the ship’s siding from damage or weakening, and also strove to prevent injury to operators. Early examples were usually pretty modest, and usually amounted to little more than reinforced wooden railings encircling one or more of the ship’s outer decks.

Adaptation for More Modern Vessels

Many small boats on the waters today feature this sort of raised siding, though in most cases it isn’t designed for shooting or weaponry at all. Sometimes it’s a stylistic element, and can give a book an older, more vintage feel. The reinforcement can also be a good place to anchor other accessories or tools.

Fishing boats sometimes have equipment attached to their side rails, like outriggers and downriggers. Both items use a system of wires, pulleys, and clips to control the depth and position of bait on a fishing line while trolling. Trolling refers to slowly pulling live or artificial bait on a fishing line behind a boat.

A small rowboat will usually have its oarlocks mounted on its siding, too. In boats used for competitive team rowing, reinforced side rails can sometimes also be called saxboards. These are mainly used for stability and balance, though riggers for the oars may be bolted onto the saxboard, too. Each rigger holds a gate, which is where the oar sits.

In Canoes

Canoe gunwales are usually identifiable as a widened band around the edge of the top of the craft. They provide structural reinforcement and offer a place to grasp the canoe when lifting or moving it, as well as serving as a barrier to hinder water from splashing into the boat. They are also sometimes called guards or rails.

Hobbyists who build handmade wooden canoes typically recognize the importance of reinforced siding. It needs to be correctly built and installed or the canoe may not last long. Favorite woods to use include white ash, cherry, and mahogany.

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