Ever wondered where the term ‘poop deck’ came from, and why it’s given that name? After all, if you’re not familiar with it, it sounds a bit funny, doesn’t it?
And yet, we’ve all probably heard the name before, usually from movies.
So if you’re interested in knowing what the poop deck is, what it means to swab it, and whether ships still have a poop deck, then read on – this is everything you could want to know about poop decks.
What Is A Poop Deck?
A poop deck is a small deck situated at the aft (rear) of a ship. It’s not a full deck, but instead extends up from the main deck by a few feet, with steps leading up to it. It was used to help with navigation and to monitor the crew of the ship working on the main deck.
So no, it doesn’t have anything to do with ‘poop’. Sorry if that’s disappointing! These shorter, raised deck spaces were just used to make sure that senior crew were better placed to see the surrounding waters, and for officers to make sure the crew weren’t slacking from their work.
Why is it called the poop deck?
The name ‘poop deck’ originally derives from the Latin “puppis” which meant the stern of the ship. The French adapted this to “la pouppe”, which ultimately became “poop deck” when it was translated into English in the 15th Century.
It’s not got anything to do with the modern use of the word “poop”, so it’s not where sailors would relieve themselves. It’s just called the poop deck because back when Latin was created, the term “puppis” was devised for the same part of the ship, and language has of course evolved over the years.
Where did the term poop deck originate?
A lot of our language comes from Latin, with words being adapted to fit the language we’re using. So while a lot of people think that the term “poop deck” originates in the French “la pouppe”, you can go further back to that Latin word “puppis” since the French word would’ve been taken from the Latin. And with “puppis” meaning stern of a ship, it’s clear that’s where the word was taken from.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term was a 1489 translation of a book written by French author Christine de Pisan in 1410. In her book “The Book of Fayttes of Armes and Chyualrye”, she states “The pouppe whiche is the hindermost partye of the shippe.”
The first recorded use of it being simplified to the “poop deck” was in the early 17th Century, and the term has stuck since (source).
Where is the poop deck on a ship?
The poop deck is situated towards the aft (rear) of the ship. The reason for this was so that the officers could not just see where the ship was going, but monitor the weather on either side and also keep an eye on the crew to ensure they were working.
There’s no set size for a poop deck but it would typically take up between a quarter and a third of the main deck. It’d be extended upwards, with a few steps from the main deck. It wouldn’t necessarily be full height – it might be, and could contain extra rooms, but it was often just raised a few feet instead.
Do modern cruise ships have poop decks?
Modern cruise ships don’t have a poop deck because they don’t need them – navigation is done from the bridge, which is situated at the front of the ship. Cameras and other tech make it easy to see in all directions from the ship too, so the poop deck is redundant.
Remember that the three reasons for needing a poop deck were to see where the ship was going, to monitor the surrounding weather, and to watch over the crew.
The first two can easily be taken care of from the bridge on the ship, especially with all the tech that cruise ships use to monitor the surrounding waters. There’s no need for a poop deck or a crow’s nest or any other special vantage point – the bridge has everything covered.
Suggested read: Where Is The Bridge On A Cruise Ship & What Does It Look Like?
And as for monitoring the crew – well considering how modern ships often have 1,000+ crew anyway, can you imagine the officers trying to watch them manually?
Instead, crews aren’t constantly watched by officers, and each part of the ship has suitable managers to make sure everyone is doing their job.
Some cruise ships may have something which resembles a poop deck – a raised deck at the aft of the ship. But it’s not a poop deck, nor is it used for that purpose. It’s usually just extra space for some features, and it often isn’t the full width of the ship – it definitely doesn’t overhang like some poop decks may do.
For example, the Quantum-class ships on Royal Caribbean have a partial deck at the aft of the ships for Deck 16, which is where you’ll find the upper area of the SeaPlex, the FlowRider and RipCord by iFly.
But it’s not a real poop deck. You don’t get them on cruise ships these days.
There is one sort-of exception though – not an actual poop deck, but a deck space where some guests on the ship actually go to poop!
But I don’t mean humans – I’m talking about animals travelling on the ship. While all ships will have discreet areas where assistance dogs can go to the toilet, only Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 welcomes cats and dogs onboard in a special area of the ship, including an outdoor space used as a toilet.
It even has a traditional British lamp post and an American fire hydrant to make dogs feel more at home!
What was the last ship to have a poop deck?
It’s believed that the last major ship to have a poop deck was the Titanic, which sank in 1912. Her sister ship, Britannic, was under construction when Titanic sank, and she wasn’t built with a poop deck.
Of course, there may have been other ships built since with a poop deck, but in terms of well-known vessels, and those large enough to be notable, the last record of a ship to have a poop deck is the Titanic.
Ever since then, ship design has changed to move all of the navigation into a bridge, and that bridge was always extended on every ship after the Titanic, to make sure that it was easier for the crew to spot hazards in the waters.
About the Titanic’s poop deck
The Titanic’s poop deck was situated on Deck B and was used not by the ship’s officers for navigation, but instead as a recreational space for guests in third-class accommodation.
So while it was in the typical space for a poop deck, and may have been named so, it wasn’t used for the same purpose as a poop deck would’ve been.
Because of where it was situated on the ship, the poop deck on the Titanic was one of the last parts of the ship to sink. The ship broke in half at around 2.18am as the stern had been rising, and while it resettled, it then rose vertically. Around two minutes later the last part of the stern, including the poop deck, passed below the water line.
Did sailors poop off the poop deck?
Despite the name, sailors definitely did not poop off the poop deck. Because it was primarily used for navigation and to supervise the crew, the poop deck would typically be manned by senior officers – hardly the place to want to go to the toilet out in the open!
The poop deck has absolutely nothing to do with poop as we know the word.
Where did sailors go to the bathroom on old ships?
While it could vary depending on the ship, sailors would often use a toilet in the ship’s head – situated in the bow (front) of the ship. It’d be an area just above the waterline that the spray of the ocean would help to keep clean.
Because the rear of the ship was reserved for the officers to work, or for the cabins of those senior officers, the toilet was usually as far from that as possible, and the splashing of the water at the front of the ship helped to keep the area clean.
Some crew may also have used buckets and then dumped the waste over the side of the ship. So in actual fact, in terms of the ship’s layout, the poop deck couldn’t be further from the poop.
Nowadays, of course, cruise ships have thousands of bathrooms onboard.
What is a poop deck used for?
The purpose of a poop deck on a ship was to help the senior crew keep an eye on the stars for navigation, the surrounding waters to steer the ship safely, and the crew to ensure they were doing the work that was asked of them.
The poop deck was typically a part of the quarterdeck, which was the main deck area behind the central mast. Usually, the wheel would’ve been situated on the quarterdeck, but further forward than the poop deck, so that the officers could command the helmsman on where to steer.
Now that ships navigate and steer all from the bridge towards the front of the ship, there’s no need for a poop deck anymore.
What does ‘swab the poop deck’ mean?
The phrase ‘swab the poop deck’ meant wetting the poop deck at the rear of the ship using something like a mop. While it may have been done for cleaning purposes, it was also to prevent the ship from rotting and to help seal the deck to prevent water leaking to the inner decks.
Whether it’s a movie or a cartoon, you may have seen someone swabbing the decks of a ship by cleaning them with a mop. And that’s pretty accurate, since ships would get a build-up of salt deposits and seaweed from the ocean. Keeping them clean was important to make sure the salt didn’t damage the wood, and that the seaweed didn’t make the surface slippery.
But swabbing the poop deck also had other purposes. By keeping the wood constantly wet, instead of just damp, it would help prevent mold infestations causing the wood to become damaged.
Also, when wood gets wet it expands. And old ships didn’t have the same modern sealants that we have today to bond materials together. Swabbing the poop deck helped to make the outer decks swell so that the wood formed more of a watertight bond. Essentially, sailors were wetting the top deck so that the inner decks stayed dry.
Finally, the job of swabbing the poop deck might’ve just been given to the crew to keep them busy, if no other work was needed. The crew were expected to work for most of the day on a ship and when the waters were calm, officers helped keep them in line with busywork such as swabbing the decks.
‘Poop Deck’ is also a game!
Here’s how to play it…
Poop Deck is a fun game for kids (although adults could definitely play too) that only needs an outdoor space with three clearly-defined areas. Basketball courts work well, but you can make anything work.
All you need to do is line up everyone along the sidelines, and make sure each of the areas you’ve chosen has a name – one is the Main Deck, one is the Quarterdeck, and one is the Poop Deck.
The leader of the game shouts out one of the locations, and everyone runs to it. The last person to cross the line to get to the deck is out.
It’s simple, but it can cause a bit of confusion as people forget which area is which, and can run to the wrong place.
You may also know the name ‘Poop Deck’ from a fast food restaurant that appeared in one episode of Spongebob Squarepants. It was owned by Mr. Pirateson and is shown as a live-action location, staffed by Patchy the Pirate and Potty the Parrot.
And in other media, if you’re a little old for Spongebob, you might instead remember that in the Popeye comic books and cartoons, his father was named Poopdeck Pappy.
I didn’t necessarily think that the term ‘poop deck’ had anything to do with poop (although it did cross my mind), but I’m a little surprised it’s as simple as being taken from a Latin word for the stern of a ship. Still, sometimes the answer is just easy.
And while the poop deck isn’t really a thing anymore, I’m much happier knowing that cruise ships are operated safely from the bridge with all that tech making sure sailings are stress-free for all guests on board. So much safer than crew trying to just use the stars and watch out from a raised deck at the back of a ship!
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