The ‘Balls Up’ !

Contrary to your first impression there will be no rude or offensive content in this post so apologies if that disappoints any if you ;-)

I shall now explain the difference between a ‘balls up’ and a ‘complete Balls Up’.

Unlike what many people think these terms have no reference to male genitalia.
Lots if you are aware that many saying we use in everyday language originate from the sea.
People that have had the ‘pleasure’ of coming out sailing with me actually find it quite interesting to hear me explain origins of phrases like ‘turn a blind eye’ or ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’.
So without further ado, I will begin, are you sitting confortably?
Prior to getting out on a sea going vessel there is a plethora of technical and theoretical knowledge to be learned. A part if this is the (IRPCS) International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea or Colregs for short. Part of these regulations, of which there are plenty, stipulate what lights should be displayed at night and what shapes should be shown during the day. These can be quite complex, however an easy example would be:

A vessel at anchor less than 50mts in length would display a black ball from a prominent position by day or a white all round white at night. This shows other vessels that they should keep clear.
Now I come to the ‘Balls Up’. A vessel not under command, that’s to say, unable to be controlled ie no steerage, no power etc would need to display two black balls. Hence, when a ship was at sea and they lost steerage or power and so were unable to command what the vessel did the sailors would say ‘that’s a Balls Up’ meaning they would need to hoist two black balls to warn other vessels.

Now……… If a vessel runs aground, by day they are required to display three black balls and this would be referred to by the sailors as a complete or total Balls Up.

In summary, a Balls Up is a vessel not under command ie two black balls displayed.
A COMPLETE Balls Up is a vessel aground ie three black balls displayed.


Hope you enjoy telling people that bit of trivia.
Should you know anyone wanting to learn more we have our next Skipper & Crew Theory Course running next month or if you just want to enjoy sailing around idyllic Greek Islands hearing tales of nautical adventure why not join us in following in the tracks of the Argonauts when we sail for a weeklong cruise from Athens in March?

Visit our website HERE

All the best, Sailorboy.

I’d love to know what you think of this so please feel free to comment on it.

  • Martin Fletcher

    also appropriate to the current weather – wasn’t ‘freezing the balls off a brass monkey’ a nautical term – I seem to remember reading it was to do with iron cannon balls stacked on in a triangular brass frame (the monkey) which when it was very cold, the ‘monkey’ shrank and the iron cannon balls ended up rolling around the deck… (so nothing to do with primate’s genitalia either)