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The Sounding Lead

By James Mathews

The lead is one of the most useful instruments on board ship. We will first consider the hand

lead, or blue pigeon, as sailors call it. Its’ appearance is as follows:

It is usually seven or fourteen pounds in weight although four, six, eight and ten pound leads are made. The lead weight that I have illustrated in front of me (and the one that I made up in the Navy) was a six-sided lead weight of fourteen pounds (we used a six pound lead for sounding work when I was a Sea Scout on the Columbia River-1951-54). The lead tapers to the top (about 10-12 inches tall) with ring molded into the top of the lead. The line is fastened to the top of the lead with a loose eyesplice, well served. The bottom of the lead is dished deeply (hollowed out to a depth of about 1"-1 ½") and filed with tallow. This is called the arming.

The lead line, for a hand lead, is usually sixty fathoms in length and is made of well-stretched American or Italian hemp, untarred and should be pliable. Before making a lead line, soak it in water and put it on a good stretch, about twice that of the weight of the lead you are using. (When I made mine in the Submarine Service I used about 50# stretch). Seize a small wooden toggle into the line about 2 fathoms from the lead (near the 2 fathom mark) to assist the leadsman in measuring the amount of the leadline to swing ..

The markings of the hand lead are as follows:

  • 2 fathoms from the lead; 2 strips of leather;
    3 "

" "

" ; 3





  • 5 " " " " ; white cotton rag;

  • 7 " " " " ; red woolen rag;

    • 10 " " " " ; leather with a hole;

    • 13 " " " " ; same as 3 fathoms;

    • 15 " " " " ; same as 5 fathoms;

    • 17 " " " " ; same as 7 fathoms;

    • 20 " " " " ; small line with 2 knots;

    • 25 " " " " ; small line with 1 knot;

    • 30 " " " " ; small line with 3 knots;

    • 35 " " " " ; small line with 1 knot;

    • 40 " " " " ; small line with 4 knots;

and so on, a mark at each five fathoms. These are known as the marks of the lead line. The fathoms not marked are known as the deeps of the leadline, and together we speak of the "marks and the deeps" of the lead line.

Casting the lead

Taking soundings, or casts of the lead, is done when the vessel has headway on, the leadsman

casting the lead forward and getting the depth as the vessel passes over the lead, resting on the bottom. The method of procedure is as follows:

The leadsman grasps the leadline at the toggle and swings the lead back and forth, parallel with the side of the ship, the leadsman being in a projecting lead stand, or in the chains in a sailing vessel, the lead is sent over head for two full turns and released at the bottom of the swing flying forward at a tangent, and almost parallel with the surface of the water. The motion of the swinging lead is opposite to that of a wheel turning with the motion of the ship. Assuming a right hand throw, from the starboard side, the left hand of the leadsman holds the coils of the line, freely forward, so it can run out without hindrance and without kinks. As the line flows out and the lead reaches the bottom, the leadsman grasps the running line with his right hand and pulls it rapidly plunging it up and down to feel the bottom. Feeling bottom, he plumbs the line up and down as the ship passes by the lead. He bends over and notes the mark above the water. If a mark is directly at the water, he calls out that mark, as "by the Mark five". If slightly under water "Mark underwater, five." If the five is three feet up, ""and a half four", if the five is six feet up," by the deep four." And so on , calling the marks and deeps or the spaces in between. If the mark is seven, for instance, is a quarter fathom out of the water (1.5 ft.) the leadsman would call, "and a quarter less seven." Before the next cast the leadsman will look at the arming and report the state of the bottom and clean the arming for the next cast. This gives you the general idea. The leadsman sings out the marks and deeps. He never uses "sir" as some are apt to do. The soundings should be called out sharp and clear. Leadsmen should practice casting the lead from both starboard and port lead stands.

Water Bag

The water bag is a canvas bag, with a circular bottom, about fourteen inches long and two inches in diameter, made from #1 canvas, a grommet sewn on the upper edge and a strong becket spliced into this. It is filled with water and used in place of the lead for practice casting. If the novice makes a bad cast he will get only a shower, not a crack on the head with a blue pigeon.

Sounding at Night

The leadsman, working in darkness, must know the distance from his waist to the waterline. He reads the mark closest to his waist by feel (or in cold weather by touching the mark to his lips or

tongue which are more sensitive than cold fingers) and then subtracts this distance from his depth. Only the exact water depth is cried to the bridge.


The coasting lead is a large hand lead, sometimes called the deep sea lead (sailors call it the

dipsea) dropped from the bow and weighing fifty pounds. The line is about 120 fathoms. The method of using the dipsea lead is as follows:

Station a reliable man on the forecastle head with the lead and a length of line coil in hand, say 10 fathoms. At intervals along the side of the ship at about every hundred feet, have a man with a similar coil of line, the bight being placed outside and clear of all projections, The last man, with the last coil in a tub, clear for running and fastened securely inboard, the man well clear of the line, stands at the taffrail to take the reading of the cast. Since all leads are hollowed in the bottom and armed with tallow, as the lead strikes the bottom, it will gather and bring up a sample

of the botom like pebbles, sand, speckled shell, blue mud or chalk. All these things and many more can be added to the chart and together with the depth greatly aid in locating a vessel at night or in the fog when soundings are taken.

The Lead Line -- Construction and use

by Allen Mordica, TMLHA

(photos: USNLP)

of the botom like pebbles, sand, speckled shell, blue mud or chalk. All these things and

Two leads are employed on vessels: the deep sea lead weighing 28 lb., and the hand lead weighing 14 lb. (a lead weighing somewhat less is sufficient for a small boat). We will look at a small, easily constructed line suitable for instructional and light duty use.

To prepare a lead line, assemble the strips of material, a 3-8 lb. lead weight, and 25 fathoms (150 ft.) of 3/8" cotton or manila line. (A note on the sinker; I was unable to obtain a lead, and so was required to cast my own. I carved each half of the mold from pine 2x12's, and the resulting weight didn't look half bad.) Splice the eye of the weight to one end of the line. If you want to allow for hollow in the heel of the lead (see below), flatten the base of the lead with a hammer or, on a large lead, saw off the base flat with a hacksaw, then drill a shallow hole for the tallow (also see below) in the center of the base. At each appropriate point, measured from the weighted end, use a fid or marlinspike to open the strands of the line. Insert the appropriate strip of material, so that the strip extends equally from both sides of the line, then allow the strands to return to their normal position, trapping the strip in the line. Then place whipping immediately at either side of the mark to help hold the strands tightly in place. The line used for a hand lead is

  • 25 fathoms long, and is generally marked as follows:

At 2


with two lobes.(should look like a flat Milk-Bone biscuit)




with three ends (like above, with 3 "lobes" at each end)




calico. (2" wide x 6"long strip)




bunting. (same size as above)




with hole through it at each end.(same as above)




serge.(same as above)




calico.(same as above)




bunting.(same as above)




of light line, with two knots in it at each end.

It is possible, by the different feel of the materials used, to tell what mark is in one's hand in the dark. The above depths are called marks; the unmarked depths in fathoms are called "the deeps".

Thus, at five fathoms, the leadsman calls, " By the mark five," in eleven fathoms,"By the deep eleven." He also calls halves and quarters of fathoms i.e.," And a half six,'' for six and a half fathoms, "A quarter less six," for five and three-quarters.

To take soundings while under way, the leadsman would take his place at the bow of a small boat, or at the forward chain plates on a large ship, secured from falling overboard by a "breast band", a wide strip of canvas used like a seat belt tied between two shrouds. The leadsman could then lean forward against the band to swing his lead in the clear. He would then swing the lead round and throw it as far forward as possible, so that the lead would be resting on the bottom and the line tight, when the vessel is directly over the lead.

If the lead is hove properly, so that the line pays out with a little tension as it passes through the hands, it is easy to tell when it has reached the bottom by the sudden slack felt in the line. When sailing in shoal waters, soundings can be taken much quicker with a pole or boathook than with a lead.

There is a hollow at the base, or "heel" of the lead which can be filled, or "armed", with tallow; a specimen of the bottom (mud, sand, or shingle) is brought up with the lead, and this, by referring to the chart, which generally marks the nature of the bottom, may help find your position precisely.

Depression for The Sounding Lead Becket detail beeswax
Depression for The Sounding Lead Becket detail beeswax
Depression for The Sounding Lead Becket detail beeswax

Depression for

The Sounding Lead

Becket detail


First mark and toggle Second mark Third mark Fourth mark
First mark and toggle Second mark Third mark Fourth mark
First mark and toggle Second mark Third mark Fourth mark
First mark and toggle Second mark Third mark Fourth mark

First mark and toggle

Second mark

Third mark

Fourth mark

Note that photos show some slight variability with the markings described in the article, and that only the first four markings are illustrated.

Q: What is a lead line ?

Lead Line Instruction


  • A. A line to which a leaden weight is attached, for the purpose of ascertaining the depth of water

a ship is in ?

  • Q. How many descriptions of lead lines and leads are there ?

  • A. Two, the hand lead and line, and the deep-sea lead and line.

  • Q. What is the use of the hand lead and line ?

  • A. It is always used when a ship is approaching any anchorage, or is cruising in shoal water

where the depths to be obtained are expected to be less than 20 fathoms.

  • Q. When is a deep-sea lead and line used ?

  • A. On approaching the land, when the true position of the ship is not known for certain, and the

depth of water is very great. The bottom of the deep-sea lead is hollowed out; when used, this hollow is filled with tallow (which is termed arming the lead), so when it comes in contact with the bottom, any small substance will stick to the bottom of the lead, such as gravel, sand, small shells, &c. ; it will also denote a hard or soft bottom. On approaching the land, deep-sea soundings are taken at regular intervals ; and the depth of water and the nature of the bottom is

entered in the ship's log-book, which enables the pilot to judge what coast the ship is on, also to tell how far she is from land.

  • Q. How do you know, by the hand lead and line, what depth of water you are in?

  • A. The hand line is 20 fathoms in length, and is divided into 20 equal parts, called marks and


  • Q. How many marks and deeps are there?

  • A. Nine marks and eleven deeps.

  • Q. Name the marks.

  • A. 2, 3, 5, 7, 10,13,15,17, 20. 2, 3, and 10 are distinguished by pieces of leather. 2 has two ends

to it ; 3 has three ends to it ; and 10 has a hole in it. 5 and 15 fathoms are distinguished by a piece of white buntin ; 7 and 17 by a piece of red buntin ; 13 by a piece of blue buntin ; and 20 by two knots.


  • Q. Having learned the marks and deeps, how will you call them, supposing, for instance, you

have 9 fathoms, or any of the following marks or deeps :-7, 10¼, 11¾ , 5½ ?

If I had 9 fathoms, I should call by the deep 9.

If I had 7 fathoms, by the mark 7.

If I had 10¼, and a quarter ten.

If I had 11¾ a quarter less twelve.

If I had 5½ and a half five.


  • Q. What is the first thing to be done on going into the chains to heave the lead ?

  • A. See the breast ropes properly secured, the line clear, and the end of it fast in the chains ;

measure the distance from the chains to the water with the lead line.

  • Q. Supposing it was a dark night, how would you know what sounding you had ?

  • A. If more than 15 fathoms, I should reckon from 20 fathoms or the two knots, the length of line

that passes through my hand, also the number of pieces of buntin; if under 15 fathoms, I should reckon in a similar way from 10 fathoms, which I should readily know by a piece of leather with the hole in it ; if under five fathoms, the piece of leather at 2 and 3 would be my guide ; so I could always determine the real depth of water by reckoning the distance between either of these marks, and the depth obtained. For instance, if I obtained 13, it would be the next piece of buntin to 10, or the leather with the hole in it ; if 17, it would be the piece of buntin nearest 20 ; or the two knots ; if 5, it would be the nearest buntin to the piece of leather denoting 3 fathoms.


  • Q. What is the weight of a hand lead ?

  • A. From 7 to 14 pounds.

  • Q. What is the weight of a deep-sea lead ?

  • A. 28 pounds.

  • Q. How is a deep-sea line marked, and what length is it ?

  • A. It is usually 100 fathoms long, and is marked exactly the same as the hand line, up to 20

fathoms. At 25 fathoms, 1 knot; at 30, 3 knots ; 35, 1 knot; 40, 4 knots ; so on, up to 100,

between every 10 fathoms 1 knot ; and at 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 fathoms, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 knots.

  • Q. How are soundings obtained by the deep-sea lead ?

  • A. The deep-sea lead line is kept on a reel ready for use. When required, the reel is taken aft, and

held by two men; the end of the line is then passed out on the weather side, and taken forward on the weather bow outside, and clear of all rigging. The quartermaster having ascertained the lead is well armed, it is bent to the line, and a careful hand holds the lead ready for heaving ; a number of men are ranged along outside the weather side of the ship at certain intervals, each with a coil of the deep-sea line in hand. All being ready, the officer of the watch gives the order to stand by as a caution to all, and then to heave, when the man on the weather bow throws the lead as far forward as possible, and calls out " watch there, watch," which is, repeated by each man as the last fake of the coil goes out of his hand. It then runs off the reel, which is held in a convenient position not to stop it until the lead is on the bottom, or sufficient line is run out to show there is no bottom, with the length of the line ordered. A quartermaster, or an experienced leadsman, always attends aft to ascertain when the lead touches the bottom, which he does by allowing the line to run loosely through his hand. When the lead touches the bottom, the line is checked and brought up and down, to ascertain the correct depth, which is noted by the officer of the watch in the log. The line is then hauled in and reeled up ready for use again. When the lead is inboard. the arming is examined, and the nature of the bottom is also noted in the log, and the lead is re-armed ready for use. Before taking a cast of the deep-sea lead, the way of the ship through the water is checked as much as possible

N.B. There are two descriptions of deep-sea leads-the patent, and common deep-sea lead.

  • Q. How is lead bent to the hand or deep-sea line?

  • A. In the end of the line there is always a long-eye spliced. In the upper end or top of the lead

there is a hole, through which a becket is worked, the eye in the end of the line is passed through

the becket, and over the bottom of the lead, and hauled taut up to the becket again.

  • Q. How is a deep-sea lead and line hauled in?

  • A. A small snatch block, made for the purpose, and fitted with a tail, is attached to one of the

quarter davits, or any other convenient place, the line is then placed in the snatch, and walked in

by a portion of the watch

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