A capstan is a vertically mounted drum, powered manually or mechanically, used to raise large weights, such as anchors. Unlike its cousin, the horizontally mounted winch (or windlass), which can be documented as far back as the 5th century BC, the capstan’s certain pedigree extends only to the late 14th century AD.
In 1962 a shipwreck was discovered protruding from an eroding river bank near Bremen, West Germany. It proved to be a Hanseatic League trading vessel of the type called a cog and subsequently was dated to 1380. Mounted atop her partial afterdeck, just forward of the tiller, was a crude capstan, hardly more than a trimmed tree trunk that penetrated the deck and was seated atop the keel. Four bars radiated from its head, by which means a like number of men could walk it around, hauling in on a rope coiled about its barrel. The capstan’s principal use undoubtedly was to raise the yard of the vessel’s large single sail.