What Does 'Batten Down the Hatches' Mean?

The English phrase batten down the hatches comes from the way sailors made old ships watertight during storms.

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read

batten down the hatches

Has anyone ever told you to batten down the hatches?

If so, they were telling you to prepare for trouble.

Maybe they saw your boss walking angrily down the hall. Or maybe they heard the principal call you to his office.

Either way, they were warning you that a big storm was coming—and that you better get ready.

Batten down the hatches is what sailors used to say when a real storm was coming. Let me explain what they meant.

You see, all ships have hatches, or hatchways. These are square or rectangular holes in the deck. You can use them to load cargo into a ship’s interior, or hold. You can also climb down through the hatches to get to living quarters below deck.

In old sailing ships, hatches were covered with an open wooden grating. These gratings prevented sailors from falling through the hatches as they walked across the deck. (That’s kind of important!) They also let fresh air and sunlight flow down to the lower decks of the ship.

Battens are long wooden sticks used to temporarily attach canvas to a ship's hatches.

However, these open gratings were not so great during storms. If white water crashed over the bow of the ship and ran across the deck, you wouldn’t want it to flow down into the hatches. Your ship would fill with water and potentially sink!

To solve this problem, you can batten down the hatches. Here’s how.

  1. Grab the grating and place it in the hatch. 
  2. Take a big piece of canvas tarpaulin and lay it over the hatch. 
  3. Now, take four battens—long, thin strips of wood-like yardsticks. The word batten comes from a Middle English word to describe a finished board.
  4. Nail those battens into each side of the hatch, securing the canvas tightly across the top.

Congratulations! You’ve just made the hatch watertight. In other words, you’ve battened down the hatches

So, that’s your tidbit for today. Batten down the hatches is a nautical term that means to prepare for trouble. 

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.


Ammer, Christine. Batten down the hatches. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Dent, Susie. Batten down the hatches. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.

King, Dean. A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O'Brian. 3rd ed. Holt Paperbacks, 2000.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.