It's early in the morning, so perhaps the sailor in question is rousing from his drunken stupor. But sailors were traditionally all men, so why "up she rises"? Is the sailor being mocked, or does it refer to something else entirely?

What'll we do with a drunken sailor,
Earl-aye in the morning?


Weigh heigh and up she rises
Earl-aye in the morning

An additional gold doubloon will be awarded for an explanation of the odd pronunciation of early (earl-aye /ˈɜːlaɪ/).

  • I can't shine any light on the pronunciation of '-y' in this song, but I note that such pronunciations are sometimes used by traditional folk-singers today, not just in this song.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 19, 2011 at 12:50
  • In the version of the song I have heard it is always ".. up HE rises" for every versus, except the one "Put him in the bed with the captain's daughter," where it changes to "she".
    – jwernerny
    Sep 19, 2011 at 17:47
  • When I worked as part of a reniasance faire cast we were taught different pronouciations for everything. This included the song drunken sailor among others. The pronounciation of middle english (and certainly old english) differs from our standard speech, so I always assumed that was the reason for the differences.
    – emragins
    Sep 20, 2011 at 15:14
  • The only original recording of this song that I'm aware of pronounces it "early" not "earl-aye"; the latter seems to be a modern innovation.
    – Charles
    Jun 22, 2014 at 15:35

8 Answers 8


According to dauntlessprivateers.org, there are five types of shanties:

Capstan shanties: Sung while raising anchor. Also known as "stamp and go chanties" because sailors would stomp the deck while turning the capstan.

Halyard shanties (Long Drag Shanty): Sung to the raising and lowering of sails. The crew would rest during the verse and haul during the chorus.

Short drag shanties: Very difficult tasks meant crews could pull less. Short drag shanties were used for such tasks - such as trimming the sails or raising the masthead.

Windlass and pumping shanties: the windlass is also used to raise the anchor. Sailors would pump handles up and down, making the barrel of the windlass rotate to bring the anchor chain up. There were several different types of pumps, which accounts for the variation in the timing of pumping shanties.

Ceremonial shanties and forecastle songs: songs were those sung by sailors on their time off (of which they didn't have a great deal). Ceremonial shanties were for times of celebration, such as when the sailor paid off his debt to the ship or when they crossed the equator.

This website has this to say about Drunken Sailor:

The capstan shanty was a moderate tune sung to raising the anchor. In order to raise the anchor bars were inserted into the capstan and sailors would walk around it, turning the capstan to raise the anchor. Sailors would stamp on the deck on the words "Way Hay and Up She Rises."


I think the stomping rhythm and steady beat of the song makes it is clearly a Capstan Shanty — it doesn't seem to slow down or "rest" during the verse. So, I think it's most probably referring to the anchor rising…

Who knows though, I'm sure people have sung it to the sails too. ;)

  • Anyone who has read Patrick O'Brian's peerless Aubrey-Maturin series would clearly recognize this as a capstan shanty.
    – Gnawme
    Sep 19, 2011 at 19:11
  • adding picture.
    – GEdgar
    Aug 28, 2012 at 17:42
  • 8
    Those people are lowering the anchor! Unless they're walking backwards. Sep 19, 2013 at 12:20

This takes place early in the morning, so she could be the rising sun. But sea shanties are work songs so it is more likely to refer to raising the very heavy main sail and the gaff (cross beam) that would require the whole crew to heave it up.

Wikipedia backs this up with a citation:

  • Stamp-'n'-Go Shanties: were used only on ships with large crews. Many hands would take hold of a line with their backs to the fall (where the line reaches the deck from aloft) and march away along the deck singing and stamping out the rhythm. Alternatively, with a larger number of men, they would create a loop—marching along with the line, letting go at the 'end' of the loop and marching back to the 'top' of the loop to take hold again for another trip. These songs tend to have longer choruses similar to capstan shanties. Examples: "Drunken Sailor", "Roll the Old Chariot". Stan Hugill, in his Shanties from the Seven Seas writes: "["Drunken Sailor"] is a typical example of the stamp-'n'-go song or walkaway or runaway shanty, and was the only type of work-song allowed in the King's Navee (sic). It was popular in ships with big crews when at halyards; the crowd would seize the fall and stamp the sail up. Sometimes when hauling a heavy boat up the falls would be 'married' and both hauled on at the same time as the hands stamped away singing this rousing tune."

As to the earl-aye pronunciation, Colin Fine commented this is sometimes used by traditional folk-singers today. I expect this is done to give it rhythm.

  • +1 for the sail idea. But for the pronunciation bit, it is "weigh heigh" in the version I have.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Sep 19, 2011 at 13:17
  • 2
    I've heard the 'hoo-ray and up she rises' version and it was explained to me that they were lifting the sails during the chorus (as they would pull in unison on the ropes) and during the verses they would take a breather.
    – jqa
    Sep 19, 2011 at 14:40
  • 1
    There is a mention of this shanty on the wikipedia "shanty" page that backs this up. I think if you added that it would be a fairly complete answer. ;)
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Sep 19, 2011 at 15:24
  • 2
    +1 It should be noted that the original sense of weigh was to "lift or carry" so "weigh, hey, up she rises" was definitely referring to lifting the sail, not "weighing anchor".
    – ghoppe
    Sep 19, 2011 at 15:41
  • 4
    I agree that this probably refers to raising the sail. But note that "weighing anchor" means lifting the anchor, so wouldn't "up she rises" work for that, too? Sep 19, 2011 at 15:46

To "weigh anchor" means to lift it up from the seabed and return it to its 'stowed' configuration on the ship. So when you "weigh-heigh", up the anchor (which, being a part of the ship, is naturally also a "she") rises from the sea.

  • 2
    I thought of the anchor too, but this fellow who's worked on a tall ship says the anchor on tall ships is pulled up by the capstan and it's more likely to be the main sail. forum.wordreference.com/…
    – Hugo
    Sep 19, 2011 at 13:38
  • 2
    Cranking a capstan by hand is still plenty hard work....
    – Hellion
    Sep 19, 2011 at 14:37

I always had the impression that "she" refers to the boat rising and falling with the waves on the sea the boat is sailing.


I would guess the earl-aye pronunciation is (at least in part) an elision, particularly since "early" is followed by "in". This may have been done for the sake of "rhythm" (although I believe the more proper term here would be "meter").

The pronunciation may also have been affected by the ethnicity of the naval crews (it was fairly common for, say, young Irish males to be kidn-, ahem, conscripted into naval service).

But that's just a (semi-)educated guess.


I think it's the ship itself. They had female names.


“Up she rises” is a whaling term. The lookouts would shout “Up she (or there she) rises” when the whale is about to break the surface of the water. “There she steams” or “there she blows” meant that the whale was exhaling and a signal for the crew on deck to look for the water and vapor from the breathing.


I'm amazed that nobody has noted the transparent crudity of this shanty. The "drunken sailor" refers to a member of the crew suffereing erectile disfunction as a result of over indulgence and shanty suggests methods of solving it - hence "Hooray and up she rises"

  • 2
    Are you trying to be serious, or are you making a joke? Because this is just too preposterous to be considered an actual answer.
    – tchrist
    Jan 26, 2013 at 18:12
  • 1
    I agree with Jan. While the answers about lifting the anchor/sails make a great deal of sense and I'm sure they are the right answer, you have to remember that this is an English Sea Shanty, and England is the home of the double entendre and bawdy. If the song is only about an anchor/sails rising, and not intended to have an element of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, know-what-I-mean-guv'nor humour to it, then of what relevance is the line about the captain's daughter to lifting nautical equipment?
    – user43196
    Apr 25, 2013 at 10:07

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