The capstan (pronounced caps'n) is an upright, barrel-shaped winch used for heavy lifting. Depending on the size of the capstan, between 4 and 300 men push the capstan bars to wind a cable, lifting anchor, cargo, or a vessel. Capstan shanties, with their steady rhythms, are suited for these long, repetitive tasks.

Many capstan shanties use waltz or march time. The main goals are to encourage steady progress, alleviate boredom, and maintain morale.