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From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48:
Gunwale \Gun"wale\, n. [Gun + wale. So named because the upper guns were pointed from it.] (Naut.) The upper edge of a vessel's or boat's side; the uppermost wale of a ship (not including the bulwarks); or that piece of timber which reaches on either side from the quarter-deck to the forecastle, being the uppermost bend, which finishes the upper works of the hull. [Written also gunnel.] [1913 Webster]