Confused about whether you’re port or starboard? Not sure whether you’re aloft or below? Maybe you’ve misplaced your chafing gear… or can’t find the heads!
Don’t panic! You’re not alone. We all have to start somewhere when it comes to learning the sailing lingo. This is where our essential list of common sailing words and phrases will come in handy…
Note: This guide of nautical terms has been developed to be helpful to trainees who are planning their first sail training voyage. Bear in mind that some of the descriptions are not definitive terminologies, other definitions do exist, and some terms can have several meanings.
ABOARD – Let’s start with an easy one. When you’re “aboard,” you’re on a boat.
ABOVE DECK – This can be a bit confusing. “Above deck” actually means you’re on the deck, not above it (which is “aloft”).
ABREAST – When two vessels are side by side, then they’re “abreast.”
ADRIFT – You probably want to do something about this pretty quickly. A vessel that’s “adrift” has broken from her moorings and isn’t on a towline.
AFT – The “aft” is toward the back, or “stern,” of a vessel.
AGROUND – If the water isn’t deep enough, you’ll go “aground.” In other words, a vessel’s bottom, or any other part, is resting on the ground.
AHEAD – This means something in front of the boat – your destination port is “ahead” of you.
ALOFT – When you’re up in the rigging, off the deck, you’re “aloft.”
AMIDSHIPS – This is the middle of a vessel… of either her length or breadth. It can also mean to bring the steering wheel back to the centreline.
ANCHORAGE – A great spot where there’s good holding for anchoring and shelter.
ASTERN – Instead of something being “ahead” of you, it can also be behind you, or “astern.” This can refer to objects, your destination, or anything else.
BATTEN DOWN – You might have heard the expression, “Batten down the hatches!” It means secure any hatches and loose objects, so you don’t lose anything important.
BEAM – Imagine the widest part of your vessel… that’s the “beam.”
BEARING – A “bearing” is the direction of something, using a compass or the heading of the vessel as a reference point.
BELOW – Instead of being “above deck,” you can also be “below” it.
BILGE – As part of your duties on board, you might have to check the “bilge.” This is the deepest part of the vessel’s hull, where water can collect.
BOAT HOOK – This one does what it says on the tin – it’s a pole with a hook on the end. You can use it to grab a “line” (rope), pick up something that’s fallen overboard, or push off from a quay.
BOOM – This is the pole that runs along the bottom of the fore and aft sail… and it’s the part that often hits unsuspecting people on the head in small vessels.
BOW – The front of a boat… otherwise known as the “pointy end” for fun.
BOW LINE – A rope that’s tied onto the bow (front) that stops the vessel from moving sideways when moored.
BOWLINE – Just to confuse you, this is completely different from the “bow line.” It’s pronounced “boh-lin” and it’s a type of knot which creates a temporary loop at the end of a rope, or “line.”
BRIDGE – An important part of any vessel, because you can control the speed and steer from here.
BRIGHTWORK – The shiny bits. “Brightwork” is varnished woodwork or polished metal.
BULKHEAD – A “bulkhead” is a support below deck that strengthens the vessel. It also separates compartments.
BUOY – You probably know this one already, but a “buoy” is an anchored float that marks a position, a hazard, or a shoal… and some are used to moor vessels, too.
CABIN – Essentially, a room on a vessel… and you might sleep here.
CAST OFF – You “cast off” when you let go of a rope (“line”), when a vessel has been moored up.
CHAFING GEAR – It sounds quite painful, but don’t panic. “Chafing gear” is a tube or some cloth that you wrap around a rope (“line”) to stop it from rubbing on a rough surface.
CHART – A nautical map.
CHOCK – Imagine a U-shaped fitting, with ropes (“lines”) running through it. That’s a “chock.” In case you were wondering, it’s U-shaped to reduce chafing.
CLEAT – A “cleat” looks a little bit like an anvil. It’s where you tie up ropes (“lines”) and make them fast.
COCKPIT – The “cockpit” is an opening in the deck and you can control the vessel from here.
COIL – When it’s time to put away (“stow”) ropes (“lines”), you make a neat, circular “coil.”
COURSE – The route or track that you’re following across the water.
CRUIS IN COMPANY – This is not a competitive event, like the races, it’s a sailing cruise of friendship and adventure Along the way ports, both large and small, will welcome ships and crews to their harbours with receptions and programme of activities It’s an opportunity for crews to enjoy local hospitality, local scenery and sail in a more relaxed way.
CURRENT – We’ll give you a clue… it’s nothing to do with electricity. The “current” is actually the horizontal movement of water, usually caused by tides or wind.
DEAD AHEAD – We’re not sure this one needs explaining, but if you’re in any doubt, “dead ahead” means straight ahead.
DEAD ASTERN – This is the complete opposite of “dead ahead.” In other words, directly behind you.
DECK – We’re not talking about playing cards. Picture the surface that covers a compartment, hull, or any part of a vessel. On the oldest Tall Ships, this will often be wooden.
DINGHY – Not to be confused with “dingy,” pronounced “din-jie.” “Dinghy,” pronounced “din-ghee,” is a small, open boat. After anchoring, you might sail to shore in a “dinghy.”
DISPLACEMENT – When you get into a bath, the water rises, because you’ve “displaced” it. In sailing, this is the weight of water that a vessel moves, which tells you her weight.
DOCK – A “dock” is a protected and calm area where you can tie up (“moor”) your vessel. It’s usually a pier, a float or a wharf.
DRAFT/DRAUGHT – Just to confuse you, this term can be used in two ways. Firstly, it can mean the depth of a vessel underwater. Secondly, it can describe the fullness of a sail.
FATHOM – We’re not talking about trying to understand a difficult problem. In sailing, a “fathom” is a nautical unit of length (six feet or approximately two metres).
FENDER – Have you ever wondered what the colourful balls and cylinders that hang over the edge of a vessel are? Well, they’re “fenders” and they’re essentially cushions that stop vessels damaging each other or hitting the pier.
FLOOD – Not quite as dramatic as it sounds. A “flood” can simply be used to describe an incoming tide.
FORE-AND-AFT – This is the centre-line of a vessel. It runs lengthways, parallel to the “keel” (the part of the hull that goes deeper into the water below the vessel).
FOREPEAK – This is a compartment in the front section of a small vessel, in the angle of the bow.
FORWARD – We’re not sure we need to explain this one, but it’s toward the front (“bow”) of the vessel.
FOULED – Not something that causes soccer players to lay on the ground. A “fouled” piece of equipment is jammed, entangled, or dirtied. Not ideal.
GALLEY – If you’re hungry, the “galley” is where you want to be. It’s another name for the kitchen. Yum.
GANGWAY – The “gangway” is where you can get on (“board”) and get off (“disembark”) the vessel.
GEAR – “Get your gear.” This is a general term for ropes (“lines”), blocks, tackle, and other equipment on board.
GENOA/JENNY – It might get confusing if you’ve got someone called “Jenny” on board… but a “Genoa” or “Jenny” is a sail that overlaps the main sail on a yacht.
GRAB RAILS – In a storm, it’s probably a good idea to hold onto the “grab rails” to stop yourself from falling over.
GROUND TACKLE – The bits of a vessel that touch the ground. Simply, the anchor and its associated “gear.”
GUNWALE – Imagine the rail that goes around the edge of the vessel’s deck. This is the “gunwale.”
HATCH – An opening in the vessel’s deck – it’s fitted with a watertight cover.
HEADS – Many people would never guess this one. On board, the “heads” are actually the toilets. A “head” can also be the upper corner of a triangular sail.
HEADING – This is the direction the vessel is “heading” in.
HEADWAY – When a vessel is moving forward, it’s making “headway,” as opposed to “sternway,” which is moving backward.
HELM – When someone asks you to “Take the helm,” it’s just like saying “Take the wheel” in a car. The “helm” is the wheel, or “tiller,” that controls the rudder.
HELMSPERSON – One of the most fun and scary jobs on board. The “helmsperson” steers the vessel.
HULL – The main part of a vessel.
INBOARD – When someone says “inboard,” they mean inside the vessel’s edges.
JACOB’S LADDER – Imagine the type of rope ladder that you’d use to climb up to a treehouse. That’s a “Jacob’s ladder.” On a vessel, it can be lowered from the deck when pilots or passengers come on board.
JETTY – A “jetty” is a man-made structure that’s used to create a breakwater, shelter, erosion control, or a channel. It can also protect a harbour entrance.
JIBING/GYBING – We’re definitely not talking about making fun of someone. On a vessel, “jibing” means turning away and through the wind until the wind comes from the other side.
KEEL – The “keel” is on the centreline of the hull under the water. You can also think of it as the “backbone” of a vessel.
KNOT – This is a “knot” in a rope (“line”) – you can use one to form a stopper, enclose or bind an object, make a loop or noose, tie a small rope (“line”) to an object, or to tie the ends of two small ropes (“lines”) together.
KNOT – It can also be used to describe a measure of speed – a “knot” is equal to one nautical mile (or 6,076 feet) per hour. It comes from a device that old sailing ships used for measuring speed, which had knots tied in it.
LATITUDE – If we remember correctly from geography lessons, “latitude” is the distance north or south of the equator. It’s measured in degrees. There are up to 90˚ north and 90˚ south. Each degree of latitude is 60 nautical miles.
LAZARETTE – A storage space at the back (“stern”) of the vessel.
LEE – The down-wind side of a vessel or shore which is sheltered.
LEE CLOTHS – Imagine falling out of your bunk in the middle of the night when the vessel enters some choppy waters. Well, you can avoid it by using a “lee-cloth” to keep you safe.
LEEWARD – This is the direction away from the wind, as opposed to “windward,” which means into the wind.
LEEWAY – The amount a vessel is pushed sideways by the wind or waves when sailing sideways.
LINE – This is a general term for a rope (“line”) on a vessel that has a control function.
LOG – You might have guessed it, but the “log” records the vessel’s courses or operations. It’s also a device that measures speed.
LONGITUDE – This is the distance east or west of the meridian line at Greenwich, UK, which is measured in degrees. There are 180˚ west and 180˚ east of Greenwich.
MAINSAIL – The “main sail” is the big one that sits behind the main mast on a yacht.
MIDSHIP – The middle of the vessel. Simple.
MOORING – When you “moor” a vessel, you tie it to a buoy or a pier… and hope it won’t come adrift.
NAUTICAL MILE – It’s super confusing, but a “nautical mile” is different from a regular (or “statute”) one. It’s around 6,076 feet, 1,852 metres, 1.852 kilometres, 2,025 yards, or one minute of latitude. It’s actually about 1/8 longer than a statute mile.
NAVIGATION – It’s a bit more complicated than it sounds, but put simply, “navigation” is working out and keeping to the route of a vessel when on a voyage from one point to another.
OPERATIONAL LANGUAGE – This is what you’ll hear most on board – it’s the language that the crew will use to give instructions.
OUTBOARD – When something is “outboard,” it’s toward, or beyond, the vessel’s sides.
OVERBOARD – It’s probably best to avoid this one. When someone or something is “overboard,” it’s over the side of the boat.
PARADE OF SAIL – As part of a Tall Ships Race or Regatta, vessels will often take part in a “parade of sail” around a bay or sea area where spectators can see. It’ll probably include a “saluting vessel,” which the others sail past and salute in their own way.
PIER – A “pier” is a loading platform suspended by posts that extends out from the shore.
PILOTAGE – When you navigate using visible signs, you’re “piloting.”
PORT – When you’re on a vessel and you look to the left, that’s the “port” side. A “port” is also another name for a harbour.
REGATTA – A Tall Ships Regatta is similar to a Tall Ships Race, but it usually takes places outside of the summer events series, and is often a bit smaller.
REACHING – For most sailboats, reaching is the fastest way to travel. A “close” reach is toward the wind, and a “broad” reach is slightly away from the wind (a “beam” reach is with the wind at a right angle to the boat). On some boats, the beam reach is the fastest point of sail; on others, a broad reach is faster.
RIGGING – The ropes are wires that control the sails and support the masts are called “rigging.”
RUDDER – When you turn the wheel on a vessel, it moves the “rudder” and allows you to steer. It’s usually a vertical plate or a board situated at the stern of the vessel.
SATELLITE NAVIGATION – Most of us have used regular “satellite navigation” before – it uses radio transmissions from satellites. However, the automatic equipment on board a vessel is a bit more complex and sophisticated.
SCUPPERS – Have you ever noticed holes in the deck, toe rail, or in the bulwarks, that let water drain off? Well, these are called “scuppers.”
SEA COCK – A “sea cock” is a valve in the hull where a pipe comes through. It can be turned off when not in use.
SEAMANSHIP – When you describe all the skills of boat handling, this is called “seamanship.” It could include maintenance, repairs, piloting, sail handling, marlinespike work, and rigging.
SEA ROOM – Despite what you might think, it’s not a room in a vessel. It’s actually used to describe a safe distance from the shore or other hazards.
SEAWORTHY – If a vessel can sail safely in rough weather, then she’s “seaworthy.”
SECURE – We think you can probably guess this one! When something is “secure,” then it’s tied safely.
SET – When the current is flowing toward a particular direction, this is “set.”
SLACK – You can probably guess this one. Something is “slack” when it’s loose or not fastened.
SOLEBOARDS/COCKPIT GRATINGS – You can probably guess this one. You stand on the “floorboards” in the cockpit.
SOUNDING – Surprisingly, this is nothing to do with noise. In fact, “sounding” is a measurement of the depth of water.
SPRING LINE – This is a rope (“line”) that stops a boat from moving forward or backward while being made fast to a dock. Pretty useful, we think. It can also be used during docking and undocking.
SQUALL – Get your wet weather gear (“oilies”) ready. A “squall” is a sudden, violent wind that often brings rain.
SQUARE-RIG – Imagine the biggest Tall Ships… these are “square-rigged.” It means the majority of sails are at right angles to the length of the vessel.
STANDING PART – The “standing part” of a rope (“line”) which can be made “fast.” In other words, not a loop (“bight”) or the end of the rope.
STAND-ON VESSEL – A “stand-on vessel” should not have to keep out of the way of others. Everyone else should give way.
STARBOARD – When you’re looking forward, “starboard” is the right side of a vessel.
STEM – The very front of the vessel.
STERN – Put simply, the back of the vessel.
STERN LINE – This is a rope (“line”) leading from the back (“stern”) of the vessel.
STOW – We could do with “stowing” some things around the Sail On Board office. It means that you’ve put an item in its proper place.
TACKING – When you steer into the wind and the wind passes from one side to another, you’re “tacking.”
TILLER – A “tiller” is a bar or handle that you use to turn a vessel’s rudder.
TOPSIDES – This is the bit of the vessel that’s between the waterline and the deck.
TRADE WINDS – These winds usually blow from the north east in the Northern Hemisphere and the south east in the Southern Hemisphere. Basically, sailors use them because they blow ships toward the equator.
TRANSOM – Essentially, the “transom” is the wall at the back of a vessel. It’s a flat surface across the “stern.”
TRIM – The relationship of a vessel’s hull to the waterline.
TRUE WIND – Unsurprisingly, this refers to wind. “True wind” refers to the direction and speed of the wind – it’s not the wind you feel when you’re on board a vessel that’s moving, which is “Apparent Wind.”
UNDERWAY – When you start moving, your vessel is “underway.” In other words, it’s not moored, at anchor, or aground.
WAKE – This is the path that a vessel leaves behind, when she moves across the water.
WATCH – Your skipper will assign you a “watch” on board – this is a length of time when you have to work with your fellow watch members.
WATERLINE – This isn’t just an imaginary line, it’s actually painted onto the hull. It shows the point a vessel will float to when it’s properly “trimmed.”
WAY – When a vessel moves though water, it makes “way.” Such as, “headway,” “sternway,” or “leeway.”
WINDWARD – It’s tough to sail “windward,” because it means into the wind!