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Glossary of sailing and nautical terms

In order to become a true sailor, you’ll first need to learn some essential sailing terms. Luckily, we’ve got you covered! In this A-Z of yachting terms, we’ll briefly explain yacht terms, parts, equipment, sailing commands, and even some pirate jargon.

For you to understand the ins and outs of a boat you should know where it starts and where it ends. The front of a boat is known as the bow while the back is called the stern. Also, while the left of the boat is called the port side, the right is called starboard. Now that you’re familiar with the different sides of a boat, let's get down to real sailing business. 

A

  • ABANDON SHIP! – You have probably heard this in movies and you know it doesn't bring any good. You should leave the vessel immediately as it looks like your ship is in some imminent danger.
  • ABOARD – When you’re aboard, you are on a boat. The opposite of ashore. 
  • ABOVE DECK – Above deck means you are standing on the deck, not above it.
  • ABREAST – We call vessels that are side to side - abreast.
  • ADRIFT – Don't panic but if your vessel is adrift it means it has sailed off without you. Okay, you can panic a little.
  • AGROUND – If the water is not deep enough, then you go aground and your vessel’s bottom touches the ground.
  • AHEAD – This means something is in front of the boat, for example your destination is ahead.
  • AHOY – Another way to say hello, with a little pirate tone.
  • ALL HANDS HOAY – Everyone should get on the deck. 
  • AMIDSHIPS – The middle of a vessel, whether from her length or width. 
  • ANCHOR – A chain with a hook on the end that falls to the bottom of the sea and prevents your yacht from sailing off without you. Used for parking your yacht in a bay.
  • ANCHORAGE – A great spot for holding, anchoring and sheltering your vessel.
  • APPARENT WIND A mixture of the true wind direction and the wind created by the sails.
  • ASHORE – Being on the shore, and not on your vessel. 
  • ASTERN – Opposite of ahead is astern, in other words behind. 
  • AYE, AYE – A reply to a command to show that it will be carried out.

B

  • BAGGYWRINKLE – A soft covering for cables that prevents friction between sails.
  • BAREBOAT – Sailing a yacht on your own without a crew or skipper. 
  • BATTEN DOWN – If you hear “Batten down the hatches!” make sure you secure any hatchets and loose objects so you don’t lose anything important.
  • BEAM – The width of your vessel.
  • BEARING – Bearing is the direction in which we are headed. The reference point can be a compass or the heading direction.
  • BELOW – Instead of being “above deck,” you can also be “below” it.
  • BERTHS (Sleeping) – The number of people able to sleep on a specified vessel.
  • BERTHS (Mooring) – The location in a harbour or port for mooring a vessel
  • BEAM REACH – Is the position of a sail when the true wind hits it at a 90 degree angle.
  • BILGE – The deepest part of the vessel’s hull, where water can enter.
  • BOAT HOOK – A pole with a hook on the end. You can use it to grab and pick up a rope, collect something that has fallen overboard, or push the vessel off the port.
  • BOOM – This is the horizontal pole that runs along the bottom of the sail. A part that often hits unsuspecting victims on the head in small vessels. Not a very pleasant experience.
  • BOW –The front of the vessel also known as the ”pointy end” of the boat. 
  • BOW LINE – A rope that’s tied onto the front of the vessel that stops the vessel from moving sideways when moored.
  • BOWLINE – To confuse you, this is a completely different from the bow line. It’s pronounced “boh-lin” and it’s a knot which creates a loop at the end of a rope.
  • BRIDGE – The part of the vessel from where you steer and control the speed.
  • BRIGHTWORK – Brightwork is the shining woodwork or polished metal that you can see on a vessel.
  • BUOY – A buoy is a floating device that marks a position, a hazard, or shallow sea. Some are also used to moor vessels.
  • BROAD REACH- Sailing downwind with the wind is hitting the sails at an angle between 91 and 170 degrees. 

C

  • CABIN – Separated living units, like a bedroom.
  • CAPSIZE  – When a vessel leans too far causing it to flip over. This can result in the sinking of the ship. 
  • CAST OFF – When you cast off you let go of a rope from where your vessel has been moored up.
  • CHAFING GEAR – It sounds quite uncomfortable, but it's not for you. “Chafing gear” is a tube or some type of fabric that you wrap around a rope to stop it from rubbing on a rough surface.
  • CHART – A nautical map that gets you from point A to point B.
  • CLEAT – A fitting on vessels used to tie or secure ropes. 
  • COCKPIT – An opening from where you can control the vessel.
  • COIL – When it’s time to put away ropes, you make a neat, circular coil with them.
  • COMPASS  – A navigational instrument that revolutionised travel.
  • COURSE – The route you follow across the water.
  • CURRENT – The current is actually the movement of water, usually caused by tides or wind.

D

  • DEAD AHEAD – Dead ahead means straight ahead.
  • DEAD ASTERN – Meaning behind you. The complete opposite of dead ahead.
  • DECK – Not the deck of playing cards. This is a surface that covers any part of a vessel on which you can walk on.
  • DINGHY – A small inflatable boat attached to the yacht. It is sometimes easier to go with the dinghy. 
  • DOCK – A pier, float or a wharf where you can moor your vessel.
  • DRAFT/DRAUGHT – It can mean two things, the depth of a vessel underwater or the fullness of a sail.
  • DUNSEL –  This part has no use on a ship. Don't be a dunsel! 

E

  • EASE – To let the sails out.

F

  • FATHOM – In sailing, a fathom is a nautical unit of length. It matches six feet or approximately two metres.
  • FENDER – The colourful cushions that hang over the edge of a vessel to prevent damage to the boat or pontoon.
  • FLOOD – This doesn't have to be super dramatic, it can simply be used to describe an incoming tide.
  • FORE-AND-AFT – A centre-line of a vessel that runs lengthwise, parallel to the part of the hull that goes deeper into the water below it. 
  • FOREPEAK – An open area in the front front of the vessel.
  • FOULED – A fouled piece of equipment is blocked, tangled, or tarnished.

G

  • GALLEY – A vessel’s kitchen. Go on, we know you’re hungry.
  • GANGWAY – The gangway is where you can get in and out of the vessel.
  • GEAR – When you hear “Get your gear!” it means ropes, lines, blocks, and other equipment on board.
  • GENOA/JENNY – Might be quite confusing if your name is Jenny. A Genoa or Jenny is a sail that overlaps the mainsail.
  • GRAB RAILS – When in danger of falling off the boat, it’s a good idea to hold onto the grab rails to prevent that. 
  • GROUND TACKLE – The bits that touch the ground such as the anchor and its gear.
  • GUNWALE – The rail that goes around the edge of the deck. 

H

  • HALYARD –  All the ropes used to pull sails up.
  • HATCH – An opening in the vessel’s deck that has a water-resistant cover.
  • HEADING – The direction the vessel is going in.
  • HEADWAY – A headway vessel is going forward, while the sternway is moving backward.
  • HEADS – The heads are actually the toilets, the loo, dunny… It can also be the upper corner of a triangular sail.
  • HELM – If somebody asks you to take the helm, drop everything you are doing and take the wheel. The helm is the wheel or tiller that controls the vessel.
  • HELMSPERSON – The best and the worst job on board. The person steering the wheel.
  • HOLD – The inside of the yacht’s hull.
  • HULL – The main body of a vessel, the part that floats.

I

  • INBOARD – Simply inside the vessel’s edges.
  • IN IRONS – When the boat is difficult to manoeuvre under sail.
  • IRON MIKE – A slang for auto-pilot. Not a famous boxer.
  • ITINERARY – The route of travel on your holiday. Usually planned in advance but needs to remain flexible to respond to weather conditions and personal preference

J

  • JACOB’S LADDER – The type of rope ladder that you’d use to climb up something. It can be lowered from the deck when passengers come on board. 
  • JETTY – A jetty is a structure made to create breakwater, shelter, erosion control, or a channel. 
  • JIBING/GYBING – On a vessel, jibing means turning away from the wind until the wind comes from the other side.

K

  • KEEL – The central structural base of the hull, the “backbone” of a vessel.
  • KNOT – Not just a loop you tie in a rope or string, but also a unit of speed (equals one nautical mile an hour)
Side of boat and white sail at sea

L

  • LATITUDE – Geography knowledge can be used here. The latitude is the distance north or south of the equator. It’s measured in degrees and up to 90˚ north and 90˚ south. Each degree of latitude accounts for 60 nautical miles.
  • LAZARETTE – A storage space at the back of the vessel.
  • LAZYJACK – Wires leading from the mast (the big central metal pole) to the boom (pole that runs along the bottom of the front partl) that helps lowering the sails.
  • LEE – The down-wind side of a vessel or shore which is sheltered.
  • LEE CLOTHS – To avoid falling out of bed in the middle of the night, you can use 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.
  • LOA – The maximum length of a yacht including overhanging ends that extend beyond the main bow and main stern.
  • LOG – The log measures speed and records the vessel’s course.
  • 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.
  • LINE – This is a general term for a rope or line on a vessel that has a control function.
  • LWL – Load waterline length or the length of a yacht that is in contact with the water.

M

  • MAINSAIL – The main sail that sits behind the main mast on a yacht.
  • MAST –The big metal pole that reaches from the bottom of the yacht to the sky. The sails hang from the mast.
  • MED MOORING – The art of reverse parking a yacht into a small gap, a typical mooring technique in most Mediterranean harbours.
  • MIDSHIP – The middle of the vessel. 
  • MONOHULL – A boat with one hull. The classic sailor’s yacht
  • MOORING – When you moor a vessel, you tie it to a buoy or a pier. And then hope it won’t go adrift.

N

  • NAUTICAL MILE – A measure of distance when on water. It’s around 6,076 feet, 1,852 metres, 2,025 yards, or one minute of latitude. 
  • NAVIGATION – Keeping to the route of a vessel when on a voyage from point A to point B.  Basically, figuring out where you are and where you are going. 

O

  • OCEAN – Don’t think this one needs explaining, but anyhow a huge blue surface, pretty wet too.
  • OPERATIONAL LANGUAGE – The language that the crew use to give instructions. 
  • OUTBOARD – When something is outboard, it’s 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.

P

  • PIER – A pier is a loading platform held by posts that extends out from the shore.
  • PILOTAGE – Piloting when you navigate using visible features on land or water.
  • PORT – The left side of the vessel is called the port side. It is also another name for a harbour.
  • PROW –A poetical alternative term for bow.

Q

  • QUAY – A stone or metal platform lying alongside or above the water. Usually used for parking, loading and unloading vessels.

R

  • REACHING – For most sailboats, this is the fastest way to travel. A close reach is toward the wind, and a broad reach is slightly away from the wind.
  • REEFING – The preferred method of reducing sail area so it is easier to control. Especially useful in higher winds and bad weather conditions. 
  • REGATTA – A series of boat races.
  • RIGGING – The ropes and wires that control the sails and support the masts.
  • RIP RAP – A pile of rocks and rubble made to form a breakwater, often surrounding an off-shore lighthouse or vulnerable harbour. 
  • RUDDER – When you change directions on the vessel, it moves the rudder which in turn steers the vessel. It’s usually a vertical plate or a board connected to the back.

S

  • SAILS – The most important part for sailing. An eco-friendly engine that converts wind power into boat speed. 
  • SALOON – The living area, you go here to relax.
  • SATELLITE NAVIGATION – You have probably used regular navigation that uses radio transmissions before. However, the equipment on a vessel is a bit more complex and sophisticated.
  • SCUPPERS – Scuppers are the holes in the deck that let the water drain off. 
  • SEA COCK – A sea cock is a faucet in the hull that can be turned off when not in use.
  • SEAMANSHIP – All the skills of boat handling can be called seamanship. It could be maintenance, repairs, piloting, sail handling, marlinespike work, and rigging.
  • SEA ROOM – It’s actually used to describe a safe distance from the shore or other hazards. 
  • SEAWORTHY – If a vessel can safely sail in rough weather, we call it seaworthy.
  • SECURE – When something is secure, it is tied safely.
  • SET – When the current is flowing toward a particular direction, it is set!
  • SKIPPER – The most important person on your yacht, the person in charge and responsible for the safety of all aboard 
  • SLACK – Something that is not fastened.
  • STERN – The rear of the yacht. Also can be the skipper’s voice tone if your yacht floats away.
  • SOUNDING – This has nothing to do with sounds, it is actually a measurement of water depth.
  • SPRING LINE – This is a rope that stops a boat from moving forward or backward while being fastened to a dock. Also used during docking and undocking.
  • SQUALL – A squall is a sudden, violent wind that often brings rain. Get your bad weather gear ready!
  • STAND-ON VESSEL – A “stand-on vessel” is a vessel that has right of way and should maintain its speed and direction. A give-way vessel should take steps to avoid a stand-on vessel 
  • STARBOARD – Starboard is the right side of a vessel when looking towards the front/bow
  • STEM – The front of the vessel.
  • STERN – The back of the vessel.
  • STERN LINE – This is a rope leading from the stern (back) of the vessel.

T

  • TACKING – Zig-zagging into wind so the wind passes from one side to another. 
  • TILLER – A tiller is a bar or handle that you use to turn a vessel’s rudder to change directions.
  • TOPSIDES – This is the bit of the vessel that’s between the waterline and the deck.
  • TRIM – No, not a haircut trim. This trim means making adjustments to sails to maximise their efficiency.
  • TRADE WINDS – These winds blow from the north east in the Northern Hemisphere and the south east in the Southern Hemisphere. Sailors use them because they push vessels toward the equator.
  • TRANSOM – The transom is a wall at the back of a vessel. 
  • TRUE WIND DIRECTION – The direction from where the wind is actually coming from.

U

  • UNDERWAY – When you are on the sea, your vessel is underway. In other words, it’s not moored, at anchor, or aground.

V

  • VESSEL –  A craft for traveling on water, usually a larger boat or a ship.

W

  • WATER – The liquid you can drink and float on.
  • WATERLINE – A painted line on the vessel that shows where the vessel ends and the sea starts. 
  • WAY – The path that a vessel leaves after itself when it moves across the sea.
  • WATCH – When you are on a watch on board ­you have to work with your fellow watch members.
  • WINCH – A rotating, horizontal drum, powered either by electric motor or human motion
  • WINDWARD –This means to go into the wind, and it’s tough to sail windward. 

Y

  • YACHT – All kinds of vessels that are either powered or have sails

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