Sailing has a language all its own, and if you’re thinking about taking up sailing (and we hope you are), it helps to be able to talk the talk. Before you set sail, it’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of standard terms associated with the boat’s positions and directions. Knowing basic terms will make it easier to communicate with people aboard the boat and ensure that you have the best experience possible on your sailing adventure.
- Aft: Toward the stern of the boat. The aft of a ship is toward the rear of the ship or the back of a boat. When are you moving towards the rear end of the boat, this is called going “aft.”
- Ahead: As the general meaning of the word, this is used to describe the boat moving in a forward direction.
- Astern: The opposite of ahead, in the back of the boat.
- Bow: The forward part of a boat. The bow of a boat can also be referred to as the front. It’s the opposite of the stern of a boat in sailing terms.
- Forward: When you move toward the front end or bow of a boat, this is called going “forward.” This is the opposite of moving “aft.”
- Helm: The wheel or tiller controlling the rudder which steers the boat.
- Hull: The main body of a vessel.
- Jib: The second most common sail on any boat. The jib can always be found forward of the mast, and unlike the mainsail, does not have a boom.
- Jibing – The opposite of tacking, this basic sailing maneuver refers to turning the stern of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side.
- Keel: the fin under the bottom of a boat that forms part of its structure and helps to keep the boat balanced in the water.
- Leeward: The direction away from the wind. The opposite of windward.
- Mainsail: The big triangular sail which is the boat’s largest and most important sail. Running along its bottom edge, the mainsail has a thick pole called the boom.
- Nautical Mile: One minute of latitude; approximately 6076 feet, about 1/8 longer than the statute mile of 5280 feet.
- Port: The left side of a boat looking forward.
- Rudder: A vertical plate or board for steering a boat.
- Square Knot: A knot used to join two lines of similar size. Also called a reef knot.
- Starboard: The right side of a boat when looking forward.
- Stern: The after part of the boat in nautical terms. The stern of a boat is the back portion of the vessel. It is the opposite of the bow of a boat, which is the front.
- Tacking: The opposite of jibing, this basic sailing maneuver refers to turning the bow of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side.
- Windward: The side of the boat closest to the wind. When heeling over, this will always be the high side.
There are also a few nautical sayings and phrases that are helpful to know. If you are at a “loose end” and want to “know the ropes”, “batten down the hatches” and “get underway” with these traditional nautical sayings.
- At a loose end: Nautically, loose ends are unattached ones that are not doing their job. “Tying up loose ends” is used to mean finalizing details of a matter as a sailor makes fast the loose ends to ensure the boat is shipshape.
- Batten down the hatches: Battening down of walkways and hatches was done when bad weather was imminent. Ships hatches were often open or covered with a wooden grating. When bad weather was expected, the hatches were covered with tarpaulins and edged with thin wooden battens to stop them from blowing off.
- Get underway: The “under” is likely to have meant “on the” and the “way” is the forward progress of the ship through the water, so it means “on their way.”
- Give a wide berth: Originally, a berth was a place where there was sea room to moor a boat. The meaning of “berth” was probably “bearing off”. Sailors were warned to keep a wide bearing from something. It could also refer to anchoring a boat far enough away from another to ensure they wouldn’t hit each other when swinging with the wind or the tide.
- Dead in the water: A ship that was “dead in the water” had no wind in its sails to make it come alive and unable to move forward.
With a little practice, you’ll be talking like a sailor in no time. Put your language skills to good use by participating in one of our many sailing programs. Here’s to happy boating!