The A-Z of Sailing Terms and Phrases

Whether you’re a beginner learning how to sail or if you’ve got some experience of boating, there’s so much boat jargon out there that it can set you adrift. We’ve put together a guide to the essential sailing terms and phrases that you need to know to improve your confidence both on and off the boat.

Click on the letter of the alphabet to learn the essential sailing terms for each letter.

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.

A

Abaft

Toward or at the stern of a boat.

Abeam

The perpendicular line that runs across the keel of the boat or vessel.

Aboard

On or into the boat or vessel.

Above Deck

On the deck.

Abreast

Faced in the same direction, side by side, at the same speed and position.

Adrift

To describe a boat floating loose without moorings or tow rope.

Aft

Also known as the afterdeck, it is located at the rear (stern) of the boat or vessel.

Aground

When a boat is lying on or touching the ground in shallow water.

Ahead

Anything in front of the boat (or in a forward direction), such as an object or destination.

A-hull

To sail out a storm or severe weather with no sails set and the helm lashed to head into the wind.

Aids to Navigation

 Any signal, marker, or artificial equipment that aids a boat to navigate through safe and unsafe waters.

Alee

On the side of a boat facing away from the direction of the wind.

All Standing

All the sails are flying on a boat or vessel before running downwind.

Aloft

Above the boat's deck, usually overhead on the rigging or the mast.

Amidships

Located in the middle of a boat or vessel.

Anchorage

A location (such as a harbour) suitable for a boat to anchor.

Apparent Wind

A combination of true wind and wind created by the boat's movement. Apparent wind speed is the wind you feel as the boat moves.

Astern

 Behind or in the rear of the boat or vessel.

Astern - to go Astern

To move backwards or reverse the boat/vessel.

Athwartships

Having a position across a boat from side to side at right angles to the boat's centreline or keel.

Autopilot

A device used for self-steering on a boat or vessel. It is connected to the boat's steering mechanism and uses a compass to navigate the course.

Auxiliary Power

An engine installed on the boat, used in windless conditions to propel boats in harbours and channels, where vessels are difficult to steer under sail.

Aweigh

An anchor positioned just clear of the ocean floor.

B

Back a sail

To shift wind against the lee side (side facing away from the wind) of a sail from another sail.

Bailer

A container used for draining water from a boat to prevent it from sinking.

Ballast

Heavy material, usually gravel, lead, or iron, used to establish stability in a ship's bilge or keel, to prevent the boat from capsizing.

Batten down

Fasten hatches, loose objects on deck, and items inside the boat to prevent things from moving or becoming damaged.

Beam

The widest point of the boat.

Bearing

The direction of an object from one place to another, as measured in degrees true or magnetic.

Bearing away

Steering the boat away from the wind.

Below

Below or beneath the deck.

Bight

A bend in a rope.

Bilge

The lower area inside the ship's hull, below the floor where water accumulates.

Bilge pump

An electric or manual pump to remove the water accumulated in the bilge.

Bimini

Cover for the cockpit or deck of a boat, usually made from lightweight, weather-proof fabric stretched over a metal frame to protect from rain or sun.

Bitter end

The inboard end of the anchoring line. There is no more line once the line is paid out to the bitter end, and you are at the end of your rope.

Boat

A small vessel for travelling over water using oars, sails, or an engine.

Boat Hook

Equipment used to pick up mooring buoys, recover objects dropped or left overboard, and dock and undock a boat.

Boom

A horizontal pole or spar running at a right angle from the bottom of the mast. Provides greater control over sail shape and angle.

Bow

The front of a boat.

Bow line

Docking line leading from the boat's front (the bow).

Bower

An anchor carried at the front (bow) of a ship.

Bowline

A knot used to make a temporary non-slipping loop at the end of a rope.

Bridge

A room or platform onboard a ship from where the vessel is controlled. In most cases, the bridge is operated by an officer aided by a seaman acting as a lookout.

Bridle

A V-shaped line, wire, or rope attached to the boat's mooring system.

Bulkhead

 A wall within the hull of a ship that separates compartments.

Buoy

Anchored navigation floats used to mark reefs, hazards, or for mooring.

Burdened vessel

A vessel responsible for moving out of a privileged vessel's path according to navigation rules. Also called the give-way vessel.

C

Cabin

A room inside the boat, designed for crew and passengers.

Capsize

For a boat to turn over in water.

Cast off

Untying the boat's rope from the land to sail away.

Catamaran

A sailboat consisting of two hulls side by side, connected by a bridge deck.

Centreboard

A pivoting board lowered through a slot in the keel to prevent the boat from making lateral movements.

Chafing Gear

Material, usually cloth or canvas covering, wrapped around a line or spar to protect it from chafing or rubbing against a rough surface.

Chart

A nautical map used for coastal navigation.

Chine

The angle change in the cross-sectional area of the boat's hull.

Chock

Support fittings on ships that direct anchors or mooring lines to and from shores / other vessels.

Cleat

A wooden, metal or plastic device is mounted to a deck to secure a line or rope.

Clove Hitch

Type of knot used for temporarily securing a rope twice around a spar or another rope.

Coaming

A raised frame around the edge of a boat's cockpit or hatch to keep water out.

Cockpit

An enclosed compartment on deck, usually from where a boat is controlled or steered.

Coil

To wind a rope or line down in a series of loops.

Course

The path and direction that a vessel follows.

Cuddy

An enclosed room or compartment.

Cunningham

Rigging line used to haul down sails and spars (also called a downhaul).

Current

The movement of a body of water.

D

Davit

A small crane onboard a ship used to hoist, lower, and support equipment, such as lifeboats and anchors.

Dead Ahead

Just ahead or right in front of a ship.

Dead Astern

Directly behind or aft of the vessel.

Dead Reckoning

Navigating one's position, especially at sea.

Deadrise

The vertical distance between a line horizontal to the keel of a boat and the hull surface. Typically, a ship with a high degree of deadrise will have a deeper, sharper V-shaped hull.

Deck

 The roof or permanent covering over compartments or the boat's hull.

Deckhand

A member of a ship's crew responsible for maintaining, cleaning, and mooring the boat.

Dinghy

A small open boat, often used as a tender or lifeboat for a larger vessel. Can be rowed, sailed, or driven by a motor.

Displacement

The volume of water that is moved when the vessel is at sea.

Displacement Hull

A boat hull that relies on buoyancy to carry its weight. The hull lies partially submerged and pushes water aside as it moves.

Distance

To measure the distance travelled in water, nautical miles are used. One nautical mile = 1.852 km.

Dock

 An enclosed water area, like a wharf, in a port for mooring vessels and loading, unloading, and repairing ships.

Downhaul

 Rigging line used to haul down sails and spars (also called a Cunningham).

Draft

The boat's deepest point measured from the waterline. A boat's draft is the minimum depth of water required for a boat to float.

Drift

A boat floating with the current or the wind without propulsion.

Drogue

 A piece of sea equipment attached to the stern of boats, which trails behind them on a long line to slow them down in bad weather.

E

EBB

The tide moving away from land.

Ensign

A flag or standard, especially one used by naval forces, indicating a ship's nationality.

Epirb

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB used to alert search and rescue services during emergencies.

ETA

Estimated Time of Arrival.

ETD

Estimated Time of Departure.

F

Fathom

A unit of length equal to six feet (1.8 metres) refers to water depth.

Fender

A cushioned bumper placed between boats or between boats and a jetty that can absorb shock and prevent damage when mooring.

Figure Eight Knot

 A type of stopper knot, shaped in a figure eight, which will jam under strain.

Fix

The point at which two position lines intersect.

Flare

Designed to signal distress or warn other vessels of your position. Also – the curved sides of a vessel’s hull, near the bow.

Flood/Flow

An approaching water wave.

Flybridge

Deck above the main level of a vessel with duplicate controls for driving.

Following Sea

A wave direction that matches the direction the vessel's bow is pointing.

Fore-and-aft

Located at both ends of a boat.

Forepeak

 The forward lower compartment used for storage of cargo in a boat.

Forward

 The most forward side of a ship, facing the bow.

Fouled

Equipment becomes entangled or damaged. Used to describe the state of an anchor that has become hooked on some impediment on the seafloor.

Freeboard

Distance from the waterline to the top of a boat's sides or deck.

G

Galley

A compartment of a boat where food is cooked and prepared.

Gangway

 A narrow passage used for boarding or disembarking a ship.

Gear

Equipment and sailing accessories such as ropes, nets, and lifejackets.

Give Way

 For a vessel to change course, slow down, or standby as it allows another ship to pass.

Give Way Vessel

Overtaking vessels stand clear of the vessel being overtaken. The former is the give-away vessel, while the latter is the stand-on vessel.

GMDSS

Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

GNSS

Global Navigation Satellite System.

Grab Rails

 Safety hand-hold devices fitted to walls of the boat, designed to help a person retain balance while manoeuvring around a ship.

Ground Tackle

Gear used to anchor or moor boats or ships.

Gunwale/s

The uppermost edge or planking of a ship's side.

H

Halyard

Rope used to hoist and lower a sail, yard, or flag on a boat.

Hank

Metal hooks used to attach sails to stays.

Hard Chine

The angle change in the cross-sectional area of the boat's hull. A hard chine is an angle with little rounding, whereas a soft chine is more rounded.

HAT

Highest Astronomical Tide.

Hatch

An opening in the deck which provides access to the inside of the ship.

Head

A toilet on a ship or boat.

Head up

Steer towards or closer to the wind.

Heading

The direction in which a vessel is facing at any given moment.

Headway

Moving in a forward direction through water.

Heave-to

 Come to a stop or nearly standstill while out at sea by steering into the wind.

Helm

Equipment used for steering a ship or boat, such as a tiller or wheel.

Helmsperson

The person in charge of steering a ship or boat.

Hitch

A type of knot used for attaching rope to an object.

Hold

 The ship's hold, also called the cargo hold, is a space or compartment below the deck reserved for carrying goods.

Hull

A boat or vessel's main body.

I

Inboard

Towards the vessel's centre; inside the hull; having an inboard engine.

Irons (In Irons)

 Sailing directly into the wind, without the sails driving you forward, meaning the boat may be stuck.  

IRPCS

International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

IMO

International Maritime Organisation

ITU

International Telecommunication Union

Isobars

Lines connecting areas of equal atmospheric pressure on a weather map.

J

Jacob's Ladder

A portable ladder made of rope or metal used primarily to assist passengers in boarding ships or boats.

Jetty

A long structure made of wood, stone, or concrete that protects a coastline from the tides and currents. Jetties extend from the shore into the water.

Jackstay

A cable running fore-and-aft (at the front and rear of the boat) on both sides to which safety harnesses are attached. Used to support and guide a load.

Jury

A temporary replacement for missing or damaged gear.

K

Kedge

A secondary, smaller anchor onboard a boat.

Keel

An essential structural component of a ship or boat, running along the centre of the base of the hull from stem to stern. Typically made of timber or steel, it is used to support the framework of the vessel and can increase stability and buoyancy.

Ketch

A two-masted vessel, similar to a yawl, whose mainmast is taller than the mizzen mast.

Kicker

A control mechanism used to pull the boom down and control the sail's shape.

Knot (1)

Knot in navigation, a measure of speed at sea equals one nautical mile (1.852km) per hour.

Knot (2)

A fastening made by looping a rope or other similar material around itself and tightening it around an object. Can be used to attach a rope to a ring, hook, anchor, or other objects.

L

LAT

Lowest Astronomical Tide.

Latitude

Measured distance in degrees, North or South of the equator.

Layline

Lines that extend from the upwind objective at the angle at which the boat can sail to clear the windward mark.

Lazarette

A storage area in the rear (stern) part of a ship.

League

Around three nautical miles.

Lee

The side of the ship sheltered from the wind.

Leeward

Facing the opposite direction in which the wind is blowing.

Leeway

Wind- or current-driven motion causing a boat to go off course.

Length Overall (LOA)

 The boat's overall length is determined by the distance between the bow and stern.

Length Water Line (LWL)

The length of a ship or boat when it's in the water.

Life Buoy

A ring-shaped flotation device used to help someone overboard.

Line

Cords, cables, and ropes used aboard a ship.

Log

An instrument used to measure the speed of a boat as well as a record of operations on a ship.

Longitude

Measured from the Greenwich Meridian. Up to 180 degrees West or 180 degrees East of Greenwich.

Lubber's Line

Navigation line on a compass that indicates the heading of a vessel.

Luffing

Sailing the boat into the wind.

M

Mainsheet

A sheet used for controlling the angle of the mainsail.

Making Way

The vessel is making way through water, using the momentum of the engine or sail.

Mark

An object a boat must pass or round on a required side.

Marlin Board

A small deck fixed to the rear of the boat that allows passengers to access the water (like a swimboard).

Marlinspike

A sharp metal tool used to open or splice rope, untie knots or form toggles.

Mast

A long pole usually rises straight up from the deck or keel of a ship. Its purpose includes carrying the sails, derricks, and spars.

Midship

A ship or boat's middle section (located directly between the bow and stern).

Mooring

Attaching or securing a boat to a buoy, pier, or post. Also called docking.

N

Nautical Mile

A unit used to measure the distance travelled through the water (equal to 1,852 metres)

Navigation

The process of determining a boat's position and planning and following a route.

Navigation Lights

All vessels must use red, green, and white navigation lights between sunset and sunrise and when visibility is limited. Another term for running lights.

Navigation Rules

Regulations that establish a consistent method of navigating safely and avoiding collisions when two boats are crossing paths, en route to collide, or when vessels want to overtake.

O

Obstruction

Objects in or on the water that a boat cannot overtake without changing course substantially to avoid them. E.g. The shore.

Outboard

An engine mounted on the boat's stern that powers and steers the vessel.

Outhaul

A sailboat control line that attaches the mainsail clew to the boom and tightens the foot of the sail.

Overboard

Over the side of a boat into the water.

 

P

Painter

Rope used to tie up or tow a dinghy or other small boat.

Panpan

An emergency call requesting assistance on a boat.

Pay out

Gradually feed out a rope or line.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Personal Flotation Device, also known as a life jacket, can be used to help keep afloat when you enter water.

Pier

A long, narrow structure projecting from the shore into the sea, used for loading.

Pile

A pointed spar made of wood, metal or concrete driven into the seabed and projected above the water. It can be used to support piers and structures.

Piloting

In waters, piloting determines a vessel's position using fixed points of reference, usually via a nautical chart, to select a desired course or destination.

Pitch

The rising and falling of the bow and stern of a vessel, like the way a teeter-totter rises up and down.

Planing

A vessel with enough power can glide over the top of the water rather than through it.

Planing Hull

A hull designed to rise up and skim over the surface of water when enough power is supplied.

Plimsoll Line

A reference mark on a ship's hull indicating how deep it may safely be submerged when cargo is aboard.

Port

A harbour; The left side of the boat is called the port side.

Port tack

Wind coming over the port side of the boat.

Privileged Vessel

 The boat that has the right of way (the other boat is known as the burdened vessel)

Pulpit

A protective metal rail fitted at the bow (front) of a boat.

Pushpit

A protective metal rail fitted at the stern (rear) of a boat.

PWC

Personal Water Craft (PWC), also called a water scooter or jet ski, is a recreational watercraft consisting of an inboard motor powering a water jet pump as a source of propulsion and is designed to be operated by a person standing, sitting, or kneeling on the vessel rather than inside it.

Q

Quarter

Either side of the stern/rear of a ship.

R

Reaching

Sailing across the wind with the sails eased.

Reefing

Temporarily reducing the area of a sail exposed to the wind.

Rig

The system of ropes, chains, and cables that support a boat's mast, sails, and spars.

Rope

Cordage used for line aboard a vessel.

Roll

Titling motion of a ship caused by wind and waves pushing against it.

Rudder

Part of the underwater steering apparatus of a boat. Located outside the hull and near the stern.

Run

The point of sail with the wind aft (travelling with the wind instead of against), the sheets relaxed, and the line fed freely.

Running

A boat sailing directly downwind.

Running Lights

All vessels must use red, green, and white navigation lights between sunset and sunrise and when visibility is limited. Another term for navigation lights.

S

Sail Trim

The position and control of sails by trimming them or adjusting the tension on the sail's sheet.

Sand bar

Submerged in shallow waters or partially exposed sand banks caused by waves and currents offshore from a beach.

Satellite Navigation (SAT NAV)

A combination of satellite transmissions and mapping software onboard determines the vessel's location and plans the best route to a specific destination.

Scope

The ratio of the length of an anchor rode to the vertical distance from the bow to the depth of water.

Screw

A propeller.

Scuppers

A hole or opening in the side walls of a ship that allows water to empty instead of collecting within the gunwales or bulwarks.

Sea cock

 A valve on the ship's hull that allows water to seep in and out of the boat through an opening near the waterline.

Sea room

A clear space needed to move or turn a ship at sea.

Seamanship

The skill and techniques of navigating and maintaining a boat at sea.

Seaworthy

Sufficient condition of a boat to sail on the sea.

Secure

To secure or firmly fasten a rope, line, or door on a vessel.

Set

 The direction in which a tidal current flows.

Sextant

The sextant is a navigational instrument used to measure the angular distance between astronomical objects at sea.

Ship

A large vessel or boat for transporting people and goods.

Slack

A loose or unfastened part of a rope or sail.

Sounding

Depth sounding is the process of measuring the depth of a body of water.

Speed

Sailing speeds are measured in knots; 1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour.

Spinnaker Pole

Used on sailboats to support and control headsails, including spinnakers (also known as booms or spars).

Spinnaker

A large sail with three corners, designed for use when a boat is sailing off the wind.

Spreader

Horizontal spars on a sailing boat used to deflect the shrouds to support the mast better.

Spring Line

A line led from the bow or stern to a point on a harbour and secured to prevent the boat or vessel from moving fore and aft while docked.

Squall

An abrupt gust of wind that is often accompanied by severe weather like storms or rain.

Square Knot

Knot created to fasten the two ends of a line together and make a stopper. Also known as a reef knot.

Starboard

The right side of a ship when facing forward.

Starboard Tack

 Wind strikes the starboard (right) side of the ship.

Stem

Part of the front of the boat (the bow) and an extension of the keel.

Stern

The back end or rear of a vessel.

Stern Line

A mooring line which extends from the stern to the dock.

Stow

Put or store an object carefully in a safe place.

Strong Wind Warning

Marine warnings are broadcasted to ships when winds reach extreme speeds (at least 25 knots are expected)

Swamp

To fill a boat with water, but it remains floating.

Swimboard

A platform fixed to the rear of the boat that allows passengers to access the water (like a marlin board).

T

Tacking

To change course by manoeuvring the boat's bow into the wind.

Tender

A small boat, like a lifeboat, used for transporting passengers to and from the main vessel.

Tide

The periodic cycle of water levels rising and falling vertically in the ocean.

Tiller

The horizontal bar attached to the head of the rudder or motor on a boat; used to direct the vessel's movement.

Topsides

Above or on deck; the sides of a ship between the waterline and deck, including the visible parts of the bow and stern.

Transom

Vertical reinforcement that strengthens the stern of a vessel. Can be used to support a rudder, outboard motor, or as a swimming and access platform.

Trim

Balance or adjust the boat's fore-and-aft angle at which it floats.

True Wind

The direction and speed of the actual wind felt when the boat is stationary, or you're on land.

U

Underway

A boat moving through the water when not moored.

Uphaul

A rope used for raising up a boat's sail or centreboard.

V

V Berth

Boat bed bunks forming a V at the front.

V Bottom

A hull with a V-shaped bottom section.

Veer

Changing the course of a boat by turning the stern windward.

V Sheet

Bright orange signalling device with a large black "V" in the middle, used to indicate distress and is required for all ships that operate in open waters.

W

Wake

Water disturbance / waves produced by a boat moving through the water at high speeds, leaving behind a path or track.

Wash

Similar to Wake – Waves or water disturbance made by a boat moving through water.

Waterline

The point or level where the hull of a ship meets the water's surface.

Way

Describes the motion of a vessel through water (headway, sternway, and leeway).

Windward

The direction from which the wind is coming.

X

XTE

XTE, or Cross Track Error, indicates how far you are off your assigned route from a starting point to a destination.

Y

Yacht

Medium-sized sailing boat, suitable for recreational use such as cruising or racing.

Yawl

A two-masted sailboat equipped with a mainsail, a jib sail, and a mizzen sail.

Z

Zinc block

Also known as boat anodes, metal blocks, usually made of zinc, are eaten away by electrolysis underwater, preventing galvanic corrosion of underwater metal parts of the boat.

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