Sailing Terms

Nautical terms might sound like a foreign language to beginners, but they stand in a proud tradition.
Furthermore,they are often practical and will definitely add to your sailor-self-confidence once they became part of you own linguistic repertoire. On this page, you can learn to talk like a sailor – but don’t forget that it takes more than words to run a boat.

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Aast: Command to stop the current actions

Abaft: The direction towards the stern of the boat; back.

Abeam: In an angle of 90 degrees to the keel of the boat.

Above deck: On the deck of the boat, not aloft

Abreast: Side by side, normally referring to ships or boats that are aligned
like that.

Adrift: Lose in the sense of not anchored or moored.

Aft: The direction towards the stern of the boat; backwards.

Ahead: Part of the domain name of the coolest website on sailing; in forward
direction; front

Alee: Facing away from the wind

Aloft: Above the deck of the boat, not “above deck”

Anchorage: Not only a city in Alaska, but also the spot where you anchor your
vessel; normally evaluated according to tides, wind and ground; sometimes used
for the ground only

Anchor: Heavy device usually from metal with flukes that secure a boat by
getting attached to the ground

Anchor Cable or Anchor Warp: Chain or rope that connects the anchor with the

Anchor windlass: A mechanism that is used in yachts to raise an anchor through
the warp around a drum

Anemometer: Navigational instrument that measures the speed of the apparent wind

Anticyclone: High-pressure area, a meteorology term

Antifouling Paint: Paint with toxic chemicals that is applied to the hull to
reduce or prevent marine growth

Apparent wind: The subjective wind that results from true wind and the wind
produced by motion

Astern: in backward direction; back; abaft the stern

Athwartships: in a 90 degree angle to the centerline of the vessel

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Backstay: Wiring that supports the mast; tensions the forestay

Backwind: To loosen the trim of a mainsail so that it flaps – reduces heeling

Bahamas: An archipelago and country in the Caribbean, among the favorite
destinations for cruisers especially from the US and Canada

Ballast Weight: A Weight normally of metal and placed deep in the hull to
balance the boat

Barber Hauler: A line connected with the jib sail to control its adjustments

Bareboating: Renting a boat with no crew, generally for vacations

Barograph: A device that measures air pressure

Batten: A light strip that supports the roach

Beam: Maximum width of a boat

Bearing: The direction of any object from your vessel

Bearing away: To turn a vessel away from the wind

Beaufort Scale: A table that ranks wind strengths and describes accompanying

Belay: Securing a line in a cleat fitting; order to ignore the previous order

Below: Underneath the deck of a boat

Bending on: To mount the mainsail to the boom

Bermuda sloop: The most “classic” rig with a triangular mainsail and a jib

Bight: The part of a rope that is used for making knots

Bilge: The parts of the hull that curve inwards to form the bottom

Bilge board: Centerboard structure to decrease sideways drift

Bilge pump: A pump to remove water from the bottom of the hull

Binnacle: Device holding and stabilizing a compass

Bitter End: The “end” of a rope, to part that stays on board, for example of the
anchor rode

Boat Hook: Metal device with a fitting often mounted to a stick that is used for
any sort of fiddling with ropes, sails or pirate.

Boom: Free-moving structure that is attached to the mast normally in a 90
degrees angle; holds the foot of a sail

Boom Crutch: Supporting structure for the boom, stabilizes it when the boat is

Boot top: Mark to indicate the waterline

Bottlescrew: A fitting to control the tension on the forestay

Bow: Front edge of a boat

Bow fitting: Fitting to which the jib is attached

Bower anchor: Main anchor of a boat

Bowline: Mooring rope that is attached to the bow

Breast rope: The mooring rope or anchor warp that is used on yachts and cruisers

Bridge: A rather widely used term for the place from which a boat is commanded

Bridge Deck: Mostly used to describe the intermediate deck between cabin and
cockpit in small to medium-sized cruisers

Brightwork: Polished and shiny wood or brass on a boat

Bulkhead: Structure that divides the hull and is often constructed in a way to
stabilize the boat

Bullseye: A round fitting or hole through which a rope or line is led to
re-direct it.

Buoy: An anchored, floating structure that is used as a signal; often indicates
the presence of divers, dangers, mooring spots or other things of significance.
Often color- or flag coded.

Buoyancy tanks: Sealed tanks in the hull of dinghies that contain buoyancy to
support the boat in case it capsizes

Burgee: A little flag on the top of a mast that indicates the direction of the

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Cabin: A room on a boat for passengers and crew

Cabin sole: The floor of a cabin

California: A state of the US and a region in Mexico; the Gulf of California is
among the most heavily used sailing destinations in the World

Capsize: When the boat turns over to 90 (bad) or 180 (worse) degrees, normally
due to high wind-exposure

Capstan: Device to wind rope, for example to lift the anchor

Caribbean: The area between Florida and South America, including the Gulf of
Mexico; among the World’s most popular destinations for cruises

Catamaran: A sailing vessel with two aligned hulls

Centerboard: A board normally attached to dinghies to reduce the sideways drift.
Lifts around a pin, unlike a daggerboard, which is released vertically.

Centerline: Center of the fore-and-aft line

Center of forces: The spot on a vessel on which all forces act centrally

Chain plate: A fitting that is used to attach stays to the boat

Chart: A map that is used in navigation

Chine: The edge between the side of the boat and the bottom; it is called a
chine only in boats in which the angle between the two actually forms an angle

Chock: Normally round fitting in the boat to hold the anchor- or mooring rope.

Class: A group of boats of the same design, relevant for races and regattas

Cleat: Fitting that is used to fix and secure lines that are in frequent use

Clew: The lower aft corner of a sail

Clove Hitch: Common knot; often used to bind a rope to a piling

Close reach: Steering off a close-hauled course by approximately 20 degrees

Close-hauled: To sail a boat as close to the wind as possible

Club: Societies of mostly non-professional sailors that sail for pleasure; the
first sailing clubs developed in the 17th century in England

Coaming: A wall-like extension above the deck to protect the cockpit from wind
and water

Cockpit: The place on the deck from where the boat is handled or commanded;
varies in size and importance from boat to boat

Col regs: International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea

Communication system: Radio or satellite systems used on yachts for

Companionway: Stairway, ladder or entrance to the cabin

Compass: Navigational tool that points to the magnetic north pole; read
more on choosing a compass

Compass north: The direction in which the compass points – not matching the
geographic north

Counter: The part of the hull that lies above the water at the stern.

Course: Direction into that a boat sails or otherwise moves

Coxswain: Sailor commanding or navigating a small boat

Crew: Everybody on board that is in charge with some aspect of operating the

Croatia: A country in the Mediterranean that is blessed with a long coast and
fantastic islands – our personal favorite in Europe

Cruise: Pleasure trip on a yacht or ship

Cuddy: Small cabin on a boat, often an emergency shelter or storage space

Cunningham: Device to pull the main sail tighter, in order to flatten and
control it

Current: Movement of water; for sailing normally outlined in two dimensions
(surface currents)

Cutter: A yacht with one mast and two headsails

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Daggerboard: A board normally attached to dinghies to reduce sideways drift.
Released vertically, unlike a centerboard, which lifts around a pin

Danbuoy: A marker that is attached to a lifebuoy

Danger Zone: The area between your dead ahead of a boat to abaft of its
starboard beam.

Davit: Minicrane fitted to a vessel to lift heavy pieces of equipment

Dead Ahead: Straight forwards direction.

Dead Astern: Straight aft direction.

Deadlight: Fixed light in a cabin’s roof.

Deck: Solid covering over a hull, does not always cover all of it

Depression: Low-pressure area in meteorology

Dew point: The point of temperature and air pressure at which water vapor forms
mist or fog

DGPS: Differential Global Positioning System

Dinghy: A small to medium sized, open boat

Dismasting: If the mast breaks and goes off. Sucks badly.

Displacement: The amount of water that is displaced by a boat and thereof –
according to Archimedes – as heavy as the boat

Ditty Bag: Bag used for storing and carrying small items of passengers or crew

Dock: A protected area that is normally part of a port where boats can be

Dodger: A simple, protective screen that protects the cockpit from wind and
water; also used for cloth that is used for weather protection of boats or

Downhaul: The rope that is used to pull a sail down

Downwind: All courses further away from the wind than a beam reach

Draft: The depth of water that a boat draws

Drift: Strength of a tidal current

Driving force: Force produced by catching wind in a sail and transmitting the
energy into a the mast

Dry Sailing: The storage of boats onshore to reduce the deterioration of the

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Ebb: A receding current, from German “Ebbe”.

EP: Estimated Position, a value plotted on a map or chart in temporal intervals

EPIRB: Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon. Radio signaling aid that
allows the transmission of emergency position calls

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Fairlead: A fitting that is used to direct or re-direct lines and ropes.

Fathom: Six feet

Fender: A cushion-like thing that is placed along the hull to protect it from
collision with other boats, pier walls or cliffs to prevent damage normally when

Fiddles: A kind of framing around tables under deck to keep objects from rolling
off the surface

Figure Eight Knot: A common knot that is often used to prevent lines and ropes
from slipping through a fitting.

Fin Keel: A single keel that is centrally located and ballasted

Flare: An emergency signal.

Flood: A current moving towards land

Fluke: The barbs or hooks of anchors

Foils: Underwater parts of a boat

Following Sea: An overtaking sea coming from astern

Foot: The bottom end of a sail

Foremast: The mast that is most forward on a boat

Foresail: The lowest square sail on the most forward mast

Forestay: The wiring that supports the mast and keeps it from falling backwards.
Leads from masthead to bowsprit or foredeck.

Foretriangle: The triangle that is formed by the forestay, mast and deck.

Fouled: If gear or parts of the boat are jammed, messed up or dirty.

Foul Weather Gear: Gear, clothing or accessories that are designed to
accommodate needs that arise from bad weather issues

Frames: The rib-like structures that shape and stiffen the hull of any vessel

Freeboard: The area from the deck to the waterline.

Freer: A change in the wind direction to the aft of a boat

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Gaff: A free-moving spar that is mounted to the top edge of a sail

Galley: The cooking facility on a boat; in larger yachts normally called kitchen

Gangway: The part of a ship or large yacht where passengers and crew board or

Gear: All equipment used for sailing except the boat itself; rather a commercial
than a nautical term; read our gear checklist

Gennaker: A sail that is a hybrid between a spinnaker and a genoa

Genoa: A large headsail, which overlaps the mast and often meets the deck with
its foot.

Gimbals: A fitting that moves in a way that keeps delicate or potentially
dangerous objects in an upright position even in the case of the boat heeling

Give Way Together: Order by the Cox in rowing boats

Gloves: Sailing gloves protect hands of competitive sailors and allow the fast
handling of wires and lines

GMDDS: Global Maritime Distress and Safety System

Gooseneck: A universal joint fitting that links the boom with the mast

Goosewinging: Sailing downwind with a mainsail set on one side and the foresail
on the other

GPS: Global Positioning System

Greece: Country in Southern Europe that is among the most popular sailing
destinations in the Mediterranean because of its many small islands

Ground Tackle: Anchor and all related anchoring equipment such as warp or

GRP: Glass-reinforced plastic, the most common material in boat manufacturing
these days

Gunwale: Upper edge of the side of the hull

Guy: A wire or line controlling the spinnaker pole

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Halyards: Ropes or wires for lifting or lowering sails and associated spars

Hanks: The metal clips that attach a sail to a forestay

Hatch: An opening in the deck to enter the space below it

Hawaii: An archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, State of the US and top-destination
of many cruises

Head: The top-corner of a sail; in larger yachts also the toilet or bathroom and
washing facility

Headaway: Forward motion of a boat

Header: Change in the wind direction to forward of the boat

Heading: The direction into which a boat is steered, the intended course

Headknocker: A fitting with a block and a jam cleat that attached to the boom to
control the main lines and wires on small to medium-sized boats

Heads: Toilet facility on a boat

Headsails: All sails that are used forward of the foremast

Heel: The tilting of a boat into an angle whilst it sails

Heeling force: Force that results from the sum of the sideways force and
resistance from the keel

Helm: The wheel or tiller through which you control the rudder

Helmsman: The Sailor that steers the vessel

Hitch: A common knot that is often used to secure a rope to another one – or an

Hold: The space in the hull that is used for the storage of cargo

Hull: The main body of a boat or ship

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IALA: International Association of Lighthouse Authorities

Ice sailing: Navigating vessels on blades over ice using sails

Impeller pump: A type of pump commonly used on large sailing vessels

Inboard: Toward the center of a boat; sometimes used for “engine”

Isobars: Bars or lines on meteorological maps to show pressure areas


Jacob’s Ladder: A rope ladder that leads off the deck to allow passengers and
crew to disembark or board

Jackstays: Ropes or wires that run along the sidedecks to allow the crew to
attach harnesses for self-protection in case of foul weather

Jettison: To throw overboard

Jib: The triangular sail in front of the foremast, in front of the main sail

Jib sheets: Lines that allow you to trim the jib

Jumper Stay: A short stay that supports the mast

Jumbo: The largest headsail in use on a boat

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Kedge Anchor: A secondary, lighter anchor

Keel: The lowest part of a boat that stabilizes the hull and decreases sideways
drift. In wooden vessels, frames are normally attached to the keel.

Kick-up: A rudder or centerboard that is able to kick-up when it hits a solid

Knockabout: A type of schooner

Knot: A measure of speed in navigation that is defined as one nautical mile per

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Lapper: A foresail that extends backwards beyond the mast and thereby,
overlapping it

Latitude: The north-south distance of the equator measured in degrees

Lazarette: The storage space in the front part of the hull

Lazyjacks: Lines or wires that are rigged from the mast to the boom to retain
the sail when it is lowered

Lead: The direction in that a line runs

Leech: Aft edge of a sail

Leech line: The rope or wire that runs through the leech of the sail and
controls its tightness

Lee: The side facing away from the wind

Lee helm: The leeward course an unsteered boat takes

Leeward: The direction facing away from the wind. Pronounced like “loo-ard”

Leeway: Sideways drift of a boat through wind or water current

Lifelines: Line or wire that attaches a safety harness to a fitting or jackstay

Lines: Thin ropes used to control sails, secure spars and for manifold other
important things aboard

Log: A protocol of the actions on and course of the boat

Longitude: The east-west distance from the meridian in Greenwich in degrees

Lubber-line: Mark on a compass that indicates the forward direction of a boat

Luff or luffing or to luff up: The forward edge of a sail; the verbs describe
the action that brings the boat’s front closer to the wind

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Magnetic north: The direction to the magnetic north pole, which does not
match with the geographic North Pole

Magnetic variation: The variant angle of the difference between magnetic and
geographic North Pole. The variation results from the movement of the magnetic
North Pole.

Mainmast: As other definitions generally fail, “mainmast” refers to the biggest
mast on a vessel

Mainsail: The lowest sail on the mainmast

Marline Selling: Tool to open the strands of a line or rope when splicing

Mast: A vertical spar that holds the sails and their respective rigging

Mast gate: The point at which the mast enters the foredeck of a boat

Masthead: The top end of a mast

Mast spanner: A device that allows the control of a rotating mast on catamarans

Mayday: An internationally valid distress signal that is repeated three times
and has highest priority of all signals

Midship: Center of the vessel, middle between bow and stern

Mizzen: A fore and aft sail on the mizzen mast

Mooring: Action that secures a boat to a pier, anchorage or buoy

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Naked sailing: A theme for pleasure sailing done with s partly or completely

naked crew around which an entire travel industry has evolved; popular for
vacations that range from rather “normal” sailing trips done naked to adult
swinger cruises

Naturist sailing: as above

Nautical Almanac: A calendar and advice book for nautical applications

Nautical Mile: One minute of latitude, 1852 meters

Navigation: The teaching of commanding a boat safely from one point to another

Navigation Regulations: Also “Steering and sailing rules”; a set of rules that
govern the movement of boats with respect to each other

No-sail-zone: The area of plus minus 45 degrees into the wind in which boats
generally can’t sail

Nude sailing: see “naked sailing” or our article on
nude sailing

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Oar: Long type of paddle that is applies in pairs to generate drive for the

Ocean: Synonym for “a huge chunk of sea”

Offshore wind: A wind blowing off the land, opposite of…

Onshore wind: A wind blowing onto the land

Outboard: Mounted externally to the boat, near the boat’s side – for example an

Outhaul: Rope or wire that is used to haul out a sail

Overhaul: To sort out mess with the rigging

Overboard: Outside the boat

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Painter: Mooring line attached to the bow of dinghies

Pan Pan: The second-highest (after “Mayday”) priority signal that expresses

Pedestal: A standing post in the cockpit to support the field of view to the
person steering the yacht

Pier: A platform to which a boat can be moored

Pile moorings: Moorings made from wood or metal piles driven into the ground

Pinching: Entering the no-sail-zone or sailing just on the boarder to it

Planking: In wooden boats, the boards that cover – sometimes form – the hull and
that are attached to the keel and frame

Planing: A boat racing that fast, that hardly any part of the hull is under
water; gliding

Planing Hull: A hull built in a way to support gliding at high speeds

Plotter: A nautical tool to plot a course on a map or grid of latitudes and

Port: Left to the vessel; a harbor

Privileged vessel: The vessel with the right-of-way according to nautical rules

Pulpit: Metal railing or frame around the bow of a boat, mostly for safety

Pushpit: A pulpit around the stern of a boat

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Quarter: Sides of a vessel that are aft of amidships

Queen topsail: Small sail between foremast and mainmast


Rake: The angle of a mast

Reaching: Holding a course with the wind roughly abeam

Reef: An aid to reduce the size of a sail during periods of strong wind

Rig: The sum of all sails, spars and masts on a boat

Rigging: The sum of all ropes, lines and wires that hold and control sails and
mast on a boat

Roach: The curved part of a sail that goes beyond a straight line between head
and clew

Rocker: The curve from stern to keel to bow

Rode: Once again another term for the anchor line

Rope: Strictly speaking, ropes are “raw” lines, as soon as they are used on a
boat, they should be called like that – which we don’t follow too much

Rub-rail or strake: A rail used as a buffer to protect the hull when the vessel
is moored to a pier or another boat

Rudder: Underwater board that supports the steering of a boat

Run: A not-fixed line that is allowed to move

Running: Sailing on a direct downwind course

Running rigging: The sum of all lines and wires that control sails and that can
be manually adjusted whilst sailing

Running Lights: Light signals that indicate the position of a vessel in the
hours of darkness

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Safe course: A determined safe route across dangerous water

Sail: A kind of cloth that is arranged in a way to catch wind and transmit its
power via a mast and rigs into a sailing vessel

Sailing Rig: Pretty much all gear on a boat that is of immediate use for sailing
it except the boat itself – sails, booms and masts, lines and wires.

Safe room: All water surface within a certain distance from potential hazards
such as the shore

Schooner: A sailing boat or ship with at least two masts. Generally used for
ships of larger size.

Schooning: To move forward quickly; historic nautical term

Screw: The propeller of a boat, in sailing especially for yachts

Sculling: A technique of “rowing” a dinghy with a single oar

Scupper: Drains in the decks or inner parts of boats (cabins, cockpit and alike)
that lead water overboard

Sea Cock: A valve in the hull that protects the plumbing pipes of a yacht to
water from outside the vessel

Securite: A safety signal that precedes a warning

Seaworthy: In principle, any boat meeting all necessary requirements for sailing

Secure: To fasten a rope, line or wire

Sheer Strake: In wooden ships, the top planking that is normally thicker and
more prominent than the other planks

Sheets: Lines or wires that are applied to a sail in order to control and adjust

Ship: Tricky one – since this is a term widely applied; any bigger vessel that
is seaworthy; a vessel that can carry a boat on board

Sideways force: The part of the force generated by the wind in the sail that
moves the boat sideways

Skeg: A fitting to which the rudder is attached

Slack: loose ropes, lines, wires

Slip: A ramp for launching a boat

Sloop: A boat with only one mast and sail

Sole: The floor in a cabin

Spar: A pole on a boat that is normally used to spread a sail or to support
lines and wires

Spinnaker: A light, triangular sail that is used in front of all other sails for
sailing downwind

Spreaders: Synonym for crosstrees, horizontal structures that branch off the
mast towards the sides of a vessel to control the angle of the shrouds

Springtides: Tides with the maximum difference between highest and lowest water

Spritsail: An aft sail that is supported by a spar from the mast

Standing Rigging: Opposite of running rigging, all rigging that remains fixed on
the boat to support spars and mast

Starboard: Right-hand side of a boat or ship

Stay: A line or wire that supports the mast in a direct line from the mast to
the bow of a boat

Staysail: A sail that is set on a stay instead of a mast

Stem: The upright structure at the bow

Stern: The aft part of the boat

Stern line: A mooring line that runs off the stern

Strake: A term used to describe the wooden plank running from the bow to the
stern alongside the hull

Stern quarters: The aft corners of the hull

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Tabernacle: A hinged mast step

Tack: Forward lower corner of a sail; steering the bow of a vessel through the

Taffrail: Rail at the stern of a vessel

Thwart: A fixed seat or board in the hull of a dinghy

Tail: To pull on the tail of a sheet when winching

Tell-tales: Strips of some kind of fabric that are attached to sails to indicate
the wind and right trim

Tender: Small boat that is used to transport passengers to bigger vessels

Texas: Not only desert, but among our favorite destinations for sailing with its
access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean

Tide: The rise and fall of the sea water level due to the moon’s gravity

Tidal drift: Strength of the tidal drift

Tidal stream: Current caused by the rise and fall of the tides

Tiller: A control handle that is connected to the rudder with a universal link

Tiller bar: A device linking the two tillers of a catamaran

Topmast: An additional spar mounted on top of the main mast

Topping lift: A line or wire that supports the boom when a vessel is moored

Topsides: The part of the hull between the water surface and the edge of the

Training run: Not quite a run, but about 10 degrees off the course of an actual

Transom: The surface that makes the stern of a boat

Transom flaps: Flaps in the transom that allow water to run off the boat

Trapeze: A device mostly used in racing dinghies to allow the crew to lean out
further without falling overboard

True north: The direction to the geographic North Pole

True Wind: The wind that is felt by somebody stationary

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Uphaul: A line or wire used to control the height of a spinnaker pole

Upwind: Any course closer to the wind than a beam reach


Vacation: The ultimate opportunity to start you own sailing adventure

Vessel: Any kind of boat, ship or yacht


Warp: Anchor line or mooring line

Weather shore: The shore if wind blows strongly offshore

Winch: A device that is used to pull in sheets

Windward: Towards the wind

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Yacht: From the Dutch word “Jaghd”, widely used term for pleasure vessels,
mostly bigger boats primarily for sailing, but often seaworthy and equipped with
strong engines


Zail: Misspelling of sail, very uncommon

Further Reading
A Glossary of Nautical Terms
A similar Glossary on Wikipedia