Boat Jargon

Ah, the funny language of sailors. The age old phrases and language has maintained it’s authenticity throughout time due to it’s value and necessity. When raucous winds and tumultuous waves find your boats path, a vessel needs to be tended to; sails need to be trimmed, lines and pulleys are instantly put into use/under load. If you’re with more than one person shouting and pointing at a rope that has 4 others next to it…. yelling, “Grab that middle rope !” isn’t going to do. You need to know the name of each line, each kind of pulley system, each part of the boat. That’s why everything on a boat has a name, EVERYTHING. Any sailor on deck needs to have intent and a watchful eye. When something fails or the boat is suddenly compromised it’s usually in an adverse environment. The boat is probably unbalanced, slippery, and loud. Lines are under heavy load and if there are other boats around and you’re having difficulty navigating, you need to be precise in everything else.

SO! For anyone who wasn’t born on a boat or isn’t in the sailing world, here’s a dictionary of words and phrases that are common. And even a few phrases I’ve picked up over the years. And if you find any fun nautical talk or questions, feel free to ask or add them by adding a message below.


Let’s begin the ‘You say Toe-May-Toe, I say Toe-Mah-Toe’ List shall we:

Bow – The front of a ship  makes a V shape (ahead) V-birth, the bunkroom at the bow.

Stern (transom) – The butt of a ship, it’s the very back and a transom is the actual design or wall that makes up the stern. (“astern” or “aft”).

Abeam – To the sides generally midship.

Starboard – Right (not relative to the viewer but in reference from the stern. Starboard derives from the Old English word ‘steorbord’, the side on which the ship was steered in old aged vessels. No that’s not a reference to your grandpa’s boat. Before rudders were even used people used a steering oar.)

Port – Left (very common you can remember port is left because it has the same number of letters.)

Rigging -System of ropes and wires used to support and employ a ships mast/sails. (Running rigging are the ropes and wires used to raise, lower, and control the sails. Standing Rigging are the wires to support the mast.). Stays are in the front and back of the boat, while shrouds are the wires on the side of the boat that lead to the mast. Don’t confuse the Stays and Shrouds with Stanchions, which are the poles that hold up the lifeline. (…. Yeah those three ‘s’s gave me grief for a long time!)

Boaters talk endlessly of their boats, aaaaand projects, problems, leaks, heating, design, and dreams, etc, etc…. To keep up with that, you should know the basic specs of a boat. Currently, our favorite question is Draft  (how deep your keel goes). Going aground isn’t always scary but add a falling tide and rocks and you’re singing a different tune. We motored through a manmade channel called the Dismal Swamps where the average depth is 6 feet. Dislodged tree stumps are known to get pinned to the bottom of the channel and now you have a submerged log that could tear off your (fin) keel or bend your propeller.  Secondly, the design of a boat can tell you a lot. For example the Beam (the width of your boat) may be narrow and indicate a faster boat whereas a wider boat may be heavier and slower. LOA (length overall) is the common use of measurement to indicate the length of your boat. This is important because marinas/docks/yards will charge you by the length of your boat.

Parts of a boat, if you want a complete guide, crack open a book but the key parts are the mast, boom, hull, rudder, and keel. I could talk for days about keels but your take-away point is this: The keel is the thing that keeps the boat from completely tipping over – always (until it doesn’t..;)..).  It’s crucial in converting the sideways wind energy into a forward motion. The main designs out there are fin / swing keels (great performance / maneuverability / & reverse), modified full keel (that’s Gaia! It means we don’t back up to good, but we’re more stable, aka comfortable, in the scary seas), and full keel (very sturdy and great center of gravity and storage).

Galley -kitchen, Salon – “living room”gathering area, Settee – couch, Birth– bunk, Head– bathroom, Nav Station – navigation station communications control


“Into the wind” or head up indicates you should steer the bow closer to the direction of wind /windward. But be careful, if you point the bow directly into the wind, you’ll be “in irons” and lose your momentum. “Falling off” indicates the opposite you should point the boat away from the wind /leeward.

“Tacking” a sailboat, or ‘Coming About’, means changing the direction (or tack) of a sailboat by turning the bow of the boat up through the wind. When the wind is blowing from behind you, and your stern crosses the wind, then you’re at a point to JIBE (or gybe if your British). Jibing is significantly more dangerous because the main sail is normally sheeted out far to allow maximum sail efficiency. When you change your point of sail downwind ( stern through the wind), the boom may forcefully slam over to the other side, sweeping over the deck. One, this is a good way to knock out your lights, secondly its a lot of force moving very fast and then it suddenly stops…. all that force needs to go somewhere and it all rests on the rigging. Remember, if a boat weighs 30,000 lbs, how much force does it take to move through water?

When sailing downwind, you’ll notice it tends to be less stressful because the wind is at your back (trailing winds). The apparent wind is not as forceful because the true wind is lessened by your own speed going with it. So if you sail into the wind, you’re beating into the wind and your apparent wind is the force of the actual wind plus your own speed overground.

More to come…. if anyone with more expertise wants to comment or correct this, feel free!