When we bought our first boat in Croatia a couple of years ago, we quickly discovered that sailing has its own specific language and sailing terminology, and if you are planning on learning to sail, it’s best to learn it for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, sailors are quite a particular folk, and in our own short experience sailing, nothing seems to arouse the ire of yachties quite like referring to the sheets as ‘ropes’ or mooring as ‘parking the boat’.
With that being said, the most important reason to learn basic sailing terminology is that it allows for quick and efficient communication between the crew. Once you master the basics, you’ll find things go a lot smoother onboard.
“Pull the rope for the sail… no the other one! “
“The other side? “
“No! The other sail! The flapping sail, you sea gherkin!”
“Ahhhh got it. This one!”
“No, the red one!”
“No, you blue, blistering barnacle, not the solid red one, the white one with red dots on it”
“Sheet in the jib.”
So how can you learn to communicate quickly and effectively in a fast-paced sailing environment? Well, one by getting out there and sailing with experienced sailors and two by doing a little prep work studying the lists we’ve set out below. We’ve sorted out some of the most helpful sailing terms into five categories, the basics, parts of a boat, maneuvers, navigational terms, and sailing equipment.
If you want the full A – Z of basic nautical terms, download this Sailing Basics: Essential Sailing Terminology For Beginners PDF (not to be confused with a PFD).
Sailing Terminology: The Basics
These are twenty of the most common sailing terms that are essential for effective communication at sea.
The left side of the boat when facing the bow (front). To make it easier to learn just remember, when hanging out with sailors, normally, there’s no PORT LEFT in the bottle.
Example: “Watch out, there’s a buoy to port.”
The right side of the boat when facing the bow (front).
Example: “The dock is on the starboard side.”
The front of the boat.
Example: “The anchor is stored at the bow of the boat.”
The back of the boat.
Example: “The swim ladder is located at the stern of the boat.”
The side or direction from which the wind is coming.
Example: “See that boat on our windward side?”
The side or direction away from which the wind is blowing.
Example: “We’ll find calmer waters on the leeward side of the island.”
The steering mechanism (tiller or wheel) or the person steering the boat.
Example: “Take the helm and maintain our course.”
The actual piece of fabric that catches the wind to propel the boat.
Example: “Hoist the sails.”
The tall vertical spar supports the sails.
Example: “Inspect the mast for any signs of damage or wear.”
The horizontal surface of the boat.
Example: “Secure the equipment on the deck before setting sail.”
A movable vertical blade at the stern of the boat is used for steering.
Example: “Turn the rudder to change our direction.”
A long, fin-like structure that extends downward from the bottom of the boat to provide stability and control.
Example: “The keel helps to prevent the boat from capsizing.”
The horizontal spar that is attached to the bottom edge of the mainsail.
Example: “Be careful when the boom swings across during a jibe.”
A rope or line used to raise or lower a sail.
Example: “Hoist the jib halyard to raise the foresail.”
A rope or line used to control the trim of a sail.
Example: “Adjust the mainsheet to trim the mainsail for the prevailing wind.”
A mechanical device with a crank handle used to control the tension on ropes or lines.
Example: “Use the winch to ease the tension on the halyard.”
A metal or plastic fitting used to secure a rope or line.
Example: “Wrap the jib sheet around the cleat to hold it in place.”
An inflatable bumper used to protect the boat from damage when docking.
Example: “Place the fenders along the side of the boat to cushion the impact.”
A navigational map used to plan and track the course of the boat.
Example: “Refer to the nautical chart to identify hazards and plot our route.”
A floating object, usually with a distinctive shape and color, used to mark channels, hazards, or navigational references.
Example: “Keep the red buoy to starboard as we enter the channel.”
These twenty terms are foundational in sailing and are essential for understanding basic boat handling and navigation.
Sailing Terminology: Parts of the Boat
Once you have the basics down pat, you can dive a little further into the language of boats and sailing. The first step is to learn the names of the parts of the boat.
These are some of the key parts of a sailboat. Different types of sailboats may have additional or specialized components, but these should give you a good understanding of the basic parts.
The forward part of the boat.
Example: “The bow cut through the waves as the boat sailed.”
The rear part of the boat.
Example: “The helmsman stood at the stern, steering the boat.”
The main body or shell of the boat.
Example: “The hull of the sailboat was made of fiberglass.”
A large, vertical fin or blade that extends downward from the boat’s hull, providing stability and preventing sideways drift.
Example: “The keel kept the boat balanced and prevented it from tipping over.”
A tall, vertical pole or spar that supports the sails.
Example: “The sails were hoisted up the mast to catch the wind.”
A horizontal pole that extends from the mast and supports the foot of the mainsail.
Example: “The boom swung across as the sails were adjusted.”
Large pieces of fabric that catch the wind to propel the boat forward.
Example: “The sails were filled with wind, propelling the boat through the water.”
The primary sail on the mainmast of a boat.
Example: “The mainsail was unfurled to take advantage of the wind.”
A sail set forward of the mast. Examples include jibs, genoas, and spinnakers.
Example: “They hoisted the jib to increase the boat’s speed.”
A triangular headsail set forward of the mast.
Example: “The jib was trimmed to optimize the boat’s performance.”
Thin strips of yarn or ribbon attached to the sails used to indicate the airflow and assist in adjusting sail trim.
The system of ropes, wires, and hardware that supports and controls the sails.
Example: “The rigging was carefully adjusted to ensure proper sail trim.”
The supporting wires or ropes that run from the mast to the sides of the boat to provide lateral stability.
Example: “He tightened the shrouds to stabilize the mast.”
A wire or rope that supports the mast from the bow of the boat.
Example: “The forestay kept the mast in position.”
A wire or rope that supports the mast from the stern of the boat.
Example: “The backstay was adjusted to control the tension in the mast.”
Mechanical devices used to handle or adjust sails and lines by winding them in or out.
Example: “They used the winches to trim the sails.”
A movable vertical plate or fin at the stern of the boat used for steering.
Example: “The helmsman turned the rudder to change the boat’s direction.”
A handle or lever attached to the rudder for steering the boat.
Example: “The helmsman held onto the tiller and steered the boat.”
Metal or wooden fittings on the boat used to secure ropes or lines.
Example: “The crew cleated off the lines to keep the boat in place.”
The surface of the boat where people walk or stand.
Example: “The crew gathered on the deck to prepare for docking.”
An area in the boat where the helmsman and crew can sit or stand.
Example: “The helmsman controlled the boat from the cockpit.”
Lines or cables running around the perimeter of the boat to provide safety and prevent falling overboard.
Example: “The crew held onto the lifelines for added security.”
Openings in the deck or cabin of the boat for access or ventilation.
Example: “They opened the hatches to let fresh air into the cabin.”
Off to the side of the boat, approximately at a right angle to the middle of the ship or plane’s length.
Example: “The coast is abeam of the boat on the port side.”
Behind the boat.
Example: “It looks like there is debris in the water astern.”
sailing maneuvers terminology
Once you understand how to describe the boat, you can add the names of the different maneuvers to your repertoire.
Changing the direction of the boat by turning the bow into the wind and then bringing it through the wind on the opposite side.
Example: “Let’s get ready to tack!”
Changing the direction of the boat by turning the stern through the wind.
Example: “Prepare for gybing!”
Sailing close-hauled (as close to the wind as possible) in a zigzag pattern to make progress against the wind.
Example: “We’re beating upwind to make progress against the wind and reach our destination.”
Sailing with the wind coming from a direction between the abeam and astern of the boat.
Example: “Let’s adjust the sails for reaching. The wind is coming from the side.”
Sailing with the wind coming from directly behind the boat.
Example: “We’re running downwind with the wind directly behind us.”
A maneuver used to stop the boat’s forward progress and maintain a stable position by balancing the forces of the sails and rudder.
Example: “To take a break, let’s heave to and stabilize the boat.”
Tacking on a lee shore
Performing a tack when the boat is close to a shore or other potential obstacle to avoid running aground or colliding.
Example: “There’s a rocky shore ahead. We must tack to avoid getting too close and get back into safer waters.”
Running before the wind
Sailing with the wind directly behind the boat, allowing the sails to fill completely.
Example: “We’re running before the wind, enjoying the full force of the breeze.”
Jibing a spinnaker
Changing the direction of the boat when sailing with a spinnaker set.
Example: “We need to jibe the spinnaker to adjust our course.”
This describes someone falling off the boat into the water and the maneuver to recover a person who has fallen overboard, involving turning the boat around and deploying rescue techniques.
Example: “Man overboard! Let’s execute the man overboard maneuver and quickly recover the person.”
Reducing the sail area by partially lowering or rolling the sails to manage excessive wind or strong gusts.
Example: “The wind is picking up. We should reef the sails to maintain control.”
Bringing the boat alongside a dock or another vessel, typically for docking or transferring crew or supplies.
Example: “We’re coming alongside the dock. Prepare to secure the lines.”
Securing the boat to the bottom of a body of water using an anchor and anchor rode.
Example: “Let’s find a suitable spot to anchor for the night.”
A maneuver used to reverse the direction of the boat or recover a person overboard by making a continuous looping pattern.
Example: “Perform a figure-eight pattern to reverse our course.”
Wing on wing / Goosewing
Sailing with two downwind sails set on opposite sides of the boat.
Example: “Let’s set up the jib and the mainsail for wing-on-wing sailing.”
Sailing with the wind coming from a direction between the abeam and astern of the boat, but not directly behind.
Example: “Adjust the sails for a broad reach. The wind is slightly off the stern.”
Sailing with the wind coming from a direction between abeam and close-hauled.
Example: “We’re sailing close reach to maximize our speed.”
A condition where the boat’s helm feels lighter or the bow tends to turn away from the wind.
Example: “We have lee helm. Adjust the sails to balance the boat.”
A condition where the boat’s helm feels heavier or the bow tends to turn into the wind.
Example: “The boat has weather helm. Let’s trim the sails to reduce the pressure.”
A maneuver used to quickly stop the boat’s forward motion by turning the rudder hard over.
Example: “Execute a quick stop to avoid colliding with the obstruction.”
A maneuver used to hold the boat in a steady position with the bow pointed into the wind and the sails balanced.
Example: “We need to hove to and wait for better weather conditions.”
Sailing with the wind coming from directly behind the boat without any sails on the opposite side.
Example: “We’re running free with the wind directly astern.”
Changing the boat’s course to a more downwind direction.
Example: “Bear away to adjust our course and catch the wind from a better angle.”
Learning sailing the terminology for maneuvers becomes essential once you start sailing.
Once you know how to identify each part of the boat and the various maneuvers involved with sailing, you can start to add some navigational lingo into your sailing vocabulary.
The intended direction of travel relative to the wind and other navigational references.
Example: “Our course is set for due east.”
The direction in which the boat is actually pointing or heading.
Example: “We need to adjust our heading to stay on course.”
A navigational instrument used to determine direction.
Example: “Check the compass to ensure we’re on the right heading.”
The geographic North Pole.
Example: “True North is the reference point for navigation.”
The direction toward which a compass needle points.
Example: “Our compass readings are adjusted for magnetic North.”
The angular difference between True North and Magnetic North.
Example: “The variation here is 5 degrees East.”
The error introduced by the boat’s magnetic field on the compass needle.
Example: “We need to account for the deviation in our compass readings.”
A map designed for maritime navigation, showing water depths, navigational aids, and other features.
Example: “Consult the nautical chart to plot our course and identify potential hazards.”
GPS (Global Positioning System)
A satellite-based navigation system used to determine precise position, course, and speed.
Example: “Our GPS shows our current coordinates and speed.”
A specific location marked on a navigational chart or GPS for navigation purposes.
Example: “We’ve reached our waypoint and need to set a new one.”
The direction of an object or point relative to the boat’s position.
Example: “The lighthouse has a bearing of 270 degrees from our current position.”
The process of estimating the boat’s position based on a previously known position and course, factoring in speed and time.
Example: “By using dead reckoning, we can estimate our position between waypoints.”
Marking positions and courses on a chart to track the boat’s progress and plan navigation.
Example: “Plot our current position on the chart to see how far we’ve come.”
A tall structure with a bright light used as a navigational aid to warn or guide vessels.
Example: “The lighthouse marks the entrance to the harbor.”
A floating object, usually with a distinctive shape and color, used to mark channels, hazards, or navigational references.
Example: “Keep the red buoy to starboard as we enter the channel.”
A fixed navigational aid, often on land, used to mark important points or hazards.
Example: “Look for the beacon to guide us into the marina.”
A device that measures the water depth beneath the boat.
Example: “The depth sounder shows the water depth is 10 meters here.”
An electronic navigation device that displays the boat’s position and other navigational data on a digital chart.
Example: “The chartplotter provides real-time position updates and navigation assistance.”
The first sighting or arrival at land after a period of navigation.
Example: “We made our landfall at the designated port.”
Navigating by visual references such as landmarks, buoys, and navigational aids.
Example: “Use piloting techniques to navigate through the narrow channel.”
A navigational instrument used to measure angular distances between objects and the observer’s horizon typically used for celestial navigation.
Example: “The sextant is essential for determining our latitude using celestial bodies.”
Navigating by observing celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, stars, and planets to determine the boat’s position.
Example: “Celestial navigation is a traditional and reliable method, especially on long ocean passages.”
A record of the boat’s course, speed, and other relevant details maintained by the crew.
Example: “Keep the logbook updated with our navigation data and any observations during the journey.”
A compass specifically designed to measure bearings to objects.
Example: “Use the bearing compass to take accurate readings of distant landmarks.”
A line on the Earth’s surface that cuts all meridians at the same angle, making it a constant compass direction.
Example: “We are following the rhumb line to maintain a steady course.”
Great Circle Route
The shortest route between two points on the surface of a sphere following the curve of the Earth.
Example: “The great circle route offers the most efficient way to travel long distances across oceans.”
A long-range radio navigation system used for marine and aviation navigation.
Example: “Loran-C signals provide accurate position fixes, especially in coastal areas.”
Lines on a chart connecting points of equal underwater depth, helping mariners gauge water depths.
Example: “Avoid areas where depth contours indicate shallow waters to prevent grounding.”
Tables indicating the predicted times and heights of tides for specific locations.
Example: “Consult the tide tables to plan our departure around favorable tide conditions.”
Lights mounted on vessels to indicate their size, type, and direction, aiding in nighttime navigation.
Example: “Ensure all navigation lights are functioning properly before sailing at night.”
Measurement of the depth of water beneath a vessel, often taken with a sounding line or echo sounder.
Example: “Regular soundings are crucial for navigating through unfamiliar waters.”
Navigation in confined or congested waters using visible landmarks and aids to navigation.
Example: “Pilotage requires a keen eye for recognizing landmarks and buoys.”
Navigation using radio signals, including RDF (Radio Direction Finding) and GPS.
Example: “Radio navigation systems provide precise location information, enhancing safety during voyages.”
An instrument measuring the boat’s speed through the water crucial for estimating arrival times and fuel consumption.
Example: “Monitor the speed log to maintain our planned cruising speed.”
Calm, smooth water near the surface is created by the hull’s resistance, affecting the boat’s speed.
Example: “In dead water, the boat may require increased engine power to maintain speed.”
Red Right Returning
A fundamental navigational rule indicating that red buoys or markers should be kept on the right when coming into port.
Sailing Equipment Terminology
Like all other aspects of sailing, there is a list of essential equipment that you will find on a boat all by names you may not have heard. These are some of the most popular pieces of boat equipment.
Can you format the following list like this
Life Jacket or PFD
A personal floatation device worn by sailors to keep them afloat in case they go overboard.
Example: Before setting sail, the crew ensured everyone wore their life jackets for safety.
A piece of equipment worn by sailors to secure themselves to the boat, especially in rough seas, preventing falls overboard.
Example: “The experienced sailor fastened his harness securely to the boat, ready to face the challenging waves ahead.”
Very High Frequency radio used for communication between boats and with onshore facilities, vital for safety and coordination.
Example: “The sailor radioed the marina using VHF radio to report their arrival time and ensure a smooth docking process.”
Emergency signaling devices producing bright light, smoke, or flames, used to attract attention in distress situations.
Example: “When their sailboat faced engine failure, they fired distress flares to signal nearby vessels for assistance.”
A long pole with a hook at the end, used for various purposes such as grabbing mooring lines, fending off other boats, or retrieving objects from the water.
Example: “The sailor used the boat hook to reach the drifting hat and returned it to its owner with a friendly wave.”
A small boat used to transport people and supplies between a larger vessel (like a sailboat or yacht) and the shore.
Example: “The crew carefully lowered the tender into the water, ready to shuttle passengers to the nearby island for exploration.”
A mechanical device with a rotating drum used to wind in or let out ropes or cables, providing mechanical advantage for tasks like raising sails or pulling in heavy loads.
Example: “The sailors relied on the winch to hoist the mainsail, utilizing its power to quickly and efficiently raise the sail.”
A heavy object attached to a rope or chain and dropped to the seabed to prevent the boat from drifting; essential for stopping the boat in a particular location.
Example: “As the sun set, the captain carefully lowered the anchor, ensuring it securely gripped the sandy bottom for a peaceful night’s rest.”
Cushioning devices placed between the boat and a dock or another vessel to prevent damage during docking or while tied alongside.
Example: “The crew hung fenders over the side of the sailboat, protecting it from bumps and scratches as it was moored in the bustling harbor.”
A pump used to remove water that accumulates in the bilge, the lowest part of the boat’s interior, helping to keep the boat dry and afloat.
Example: “The bilge pump automatically activated, efficiently removing rainwater that had seeped into the boat during the night.”
An electronic device or system on a boat that automatically steers the vessel without constant manual input from the sailor; it helps maintain the desired course, especially during long passages, allowing the crew to focus on other tasks.
Example: “The captain engaged the autopilot, allowing the sailboat to maintain its course while the crew members took a break and enjoyed the scenic views.”
Understanding and being familiar with the names for the sailing equipment onboard will be a big help when at sea.
Hopefully, you found this sailing terminology for beginners helpful, but if you have a question or a comment, please leave it below, and we’ll get back to you!
Looking for more sailing content? Check out these articles: