Glossary: A list of 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 vessel
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 features
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 anchored
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 wind

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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 communication
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 vessel
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 moored.
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 accessories
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 material

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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 mooring
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 disembark
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 capstan
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 object
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 obstacle
Knockabout: A type of schooner
Knot: A measure of speed in navigation that is defined as one nautical mile per hour

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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 boat
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 engine
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 distress
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 longitudes
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 reasons
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 offshore
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 it
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 level
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 (read more on the directions on a 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 wind
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 deck
Training run: Not quite a run, but about 10 degrees off the course of an actual run
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

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Further Reading

A Glossary of Nautical Terms

A similar Glossary on Wikipedia