Sailing Terms: A Complete Guide (2023)

Learning sailing terms when you first get into boating can be a daunting task.

Some sailing terms are logical, like 'fore' means forward or front of the boat, while others might as well be in a different language. Athwartship, for example. Nothing in our daily lexicon gives any clues as to what that might mean. Like it or not, it's time to dust off the old noodle and get to memorizing some new vocab words!

Knowing the difference between a clew and a tack, a luff and a leech, will help you communicate with your sail maker regarding which part of your sail needs resewn. If you need to have your rigging adjusted, you must know the difference between your shrouds and your stays, your standing rigging vs. your running rigging.

By educating yourself in the correct names of all parts of your sailboat, you can avoid situations in which you may need to use terms such as ‘thingy’ or ‘that round part at the end of that thing’. While even the most seasoned sailor occasionally troops over the vernacular, it is always beneficial to have as wide a nautical vocabulary as possible. Many in the sailing community get by without knowing the entire sailing dictionary, but if you’re interested in avoiding vocabulary embarrassment, check out the list I’ve compiled of sailing terms that every sailor ought to know.

I’ve been sailing on and off throughout my life and I know from experience that it is incredibly helpful to know the correct terms for each part of your sails, rigging, and boat.

Sailors are among the kindest, most helpful people you’ll ever meet. But, if you’re looking for help on why you’re not getting the most speed out of your mainsail and you know don’t know the correct terms for each part of the sail, it may be hard to get advice from you fellow sailor on why ‘the back of the mainsail is flappy’. They would be more likely to give useful advice if you’re able to tell them that you’re struggling to keep wind in the roach of your mainsail. Check out my list of sailing terms and see if a few don’t stick. I’ve done my best to include pictures when possible.

Sailing Terms

Abeam: When an object, craft or island is abeam your vessel, that means that it is off the side of your boat. It is 90 degrees from the centerline of your boat.

Abaft: Toward the stern. “Honey, have you seen my boat shoes?” “They’re abaft the navigation table!” This is the opposite of forward.

Aft: In the stern of the boat. For example, the back cabin is referred to as the aft cabin.

Apparent wind: The wind direction and speed which the crew observes to be blowing in combination with the true wind. This is often different from the true wind direction and speed due to the boat's motion.

Astern: The area behind the boat. If you go astern, you are going in reverse.

Athwartship: Directionally perpendicular to the centerline of the boat.

Backing (a sail): Forcing the sail to take wind into its opposite side by pulling the sail to the opposite side of the boat.

Backstay: The wire that runs from the back of the boat to the mast head. This prevents the mast from falling forward.

Bailer: Any scoop-like container that is used to remove water from within a vessel’s hull.

Ballast: Weight which adds stability to the vessel. The weight usually is composed of lead or iron and placed low in the boat's hull, such as within the keel.

Batten: a thin, flexible strip (often fiberglass) that is inserted into the main sail to help it stay open to the wind. The batten runs from the back edge of the sail (leech) toward the front edge (luff).

Beam: The width of the vessel at its widest point.

Beam reach: Sailing with the wind blowing perpendicular to the direction the boat is traveling.

Bearing off or Bearing away: Steering the boat away from the direction in which the wind is blowing.

Bend: a knot which connects two ropes.

Berth: A slip, a mooring, or a bed within the boat.

Bight: A bend or loop in a rope. When a rope forms a bight, it has changed direction 180 degrees.

Bilge: The lowest area within a boats hull. This area collects water which is then pumped overboard by a bilge pump.

Bimini: The covering over the cockpit. Usually constructed from a stainless steel frame covered with canvas or fiberglass. It provides protection from sun and rain, but not wind.

Binnacle: The pedestal centrally located in the cockpit that generally holds the steering wheel and navigational instruments.

Block: A pulley.

Boom: This pole runs perpendicular to the mast and holds the bottom of the mainsail in place. Its position is adjustable side to side as needed for the wind direction.

Boom vang: A tackle which ensures that the boom does not lift upward from wind pressure in the mainsail.

Boot Top or Boot Stripe: The stripe of tape or paint between the boat's underwater (bottom) paint and it’s above water (topside) paint.

Bow: Front end of the boat

Bowsprit: The forward most protruding pole or platform which some boats possess. This spar allows for the sails and rigging to be attached further forward.

Broach: When a boat sailing downwind accidentally ends up sideways to the waves and heels over dangerously. This can be caused by large seas or poor steering.

Broad reach: Sailing with the wind coming off your stern quarter. If you’re standing at the helm facing the bow, the wind is blowing halfway between the side and the back of the boat.

Bulkhead: The walls in a boat which run athwartship, or perpendicular to the centerline of the vessel.

Capsize: When a vessel tips over past 90 degrees.

Catamaran: A vessel with two hulls.

Centerboard: A retractable keel which helps the sailboat maintain course and stability underway. When raised, the vessel is able to enter shallow waters.

Centerline: An imaginary line that runs from the center of the bow to the center of the stern.

Chainplate: A metal plate that is secured to the boat's hull to which wires supporting the mast are attached. The chainplates may be exterior or interior, visible or hidden.

Chandlery: A store that sells boat supplies and parts.

Cleats: The wooden or metal piece to which ropes are secured.

Chock: A fitting that a line passes through to change direction without chafing.

Clew: The lower back corner of a sail. This is where the foot and leech of the sail meet.

Close-hauled: Sailing as close to the direction the wind is coming from as possible with the sails pulled in tight. (See Points of Sail for infographic.)

Close Reach: Sailing between close hauled and beam reach. (See Points of Sail for infographic.)

Coamings: The lip around a hatch or window which stops water from entering. Also the raised area around the cockpit to keep out water.

Cockpit: The area from which steering occurs. This can be in the center of the boat or in the back of the boat.

Companionway: The doorway into the cabin.

Cotter pin: a bendable metal pin which is inserted into a metal rod then bent to lock it in place.

Daybeacons: Markers for navigation which are on posts. These are red or green.

Dead run: Sailing with the wind coming from directly behind the boat. Sails are fully out to catch the wind.

Dead reckoning: Determining a vessel's position by knowing the direction and speed traveled.

Dinghy: A small boat which is used to travel to shore from the main vessel. This can be propelled oars or a motor.

Dodger: The structure at the front of the cockpit which protects the cockpit and companionway from wind and spray. This is generally made of stainless steel frame covered with canvas and plastic windows. It can also be a solid structure with solid windows.

Dismasting: When the mast breaks off the boat. This can occur due to rigging failure or structural failure of the mast.

Displacement: The weight of the water that would otherwise be in the place of the boats hull.

Drogue: A sea anchor which is deployed to help control the drift of a vessel. It can be constructed like a parachute, bucket, or even a rope dragging behind the boat.

Ebb tide: After high tide when the water is receding towards low tide.

EPIRB: Stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. This device transmits a distress signal to emergency services and notifies them of a vessel's location.

Fairlead: A fitting which encloses a line within a smooth ring and helps guide its direction.

Fathom: A measurement of water depth equal to 6 feet.

Fid: A pointed tool used when splicing a line.

Fiddle: The raised edge around a table which prevents objects from falling off as the boat rocks or heels.

Fix: Determining a vessel's location by using the compass bearing of two or more fixed points of reference such as landmarks or buoys.

Fin keel: A fixed, ballasted keel which is centrally located beneath the hull. It does not run the full length of the hull.

Flogging: When a sail flaps noisily because it is not being filled by the wind.

Flood tide: Time period between low tide and high tide when the water is rising.

Foot: The bottom edge of a sail.

Fore: At or near the bow of a vessel.

Forestay: The wire which leads from the bow to the top of the mast. The forward most sail attaches to the forestay either directly or by use of a roller furling system.

Full keel: A fixed, ballasted keel which runs the full length of the hull.

Furling system: A system around which the sail wraps when not in use and is unwrapped for sailing. This may be around the forestay or within the mast.

Freeboard: The distance on a vessel from the waterline to the deck.

Galley: The kitchen on a boat.

Gelcoat: A colored resin which is painted onto the outside surface of a boat and forms a protective glossy layer.

Genoa: A large forward sail which, when fully extended, comes back past the mast. Larger than a jib sail.

Gimbals: Often attached to a boat's stove, it is the fitting which allows an object to maintain an upright position when a vessel heels.

Gooseneck: The point at which the boom attaches to the mast. It allows the boom to move in all directions.

Ground tackle: The anchor, chain, and line used to fix a boat to the bottom when anchoring.

Gunwale: Pronounced “gunnel”. This is the top edge of a boat's hull.

Halyard: The line which attaches to a sail to raise it.

Hanks: The clips that attach the front edge (luff) of a sail to the forestay.

Hatch: An opening window in the cabin roof much like a skylight.

Head: Bathroom on a boat. Also, the uppermost corner on a sail.

Headway: The forward motion of a vessel through the water.

Heave to: A method of controlling a boat’s position to the waves and limiting headway by backwinding the forward sail and keeping the rudder hard over into the wind.

Heel: The tilt that occurs to a boat's hull when the sails are filled with wind.

In-Irons: When a sailboat is bow into the wind with sails flapping. No steerage is possible as the vessel has no forward motion. (See Points of Sail for infographic.)

Jackline or Jackstay: Lines that are run from the bow to the stern. To these safety lines, sailors attach a lanyard connected to their harness so that they may work on deck without fear of being swept overboard in rough seas.

Jib: A triangular forward sail.

Jib sheets: Lines used to control the jib.

Jibing: Pronounced with a long i sound. Steering the boat from one downwind direction to another downwind direction by turning the stern of the boat through the wind. This will cause the sails to move across the boat to the other side, i.e. from port to starboard.

Kedge anchor: A small, lighter second anchor.

Keel: The bottom most part of a boat's structure. This part provides ballast and stability.

Ketch: A sailboat with two masts. The forward mast is the taller mast.

Knot: Regarding speed, one knot is equal to one nautical mile per hour.

Lazyjacks: Light lines that run from the boom to the mast and help contain the mainsail while it’s being lowered to the boom.

Leech: The back edge of a sail. If the sail is square, then this term refers to the outside edges of the sail.

Lee shore: The shore onto which the wind is blowing. On an island, the side of the island facing into the wind is the lee shore.

Leeward: The direction to which the wind is blowing. If the wind is coming from the north, then south is leeward.

Luff: The forward edge of the sail.

Lying a-hull: When a vessel is drifting with all of it’s sails down.

Mainsail: Pronounce main’sil. The primary sail of a boat that is hoisted up or unfurled from the mast.

Mayday: An emergency call put out over a marine radio when there is clear and present danger to the crew of the vessel.

Mizzen: The shorter mast behind the main mast on a ketch.

Monohull: A vessel with a single hull.

Mooring field: An anchorage in which permanently anchored buoys are present to which vessels may be secured.

Multihull: A vessel with more than one hull such as a catamaran or trimaran.

No-sail zone: This is an area 45 degrees to either side of directly into the wind. It is not possible for a boat to sail in this zone as the sails cannot fill with wind. Tacking is necessary. (See Points of Sail for infographic.)

On the hard: When a vessel is out of the water and being stored on land.

Painter: The line which secures the bow of a dinghy to the main boat.

Pan Pan: Pronounced pon-pon. This is an urgent distress radio call which is used when a vessel needs assistance. It is one step below Mayday.

Points of sail: The vessels course in relation to the direction of the wind.

Port: The left side of the boat when facing forward.

Port tack: Sailing with the wind hitting the port side of the vessel and the sails are out on the starboard side.

Pulpit: The metal rails at the bow of the boat which protect the crew from going overboard.

Pushpit: The metal rails at the back of the boat to protect the crew from going overboard.

Quarter: The back corner area of the boat. This area is 45 degrees behind, or abaft, the beam of the vessel.

Reef: reducing the size of the sail in high winds for the safety of the crew and equipment. This is done by either tying or rolling the sail to the boom or forestay.

Rigging: All the wires and ropes used to hold the mast in place and adjust the sails.

Roach: The outer back edge area of the mainsail. If you were to draw a diagonal line from the head of the sail to the clew (back corner), the roach would be outside this diagonal line.

Roller furling: A system which rolls the sail up when not in use. The sail is stored on the roller either at the mast or boom for the mainsail, and at the forestay for the jib or genoa.

Rudder: Steering fin at the back of the boat. Controlled by a steering wheel or tiller from the cockpit.

Running: Sailing in a downwind direction.

Running rigging: The lines, such as sheets and halyards, which control the sails.

Schooner: A sailing vessel with two or more masts. The mainmast is at the back.

Seacock: a valve which can be open or closed to allow water to flow in or out of a through hull fitting.

Scope: The length of chain and line that is between the anchor and the boat.

Scuppers: Deck drains which allow water to flow overboard.

Securite: Pronounced securi-tay. This is a radio call to provide mariners with local marine safety information.

Shackle: A metal U or D shaped link which has a removable pin through the ends.

Sheet: A line or rope which connects to the clew (back corner) of a sail. It is used to control or trim the sail.

Shrouds: Wires or ropes which run from the deck chainplates to the mast. The shrouds prevent the mast from moving side to side.

Skeg: A section of the hull from which the rudder hangs. It provides a variable amount of protection to the rudder depending on its size.

Sloop: A single masted sailboat with a mainsail and a foresail.

Slugs: Fittings on the front edge (luff) of the mainsail that slide into the mast track for hoisting the sail.

Spinnaker: A large, light, often colorful sail that is used off the bow of the boat for sailing downwind (running).

Splice: Connecting two lines together by weaving their strands together.

Spreaders: The horizontal arms extending out from the sides of the mast.

Spring line: Dock lines positioned from the bow to a midship point on the dock or from the stern to a midship point on the dock. This line configuration helps decrease forward and backward motion of the boat while docked.

Stanchions: The metal posts along the outside edge of the deck through which the lifelines run.

Standing rigging: The wires and ropes, such as the shrouds and stays, that are permanently in place and hold up the mast.

Starboard: The right side of the boat when facing forward.

Starboard tack: Sailing with the wind hitting the starboard side of the boat and the sails out on the port side.

Stays: The wires or ropes which run from the bow and stern to the mast top to keep the mast from moving forward or backward.

Steerage way: When a vessel is moving through the water with enough speed to allow the rudder to steer the boat.

Stern: The back end of a boat.

Storm jib: A small, strong forward sail used in heavy winds.

Swing: The circular motion of an anchored boat around it’s anchor due to wind and water movement.

Tack: The forward lower corner of a sail.

Tacking: Turning the boat across the direction the wind is coming from to change course direction. This causes the sails to travel to the other side of the boat.

Tender: Small boat used to transport from shore to the main boat.

Tiller: A bar which controls the rudder and is used to steer the boat from the cockpit. It is used in place of a steering wheel.

Toe rail: The raised lip around the edge of the deck. This can be constructed of wood, fiberglass, or aluminum. It helps prevent items from rolling overboard.

Topping lift: A wire or rope which runs from the back end of the boom to the mast top. This line controls the height of the boom.

Trysail: A small, strong storm sail that is used in place of the mainsail in high winds.

Trim: To adjust the sails.

Winch: A round, drum-like mechanical device used to pull on a line to raise or adjust sails.

Windlass: A winch used to raise and lower the anchor.

Windward: The direction from which the wind is blowing.

Wing on wing: Sailing downwind with the mainsail out on one side and the foresail on the opposite side.

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