Sailing Lingo Explained

Jessica Watson
Posted November 11 2015

I can imagine landlubbers might be a little confused when they step on-board a boat and hear strange terms and phrases being yelled over the wind. There’s no need to take your sailing lingo too seriously, but understanding a few key terms will keep you out of trouble.

Firstly, here are the basics that will get out of trouble on a yacht or motor boat:

Aft: towards the back of the boat, also known as the stern

Bow: the front of the boat

Port: left

Starboard: right

Port and starboard are also identified by colours – red for port and green for starboard. There’s a great little phrase that will help you remember your nautical lefts and rights: there’s no red port left in the bottle.

With the popularity of pirate stories, I had assumed that everyone would know their way around the cabin of a boat. But I still come across the occasional person who looks at me blankly when I tell them to fetch something from the galley or mention the head.

Galley is the nautical term for kitchen, and head is the name given to the toilet – or the dunny as us Aussies call it. The term “head” came from the old days of sailing ships when the toilet was located right at the bow of the boat next to the figurehead. The word “head” is also frequently associated with anxiety as marine toilets are notoriously temperamental.

Here are a few sailing-specific terms:

Mainsail – the biggest sail on the boat (pretty self-explanatory!)

Headsail – a sail, usually smaller than the mainsail, flown at from the bow (also called a jib or genoa)

Tack (tacking) – the act of changing course by passing the bow through the direction of the wind

Gybe (gybing) – similar to tacking, but this time by passing the stern through the wind

Heel (heeling) – the means to describe a sailing boat leaning over

Trim (trimming) – the act of adjusting the sails

Lines and sheets – the terms used to describe “ropes” on a yacht – call something a rope and you risk sounding like a novice!

Tiller – a horizontal bar at the back of the boat which may be used to steer in lieu of a wheel

Knockdown – a very unlikely occurrence that should be avoided if at all possible, knockdown describes the boat being tipped over, usually by a big wave. On small boats and dinghies, the word capsize is more commonly used.

Windward – toward the wind. A boat might sail to windward, into the direction of the wind, or a skipper might tell you to sit on the windward side of a yacht.

Leeward – away from the wind

Up – referring to windward. For example, if you are steering the yacht, you might be told to steer ‘up’ so you would point the bow further into the direction of the wind.

Down – referring to leeward, away from the direction of the wind

Stack the rail – crew members will be asked to sit or lean out the windward side of the boat when it is healed over

Man overboard – this self-explanatory phrase is what you should yell at the top of your lungs if someone goes over the side

All hands on deck – another self-explanatory phrase that calls all crew on deck to be ready to handle a situation

If you string a few of these terms together and say things like, “We were healed over sailing to windward,” or, “The bow punched through the waves when we set off on the port tack,” you’ll fit right in at the bar after sailing. Do you know a few more terms or phrases that could be added to this list? Join the conversation on Sailing Lingo over in the Deckee Forums!

3 people found this helpful. Do you?Thank Jessica Watson


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