The mysterious world of boating lingo explained

15th February 2021

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 boating lingo too seriously, but understanding a few key terms will keep you out of trouble.

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

Aft – towards the back of the boat, also known as the stern. The transom being a cross section of 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.

Hull - the body of a vessel.

Cleat - metal fitting on which a rope can be fastened.

Draft - the minimum amount of water required to float the boat without touching the bottom.

Gunwale - upper edge of a boat's side.

Helm - the wheel for steering the boat.

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.