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A to Z Sailing Terms Guide



Abaft: A location towards the stern (rear) of the boat.

Abeam: At a 90-degree angle off the widest part of the boat (beam) on either the starboard or port side you’re on.

Aboard: On or inside the boat.

Above deck: On the deck – not in the cabin.

Abrest: When two boats are facing in the same direction, side by side, at the same speed and position.

Adrift: A boat floating loose, without moorings, tow rope or using power.

Aft: The stern part of the boat or when you’re to the rear of the boat.

Aground: When a boat is touching the bottom in water too shallow for its draft.

Ahead: An area in front of the boat you are on, and to go ahead is to go forwards.

Aids to Navigation: Any signal, marker, or equipment that aids a boat to navigate safely, including channel markers and isolated danger.

Aloft: The area above a boat’s deck – usually in the rigging or on the mast.

Amidships: In the middle of the boat between the stern and the bow.

Anchorage: An area suitable (e.g. harbour or island cove) suitable for a boat to stay and deploy and anchor.

Apparent Wind: The apparent wind is a combination of the true wind and the wind caused by the boat’s movement through the water.

Astern: The area behind the boat, and to go astern is to go backwards

Autopilot: A self-steering mechanism on a boat.


Bailer: A container used to remove water from a boat in the event of water ingress.

Backing Wind: Refers to the wind shifting direction in an anti-clockwise direction.

Backstay: Part of the rigging running from the top of the mast to the stern of the boat. The backstay stops the mast from falling forward and, when tuning a boat’s rig, it also helps to control the degree of mast bend.

Batten: Wood, fiberglass or plastic strip slid into a pocket on the leech of the sail. Battens help to shape and strengthen the sail to increase overall performance.

Batten down: Fasten hatches and loose objects on deck and down below to prevent things from moving, or becoming damaged.

Beam: The widest point of the boat.

Beam Reaching: A point of sail when sailing directly sideways to the wind on either a port or starboard tack.

Bearing Away: Steering the boat away from the wind or turning downwind.

Beating: Sailing towards the wind by tacking back and forth across the wind.

Belayed: Secured, tied to, made fast to.

Below: Below the deck, inside the cabin.

Bend on: To secure one thing to another. Tying two lines together.

Bight: A loop or bend in a rope or line.

Bilge: The lowest area inside a boat’s hull, below the floor.

Bilge pump: A pump to remove any water in the bilge.

Bimini: Waterproof fabric cockpit or deck cover – usually on a metal frame.

Bitter end: The free end of a line – it’s where the term, ‘until the bitter end’ comes from. (The other end is referred to as the ‘Standing Line’).

Boat Wind: The wind created by the boat moving through the water.

Boat fall: Rigging used to raise or lower a ship’s boat.

Boat hook: A pole with a hook on the end for picking up mooring buoys or recover items dropped over the side.

Bollard: Wooden or iron post on a dock to secure the boat to.

Boom: The horizontal pole or spar running aft fat a right angle from the mast to which the foot of the mainsail is attached.

Bow: Front of the boat

Bow line: The mooring line leading from the front of the boat.

Bowline Knot: A strong, but easy to untie knot that creates a loop in the end of a line.

Bridge: The room/platform onboard a ship where the vessel is controlled from.

Bridle: A V-shaped line attached to the boat’s mooring system.

Broad Reach: A point of sail when sailing downwind off to the port or starboard side.

Bulkhead: An often watertight, interior wall on the boat.

Buoy: Anchored navigation floats to mark hazards or for mooring to.


Cabin: The below deck living quarters, designed for crew and passengers.

Cable: Measurement of distance equal to 0.1 nautical mile.

Capsize: When the boat turns over in the water and is no longer upright.

Cast Off: Releasing the boat’s lines allowing it to leave its mooring.

Catamaran: A boat with two hulls, side by side.

Centreboard: A pivoting board lowered through a slot in the hull or keel to prevent the boat moving sideways.

Chainplates: Strong metal plates fixed to the hull which the forestay, backstay and shrouds are attached to.

Chart: A nautical map used for navigation.

Chart datum: Depths on a chart are shown from a low-water surface or a low-water datum called chart datum. Chart datum is selected as that the water level will rarely, if ever, fall below that depth.

Cleat: A small wooden, metal or plastic deck fitting with horns to secure a line or rope to.

Clew: The lower rear corner of a sail.

Close Reach: A point of sail when sailing against the wind at an angle somewhere between a beam reach and close hauled.

Close hauled: A point of sail when sailing as close to the wind as possible without the sails luffing (fluttering).

Clove hitch: A type of knot used to secure a rope twice around another rope or a spar.

Cockpit: The open area, usually towards the stern of the boat, where the boat is steered from.

Companionway: Stairs or ladder on a boat usually leading down to the cabin.

Cunningham: A line used to adjust the forward edge of the mainsail. Usually runs from the tack of the sail to the front area of the boom.

Current: The horizontal movement of a body of water. (Tide is the vertical movement of water.)

Cutter: A cutter has one mast but sails with two foresails.


Davit: A crane onboard that can be swung out over the side for hoisting or lowering boats.

Dead Reckoning: The method used to plot the course already travelled by measuring speed and time to calculate distance.

Deck: The roof or permanent covering over the boats hull.

Deck hand: A member of the ship’s crew responsible for maintaining, cleaning and mooring the vessel.

Deep six: A slang term meaning to discard something over the side of the boat.

Deviation: A ship’s magnetic compass reading can be affected by metal objects on the boat (electronic equipment etc). The difference between the correct magnetic reading and the ships compass magnetic reading is called deviation. Deviation will vary depending on the direction of the boat.

Dinghy: A small open boat, often used as a tender for a larger vessel – can be rowed, sailed or driven by a motor/outboard.

Displacement: The volume of water that is moved (displaced) by a boat when float.

Downhaul: A line attached to the tack of the sail and used to pull down or tighten the mainsail to increase sale efficiency.

Draft: The depth of a boat measured from the deepest point to the waterline

Drogue: A piece of equipment attached to the stern of a boat that is trailed behind on a long line to slow them down in bad weather/poor sea conditions.


Ease: To let out a line.

Ebb: The ride going out and moving away from the land.

Ensign: The flag or standard denoting the boats home country

EPIRB: Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon – to alert search and rescue to a boat’s position in an emergency


Fairleads: A metal fitting lines are run through in order to change the direction of the lines, while reducing friction on the lines.

Fairway: Sailing on inland waters, fairway means an open channel or being in midchannel.

Fast: To make fast. To secure a line to something.

Fathoms: A unit of measurement. One fathonm equals fix feet.

Fender: Cylindrical air-filled plastic or rubber bumper which hangs off the side of a boat or pontoon to prevent damage to both pontoon and boat.

Fetch: The distance over open water the wind has blown.

Figure eight knot: A stopper knot shaped in a figure eight.

Fix: The point at which two or three position lines intersect.

Flaked: A sail is flaked when lowered. Flaking a sail is the process of folding the sail back and forth on itself. Flaking a sail will help prolong the sail life.

Flare: A distress signal to attract attention/rescue.

Flybridge: A deck above the main level of the boat with duplicate controls for helming.

Following sea: A wave direction that matches the direction the boats bow is pointing.

Foot (Sail): The foot of a sail is the lower part of the sail. In the case of a mainsail, this is the part of the sail that runs along the boom.

Forepeak: The most forward cabin in the bow of the boat.

Forestay: The forestay is a wire that runs from the top of the mast (or near the top of the mast) to the bow of the boat. The forestay supports the mast from falling backwards. The luff (front) of the foresails (jib, genoa) are also generally attached to the forestay depending on the rigging system.

Forward: When on a boat, forward means towards the bow.

Fouled: When equipment becomes entangled or damaged.

Freeboard: The distance from the waterline to the top of the boat’s sides/deck.


Galley: The boat’s kitchen.

Gangway: A narrow walkway used for boarding or disembarking a boat.

Genoa: The Genoa is a foresail that is larger than a jib. The clew (lower corner at the foot of the sail) extends aft of the mast unlike a jib.

Give-way: When a vessel slows down, changes course or stops to allow another to pass.

Give-way vessel: Navigational rules – the boat which does not having the right-of-way.

GMDSS: Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

GNSS: Global Navigation Satellite System.

Gooseneck: A metal fitting that attaches the boom to the mast.

Goosewinging – To sail downwind with the mainsail set on one side and the headsail set on the other.

Ground tackle: Equipment used to anchor or moor a boat.

Gunwale: The upper most edge of a ship’s side.


Halyards: Lines used to lower and raise sails and flags.

Hanks: Metal hooks used to attached sails to stays.

Hard over: Turning the wheel or pushing the tiller all the way over.

HAT: Highest Astronomical Tide

Hatch: An opening in the deck, providing access to the boat’s interior.

Head: The boat’s toilet.

Heading: The direction in which the vessel is facing.

Head to wind: The bow of the boat is pointed directly into the wind.

Head up: Steer more into the wind.

Heave-to: Come to a stop while out at sea by steering into the wind.

Heeling: Leaning or heeling over caused by wind pressure on the sails.

Helm: The helm is the steering mechanism of the boat (wheel or tiller).

Helmsperson: The person at the helm and steering the boat.

Hitch: A type of knot used for attached a rope to an object.

Hold: A pace or compartment below deck reserved for carrying goods and cargo.


Inboard: Towards the centre of the vessel – can also relate to the type of engine (inboard vs outboard).

IMO: International Maritime Organisation

In Irons: This occurs where the boat has been turned directly into the wind and has lost all forward momentum. Without forward momentum the boat loses its ability to steer.

Inlet: A recess, such as a cove or bay, along a coastline


Jackstay: A strong line which runs fore and aft alongside the boat that can be used to attach a safety harness to.

Jacob’s ladder: A portable ladder made of rope or chain with metal or wooden rungs used over the side to help passengers onboard.

Jib: The jib is a foresail (smaller than a genoa). The jib is about the same size as the triangular area between the forestay, mast and foredeck.

Jury rig: A makeshift replacement rig


Kedge:  A secondary, smaller anchor onboard a boat.

Keel: The large heavily weighted fin like structure secured to the bottom of the boat. The keel helps to keep the boat upright and also reduces leeway (side slipping across the wind).

Ketch: A two masted boat. The second and smaller mast (mizzen) is positioned just forward of the rudder post.

Kicker: A mechanism to pull the boom down to control the shape of the sail.

Knot: Unit of speed for vessels at sea. One knot is just a bit faster than one mph.


LAT: Lowest Astronomical Tide.

Latitude: Measured distance in degrees, north of south of the equator.

Lazarette: A storage area in the stern section of a boat.

League: Approx. three nautical miles.

Lee: the side of the boat sheltered from the wind.

Leeway: The sideways movement of a boat caused by wind and currents

Lee shore: The shore downwind from the boat.

Leech: The rear edge of the foresail or the mainsail running from the head (top) to the clew (rear corner) of the sail.

Leeward: Downwind.

Length overall (LOA): The boats overall length from the bow to the stern.

Length Water Line (LWL) The length of the boat when it’s in the water.

Lifelines: The lines running around the outside of the deck creating a railing. The lines are attached to stanchions (upright metal posts).

Log: An instrument used to measure the speed of the boat as well as a record of the ships passage/operations.

Longitude: Measured distance in degrees from the Greenwich Meridian.

Lubber Line: Navigational line on a compass that indicates the heading.

Luff: The forward edge of a sail running from head to tack (front corner of the sail).

Luffing: A sail is luffing when it starts to flutter in the wind. The term Luff is also used to describe the same situation. “The sail is starting to luff.”

Luff Up: To turn into the wind to cause the sails to start luffing.


Mainsheet: The line used to control the mainsail.

Making way: When the boat is moving through the water, power by motor or sail.

Marlinspike: A sharp metal tool used to open or splice a rope, or untie knots.

Mast: The upright pole supported by the shrouds, forestay and backstay to which the sails are attached.

Mayday: Emergency distress signal via radio communication used in a life threatening situation.

Midship: A boat’s middle section, located directly between the bow and the stern.

Mooring: The process of securing a boat to a buoy, pier or post. The post, pier or buoy can also be described as a mooring.

MSD: Marine sanitation device (toilet).

Multihull – Any boat that has more than one hull, such as a catamaran or trimaran.


Nautical mile: A unit of distance on the water, equal to 1852-metres.

Neap tide: When during the four week tidal cycle, the tide rises and drops the least.


Outboard: An engine mounted on the boats stern which powers and steers the vessel.

Outhaul: The line used to tension the foot of the sail, to better control the curvature of the sail.

Overboard: Over the side of the boat in the water.


Pad eye: A metal ring which lines can pass to stop chaffing.

Painter: The bow line of a dinghy.

Panpan: An emergency call requesting help onboard – for urgent, not yet life threatening situation.

PFD: Personal Floatation Device – lifejacket or buoyancy aid.

Piloting: Piloting determines a vessel’s position using fixed points of reference, usually via a nautical chart, to select a desired course or destination.

Pitch: The rising and falling of the bow and stern of a vessel.

Planing: When a vessel has enough power to glide over the top of the water, rather than through it.

Plimsoll Line: The reference mark on a ship’s hull indicating how deep it may safely be submerged with cargo onboard.

Port: When on a boat and facing forward, the left-hand side of the boat.

Port tack: Sailing across the wind so that the wind hits the port (left) side of the boat first.

Pulpit – The sturdy rail around the deck right at the bow.

Pushpit: Located at the stern of the boat and like the pulpit, this area is enclosed by a metal railing.

PWC: A personal watercraft – also known as a jetski.


Quadrant: This is a device connected to the rudder where the steering cables attach.

Quarter: Either side of the stern/rear of a vessel.


Regatta: A boat race or series of boat races.

Reefing: Temporarily reducing the sail area, usually during poor weather.

Rig: The system of ropes, chains, and cables that support a boat’s mast, sails, and spars.

Rope: Woven cordage used for lines onboard a boat.

Roll: Motion of a ship caused by wind and waves pushing against it.

Rudder: Part of the underwater steering apparatus of a boat. Located outside the hull and near the stern.

Run: The point of sail with the wind aft (travelling with the wind instead of against it).

Running: When a boat sails directly downwind.


Screw: The propeller (term usually used for larger boats or ships)

Schooner: A sailing boat that has two masts both the same height or the aft mast slightly higher than the forward one.

Scope: The length of the anchor rode let out, expressed in terms of a ratio, compared to height above the seabed.

Scuppers: An opening in the side walls of a ship that allows water to drain away, rather than collecting within the gunwhales or bulwarks.

Seacock: A valve in a boat’s hull that allows water to seep in and out of the boat through an opening near the waterline.

Seamanship: The skills and techniques of navigating and maintaining a boat at sea.

Seaworthy: A boat that is fit to be out at sea.

Self-bailing cockpit: A cockpit that allows water to drain automatically.

Sextant: A navigational instrument used in Celestial Navigation.

Shackles: Metal fittings (often U shaped) that open and close with a pin across the top of the ‘U’.

Sheave: A roller/wheel to guide a line or wire.

Sheets: Lines that are used to adjust sails by either pulling them in or by letting them out.

Shroud: The wires at that hold the mast up.

Slack water: The period between the flood (incoming tide) and the ebb (outgoing tide) where the water has little or no movement.

Sloop: A sailboat that has one mast and sails with the mainsail and one foresail.

Sounding: Process of measure the depth of water.

Spar: A spar can refer to any of the following: mast, boom or a pole.

Spinnaker: A large balloon-like foresail used for sailing downwind.

Spinnaker pole: A boom-like pole to support and control head sails, including the spinnaker.

Spreaders: Bars extending sideways from the mast which hold out the shrouds so that they do not interfere with the rigging.

Springlines: Lines used to secure a boat to a dock and stop the boat from moving forward or backwards.

Squall: A sudden isolated storm associated with potentially high wind gusts.

Stanchions: Upright metal posts running around the outside of the deck supporting the lifelines/railings.

Stand: This refers to the short period of time where the tide is neither rising or falling.

Standing rigging: Standing rigging includes the forestay, backstay and the shrouds.

Stand-on boat: The boat that retains a course and rate of speed to avoid a potential collision with an approaching give-way boat.

Starboard: As you face towards the bow on a boat, starboard is the right-hand side of the boat.

Starboard tack: Sailing across the wind with the wind hitting the starboard (right) side of the boat first.

Steerage: The ability of the boat to be steered. A rudder is only effective when steering a boat, if there is movement.

Stern: The most aft part of a boat (the very back of the boat).

Storm jib: Same as a jib but not as big and used in high wind conditions.

Swamp: When a boat fills with water, but remains afloat.


Tack: The front lower corner of a sail. It also means to sail back and forth across the wind in either a port or starboard tack.

Tacking: Also called “Coming About”. Tacking is when the bow of the boat is turned through the wind onto the opposite tack.

Tail: The bitter end of a sheet tailing out from a winch.

Tang: A metal fitting used to attach the stays to the mast.

Telltails: Small strings (wool, plastic) attached to both sides of the luff of the sail to indicate when the sail is properly trimmed.

Tender: A small boat or dinghy used to transport crew between the boat and shore.

Tide: The vertical rise and fall the oceans.

Tiller: A long handle attached to the top of the rudder in order to steer the boat when there is no wheel.

Toe rail: A small metal railing running around the outside of the deck used to support your feet.

Topping lift: A line running from the top of the mast to the end of the boom. The topping lift supports the boom when the sail has been lowered.

Topside: The portion of the hull above the water line.

Transom: The flat area across the stern of the boat.

Trim: To trim or adjust the sail to make it more effective.

True wind: The actual wind felt wind the boat is not moving.

Turnbuckles: Adjustable fittings usually attached at the end of shrouds and stays. Turning the turnbuckle one way or the other tightens or loosens the wire.


Underway: When a boat is not moored and moving through the water.

Unfurl: To unroll a sail.

Uphaul: A rope used for raising a boat’s sail or centreboard.

Upstream: Moving from seaward into harbour or moving up river toward the headwaters.


Vane: A wind direction indicator.

Veering: A wind shift in the clockwise direction.


Wake/Wash: The waves created behind a boat as a result of the boat moving through the water.

Way: Movement of the boat.

Waterline: The point/level where the hull of a vessel meets the water’s surface.

Weather helm: The tendency of the boat to turn up wind after heeling (leaning over).

Wheel: Controls the rudder. Taking control of the wheel is taking the helm.

Winch: Used to mechanically raise the sails, tighten the sheets and other lines.

Windward: Towards the wind.

Wing to wing: Running (sail directly downwind) with the mainsail out one side of the boat and the foresail out the other side of the boat.


X: Marks the spot on the treasure map!

XTE: Cross Track Error, indicating how far you are off your chosen route.


Yawing: The side-to-side movement of a boat on an uneven course

Yawl: A sailing boat with has two masts where the aft mast (mizzen) is shorter than the foremast, and the mizzen mast is located aft of the rudder post.


Zephyr: A very light westerly wind.

Zinc block: Sacrificial metal blocks to prevent galvanic corrosion of underwater metal (also known as anodes).