Sailing Terminology

Sailing is full of terminology, and knowing a few of the basic terms will make your sailing charter more enjoyable. For example, if during your turn at the helm someone frantically shouts for you to "fall-off," they do not mean to gracelessly leap out of the boat. The following terms are used frequently and all sailors should know them.

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Abeam - At right angles to, or beside the boat
Aboard - On or in the boat
Aft - Toward the stern
Aground - When the hull or keel is against the ground
Aloft - overhead, above
Amidships - the middle of the boat
Anchor - An object designed to grip the ground, under a body of water, to hold the boat in a selected area
Apparent wind - the direction of the wind as is relative to the speed and direction of the boat
Astern - behind the boat


Backstay - a wire that runs from the top of the mast to the stern
Bail - to remove water from the boat
Ballast - weight in the lower portion of a boat, used to add stability
Battens - thin, stiff strips of plastic or wood, placed in pockets in the leech of a sail, to assist in keeping its form
Beam - the width of the boat at its widest
Beam reach - a point of sail where the boat is sailing at a right angle to the wind
Bearing - a compass direction from one point to another
Belay - to make secure
Bight - a loop of line or rope
Bilge - the lowest part of a boat, designed to collect water that enters the boat
Block - a pulley
Boat hook - a device designed to catch a line when coming alongside a pier or mooring
Bolt rope - a rope sewn into the luff of a sail for use in attaching to the standing rigging
Boom - the horizontal spar which the foot of a sail is attached to
Boom vang - a line that adjusts downward tension on the boom
Bow - the front of the boat
Bowsprit - a spar extending forward from the bow
Breast line - a docking line going at approximately a right angle from the boat to the dock
Broach - to spin out of control, either causing or nearly causing a capsize.
Broad reach - a point of sail where the boat is sailing away from the wind, but not directly downwind
Buoy - an anchored float marking a position or for use as a mooring
By the Lee - sailing with the wind coming from behind, and slightly to the side, that the sails are on


Can - a kind of navigation buoy
Capsize - to turn a boat over
Cast off - to release lines holding boat to shore or mooring, to release sheets
Catboat - a one sail sailboat
Centerboard - a fin shaped, often removable, board that extends from the bottom of the boat as a keel
Chafe - damage to a line caused by rubbing against another object
Chainplates - metal plates bolted to the boat which standing rigging is attached to
Chock - a guide for an anchor, mooring or docking line, attached to the deck
Cleat - a fitting used to secure a line to
Clew - the lower aft corner of a sail
Close hauled - a point of sail where the boat is sailing as close to the wind as possible
Close reach - a point of sail where the boat is sailing towards the wind but is not close hauled
Cockpit - the area, below deck level, that is somewhat more protected than the open deck, from which the tiller or wheel is handled


Displacement - the weight of the water displaced by the boat
Dock - the area a boat rests in when attached to a pier, also the act of taking the boat to the pier to secure it
Downhaul - a line, attached to the tack, that adjusts tension in the sail
Draft - the depth of the boat at its lowest point, also the depth or fullness of the sail
Drift - the leeway, or movement of the boat, when not under power, or when being pushed sideways while under power


Ease - to loosen or let out


Fall off - to change direction so as to point farther away from where the wind is coming from
Fairlead - a fitting used to change the direction of a line without chafing
Fathom - a measurement relating to the depth of water, one fathom is 6 feet
Foot - the bottom part of a sail
Forward - toward the bow to the boat
Foremast - the forward mast of a boat with more than one mast
Foresail - the jib
Fouled - entangled or clogged
Freeboard - the distance from the highest point of the hull to the water
Furl - to fold or roll a sail and secure it to its main support


Genoa - a large foresail that overlaps the mainsail
Gimball - a device that suspends a compass so that it remains level
Gooseneck - a device that connects the boom to the mast
Ground Tackle - the anchor, chain and rode
Gunwale - the railing of the boat at deck level


Halyard - the line used to raise and lower the sail
Hard Alee - the command given to inform the crew that the helm is being turned quickly to leeward, turning the boat windward
Head - top of the sail
Head to wind - the bow turned into the wind, sails luffing
Headsail - a sail forward of the mast, a foresail
Headstay - a wire support line from the mast to the bow
Headway - forward motion
Heave to - to stop a boat and maintain position (with some leeway) by balancing rudder and sail to prevent forward movement, a boat stopped this way is "hove to"
Helm - the tiller or wheel, and surrounding area
Helmsman - the member of the crew responsible for steering
Heel - the leeward lean of the boat caused by the winds action on the sails
Hike - leaning out over the side of the boat to balance it
Hoist - to raise aloft


In Irons - having turned onto the wind or lost the wind, stuck and unable to make headway


Jib - a foresail, a triangle shaped sail forward of the mast
Jibe - a change of tack while going downwind


Keel - a fin down the centerline of the bottom of the hull
Ketch - a two-masted ship with a small mast mounted forward of the rudder post
Knot - a unit of speed, one knot = 6076 feet per hour


Lanyard - a line attached to any small object for the purpose of securing the object
Lazarette - spaces below the deck that are designed for storage
Leech - the back edge of a sail
Leeward - downwind
Lifeline - a cable fence that surrounds the deck to assist in the prevention of crew falling overboard
Line - rope or cordage
List - the leaning of a boat to the side because of excess weight on that side
Luff - the front edge of a sail, and the flapping in the wind of the front of the sail (luffing)


Mainsheet - the line that controls the boom
Mizzen - the shorter mast behind the main mast on a ketch or yawl
Mooring - an anchor or weight, permanently attached to the sea floor, with a buoy going to the surface, used to hold the boat in a certain area


Nun - a kind of navigational buoy


Outhaul - the line that adjusts the tension along the foot of the sail across the boom


Painter - a line tied to the bow of a small boat for the purpose of securing it to a dock or to the shore
Pennant - a triangular flag
Pinch - to sail as close as possible towards the wind
Point - to turn closer towards the wind (point up)
Port - the left side of the boat
Port tack - sailing with the wind coming from the port side, with the boom on the starboard side
Privileged vessel - the ship with the right of way


Reach - sailing with a beam wind
Ready about - prepare to come about
Reef - to reduce the size of a sail
Rhumb line - a straight line compass course between two points
Rigging - the standing rigging is the mast and support lines, running rigging is the lines with which you adjust the sails
Rode - the line and chain that connect the anchor to the boat
Rudder - a fin under the stern of the boat used in steering
Running - a point of sail, going directly downwind


Scull - moving the rudder back and forth in an attempt to move the boat forward
Shake out - to release a reefed sail and hoist the sail aloft
Sheave - the wheel of a block pulley
Sheet - a line used to control the sail
Shrouds - support wires for the mast
Spinnaker - a large, light sail used in downwind sailing
Spreaders - struts used to hold the shrouds away from the mast
Spring line - docking lines that keep the boat from drifting forward and back
Starboard - the right side of the boat
Starboard tack - a course with the wind coming from starboard and the boom on the port side
Step - the frame that the bottom of the mast ends into
Stern - the back of the boat
Stow - to put away


Tack - the front, lower corner of the sail, also course with the wind coming from the side of the boat, also to change course by turning into the wind so that the wind comes from the other side of the boat
Tender - a small boat used to transport crew and equipment from shore to a larger boat
Tiller - controls the rudder and is used for steering
Topping lift - a line that holds up the boom when it is not being used, also the line that controls the height of a spinnaker pole
Transom - the back, outer part of the stern
Traveler - a device that the mainsheet may be attached to which allows its position to be adjusted
Trim - to adjust the sails, also the position of the sails
Tuning - the adjustment of the standing rigging, the sails and the hull to balance the boat for optimum performance


Wake - the swell caused by a boat passing through water
Whisker pole - a light spar which holds the jib out when sailing downwind
Winch - a metal drum shaped device used to assist in trimming sails
Windward - upwind

Boat and Wind PositionsPoints of Sail