Sailing Terminology List: 300+ Need to Know Sailing Terms

There’s a massive amount of sailing terms that any sailor will eventually learn with time and it can seem daunting essentially learning a new language. Need to know sailing terms will help you out when communicating with your crew members and captains of other vessels, so having a sailing terminology list handy can do a lot of good. That’s why I put together this list of common sailing terms that’ll help you out the next time you head out on the water.

A

Aback – A foresail when against the wind, used when tacking to help the vessel turn.
Abaft – Toward the stern, relative to some object.
Abeam – On the beam, a relative bearing at right angles to the ship’s keel.
Aboard – On or in a vessel.
Adrift – A boat drifting without being propelled.
Aft – At or towards the stern or behind the boat.
Aground – A boat whose keel is touching the bottom.
Amidships – The middle section of a vessel with reference to the athwartships plane, as distinguished from port or starboard.
Apparent wind – The wind felt aboard a moving boat.
Astern – Behind the stern of the boat.
Athwartships – Across the boat from side to side.

B

Backstay – The standing rigging running from the stern to the top of the mast, keeping the mast from falling forward.
Bail – To empty the boat of water.
Ballast – Weight in the keel of a boat that provides stability.
Barometer – An instrument that measures air pressure, an aid to forecasting the weather.
Batten – A thin wood or fiberglass slat that slides into a pocket in the leech of a sail, helping to maintain an aerodynamic shape.
Beam – The width of a boat at its widest point.
Beam reach – Sailing in a direction at approximately 90 degrees to the wind.
Bear away – To “fall off” or head away from the wind.
Bearing – The direction from one object to another expressed in compass degrees.
Beating – A course sailed upwind.
Below – The area of a boat beneath the deck.
Bend – To attach a sail to a spar or a headstay or to attach a line to a sail.
Bight – A loop in a line.
Bilge – The lowest part of a boat’s interior where water on board will collect.
Bitter end – The end of a line.
Blanket – To use the sail or object to block the wind from filling a sail.
Block – A pulley on a boat.
Boat hook – A pole with a hook on the end used for grabbing hold of a mooring or retrieving something that has fallen overboard.
Boltrope – The rope that is sewn into the foot and luff of some mainsails and the luff of some jibs by which the sails are attached to the boat.
Boom – The spar extending directly aft from the mast to which the foot of the mainsail is attached.
Boom vang – A block and tackle system, which pulls the boom down to assist sail control.
Bottom – The underside of a boat.
Bow – The forward part of the boat.
Bowline – A line running from the bow of the boat to the dock or mooring.
Bow spring – A line running from the bow of the boat parallel to the dock or mooring that stops the boat from moving forward along the dock.
Bowline – A knot designed to make a loop that will not slip and can be easily untied.
Breast line – A short line leading directly from the boat to the dock.
Broach – An uncontrolled rounding up into the wind, usually from a downwind point of sail.
Broad reach – Sailing in a direction with the wind at the rear corner (the quarter) of the boat. Approximately 135 degrees from the bow of the boat.
Bulkhead – A wall that runs athwartships on a boat, usually providing structural support to the hull.
Buoy – A floating navigation marker.
Buoyancy – The ability of an object to float.
Bulwark – A solid side wall, often about waist high, from the outside edge of the deck to prevent someone from falling overboard.
Burdened vessel – The vessel required to give way for another boat when the two may be on a collision course.
By the Lee – A sailboat running with the wind coming over the same side of the boat as the boom.

C

Cabin – The interior of the boat.
Can – In the U.S., it’s an odd-numbered green buoy marking the left side of the channel when returning to harbor.
Capsize – To tip or turn a boat over.
Cast off – To release a line when leaving a dock or mooring.
Catamaran – A twin-hulled vessel with a deck or trampoline between the hulls.
Catboat – A boat with only a mainsail and an unstayed mast located at the bow.
Centerboard – A pivoting board that can be lowered and used like a keel to keep a boat from slipping to leeward.
Centerline – The midline of the boat running from bow to stern.
Chafe – Wear on a line caused by rubbing.
Chainplates – Strong metal plates which connect the shrouds to the boat.
Channel – A (usually narrow) lane, marked by buoys, in which the water is deep enough to allow a vessel safe passage.
Chart – A nautical map.
Charter – To rent a boat.
Chock – A guide mounted on the deck through which dock lines and anchor rode are run.
Chop – Rough, short, steep waves.
Cleat – A nautical fitting that is used to secure a line.
Clew – The lower aft corner of a sail. The clew of the mainsail is held taut by the outhaul. The jib sheets are attached to the clew of the jib.
Close hauled – The point of sail that is closest to the wind when the sails are hauled close to the centerline of the boat.
Close reach – Sailing in a direction with the wind forward of the beam (about 70o from the bow).
Coaming – The short protective wall that surrounds the cockpit or hatch.
Cockpit – The lower area of the deck in which the steering and sail controls are located.
Coil – To loop a line neatly so it can be stored, or a reel of line.
Come about – To alter course so as to cause the bow of the boat to pass through the eye of the wind.
Companionway – The steps leading from the cockpit or deck to the cabin below.
Compass – The magnetic instrument which indicates the direction in which the boat is headed.
Compass rose – The circles on a chart which indicate the direction of true and magnetic north.
Course – The direction in which the boat is being steered.
Crew – Besides the skipper, anyone on board who helps run the boat.
Cunningham – A line running through a grommet a short distance above the tack of the mainsail which is used to tension the luff of the main.
Current – The horizontal movement of water caused by tides, wind, and other forces.
Cutter – A single-masted boat rigged with both jib and staysail.

D

Daysailer – A small sailboat.
Dead downwind – Sailing in a direction straight downwind.
Deck – The mostly flat area on top of the boat.
De-power – Reducing the power in the sails by luffing, easing the sheets, or stalling.
Dinghy – A small sailboat or rowboat.
Displacement – The weight of the boat; therefore the amount of water that it displaces.
Dock – The quay or pontoon where a boat may be tied up.
Dockline – A line used to secure a boat to the dock.
Dodger – A canvas protection in front of the cockpit of some boats that are designed to keep spray off the skipper and crew.
Downhaul – A line used to pull down on the movable gooseneck on some boats to tension the luff of the mainsail.
Draft – The depth of a boat’s keel from the surface of the water.

E

Ease – To let out a line or sail.
Ebb – An outgoing tide.

F

Fairlead – A fitting that guides sheets and other lines in a way that reduces friction and therefore chafe.
Fairway – The center of a channel.
Fake – Lay out a line on the deck using large loops to keep it from becoming tangled.
Fall off – Alter course away from the wind.
Fast – To secure something.
Fathom – A measure of the depth of water. One fathom equals six feet.
Fender – An inflated rubber or plastic bumper used to protect a boat by keeping it from hitting the dock.
Fend off – To push off.
Fetch – The distance of open water to windward between the shore and the boat.
Fid – A tapered spike used to open the lay of a rope when splicing.
Flood – An incoming tide.
Following sea – Wave pattern hitting the stern of the boat.
Foot – The bottom edge of the sail.
Fore – Another word for “forward”.
Forepeak – An accommodation or storage area in the bow below the deck.
Foresail – A jib or genoa.
Forestay – The standing rigging running from the bow to the mast top and to which the foresail is secured.
Forward – Towards the bow.
Fouled – Another word for “tangled”.
Fractional rig – When the forestay is attached to the mast some distance below the top.
Foul weather gear – Water resistant clothing.
Freeboard – The height of the hull above the water’s surface.
Full – Not luffing.
Furl – To fold or roll up a sail.

G

Gaff – On some boats, a spar along the top edge of a four-sided fore and aft sail.
Genoa – A large foresail whose clew extends aft of the mast.
Give way vessel – The vessel required, by the regulations, to give way in a collision situation.
G.M.T. – Greenwich Mean Time. The time at the prime meridian in Greenwich, London, England. Now referred to as Universal Time Coordinated U.T.C.
Gooseneck – The strong fitting that connects the boom to the mast.
Great Circle – A line drawn on a chart which is accurate over a long distance, a section of the Earth which intersects the center of the Earth.
Grommet – A reinforcing ring set in a sail.
Ground tackle – Collective term for the anchor and rode (chain and line).
Gudgeon – A fitting attached to the stern into which the pintles of a rudder are inserted.
Gunwale – The edge of the deck where it meets the topsides.
Gybe – Another alternative spelling of “jibe”.

H

Halyard – A line used to raise or lower a sail.
Hank – A snap hook which is used to secure the luff of a foresail to the forestay.
Hard a-lee – The call given to the crew that will initiate the action of tacking.
Hard over – To turn the helm or tiller as far as possible in one direction.
Hatch – A large covered opening in the deck.
Haul in – To tighten a line.
Head – The toilet on a boat as well as the top corner of a sail.
Headboard – The small reinforcing board affixed to the head of a sail.
Headed – A wind shift which causes the boat to head down or causes the sails to be sheeted in.
Heading – The direction of the boat expressed in degrees.
Head down – Changing course away from the wind.
Head off – Another word for “head down”.
Head up – Changing course towards the wind.
Headsail – A jib/genoa attached to the forestay.
Headstay – The standing rigging running from the bow to the top of the mast.
Head to wind – When the bow of the boat is dead into the wind.
Headway – Forward progress.
Heave – To throw.
Heave to – To hold one’s position in the water by using the force of the sails and the rudder to counteract each other.
Holding ground – The seabed or bottom ground in an anchorage.
Hove to – A boat that has completed the process of heaving to with its aback, its main trimmed, and its rudder positioned to hold the vessel close to the wind.
Heavy weather – Strong winds and large waves.
Heel – The lean of the boat caused by the wind.
Helm – The tiller.
Helmsman – The person responsible for steering the boat.
Hull – The body of the boat, excluding the rig and sails.
Hull speed – The theoretical maximum speed of a sailboat determined by the length of its waterline.

I

Inboard – Inside of the rail of the boat.
In irons – A boat that is head to wind and unable to move or maneuver.

J

Jackstay – A wire or webbing strap attached at the front and back of a vessel along the deck to which a safety harness line may be clipped.
Jib – The small forward sail of a boat that is attached to the forestay.
Jibe – To change the direction of the boat by steering the stern through the wind.
Jibe oh – The command given to the crew when starting a jibe.
Jiffy reef – A quick reefing system allowing a section of the mainsail to be pulled down and tied to the boom.
Jury rig – An improvised temporary repair.

K

Kedge – A smaller anchor than the main or bower anchor. Often used for maneuvering or kedging off.
Kedge off – To use an anchor to pull a boat into deeper water after it has run aground.
Keel – The heavy vertical fin beneath a boat that helps keep it upright and prevents it from slipping sideways in the water.
Ketch – A two-masted sailboat on which the mizzen (after) mast is lower than the mainmast and is located forward of the rudderpost.
Knockdown – A boat heeled so far that one of its spreaders touches the water.
Knot – One nautical mail per hour.

L

Land breeze – A wind that blows over the land and out to sea.
Lash – To tie down.
Lay – To sail a course that will clear an obstacle without tacking.
Lazarette – A storage compartment built into the cockpit or deck.
Lazy sheet – The windward side jib sheet that is not under strain.
Lead – To pass a line through a fitting or block.
Lee helm – The boats tendency to turn away from the wind.
Lee shore – Land which on the leeward side of the boat.
Leech – The after edge of a sail.
Leeward – The direction away from the wind that is the direction that the wind is blowing to.
Leeward side – The side of the boat or sail that is away from the wind.
Leeway – The sideways slippage of the boat in a downwind direction.
Lifeline – Rope or wire supported by stanchions.
Lift – The force that results from air passing by a sail or water past a keel that moves the boat forward and sideways.
Line – A rope.
L.O.A. – The maximum Length Overall fore and aft along the hull.
Lubber line – A line on a magnetic compass to help the helmsman steer the correct course.
Luff – The leading edge of a sail as well as the fluttering of a sail caused by aiming too close to the wind.
Lull – A decrease in wind speed for a short duration.
L.W.L. – The length fore and aft along the hull measured at the waterline.

M

Magnetic – In reference to the magnetic north rather than true north.
Mainmast – The taller of two masts on a boat.
Mainsail – The sail hoisted on the mast of a sloop or cutter or the sail hoisted on the mainmast of a ketch or yawl.
Mainsheet – The controlling line for the mainsail.
Marlinspike – A pointed tool used to loosen knots.
Mast – The vertical spar in the middle of a boat from which the mainsail is set.
Masthead – The top of the mast.
Maststep – The fitting in which the foot of the mast sits.
Mizzen – The small aftermost sail on a ketch or yawl hoisted on the mizzenmast.
Mizzenmast – The shorter mast aft of the main mast on a ketch or yawl.
Mooring – A permanently anchored ball or buoy to which a boat can be tied.

N

Nautical mile – Standard nautical unit of distance equal to one minute of arc of the Earth’s latitude or 6080 feet.
Navigation rules – Laws established to prevent collisions on the water.
No-go zone – An area into the wind in which a sailboat cannot produce power to sail.
Nun – A red even numbered buoy marking the right side of a channel when returning to port.

O

Offshore wind – Wind blowing away from the shore and out to sea.
Offshore – Away from or out of sight of land.
Off the wind – Not close-hauled point of sail.
On the wind – Sailing upwind in a close-hauled point of sail.
Outboard – Outside the rail of a boat.
Outhaul – The controlling line attached to the clew of a mainsail used to tension the foot of the sail.
Overpowered – A boat that is heeling too far because it has too much sail up for the amount of wind.

P

Painter – The line attached to the bow of a dinghy.
Pay out – To ease a line.
P.F.D. – A Personal Flotation Device such as a life jacket.
Pinching – Sailing too close to the wind.
Pintle – Small metal extension on a rudder that slides into a gudgeon on the transom.
Point – To steer close to the wind.
Points of sail – Boat direction in relation to the wind.
Port – The left-hand side of the boat when facing forward, a harbor, or a window in a cabin on a boat.
Port tack – Sailing on any point of sail with the wind coming over the port side of the boat.
Prevailing wind – Typical or consistent wind direction.
Puff – An increase in wind speed.
Pulpit – A guardrail at the bows of a vessel.

Q

Quarter – The sides of the boat near the stern.

R

Rail – The outer edges of the deck.
Rake – The angle of the mast.
Range – The alignment of two objects that indicate the middle of a channel.
Reach – One of the several points of sail across the wind.
Ready about – The command given to the crew to prepare to tack.
Ready to jibe – The command given to the crew to prepare to jibe.
Reef – To reduce the area of a sail.
Reeve – To pass a line through a ring or block.
Rhumb line – A straight line drawn on a Mercator chart, which intersects all meridians at the same angle.
Rig – The design of a boat’s masts, standing rigging and sail plan.
Rigging – The wires and lines used to support and control sails.
Roach – The sail area aft of a straight line running between the head and clew of a sail.
Rode – The line and chain attached from the boat to the anchor.
Roller-furling – A mechanical system to roll up a headsail around the headstay.
Rudder – A vertical blade attached to the bottom of the hull which is used to steer the boat.
Run – Point of sailing when the wind is coming from dead astern.
Running rigging – The lines used to control the sails.

S

Sail ties – Lengths of line or webbing used to secure sails when they are dropped or to secure the unused portion of a reefed sail.
Schooner – A two-masted boat whose foremast is the same height or shorter than its mainmast.
Scope – The length of anchor rode paid out in relation to the maximum depth of water.
Scull – To propel a boat with a single oar fixed in a notch through the transom.
Scupper – A cockpit or deck drain.
Sea breeze – A wind that blows from the sea onto the land.
Seacock – A valve which opens and closes a hole used as an intake or discharge from the boat.
Secure – The make safe or tie down.
Set – The direction of the current as well as to trim the sails.
Shackle – A metal fitting at the end of a line used to attach the line to a sail or another fitting.
Shake out – To remove a reef.
Sheave – The wheel inside a block or fitting over which the line runs freely.
Sheet – A line used to control a sail by pulling it in or easing it out.
Shoal – An area of shallow water.
Shroud – Standing rigging at the side of the mast.
Singlehanded – Sailing alone.
Skeg – A vertical fin in front of the rudder.
Sloop – A single-masted sailboat with mainsail and headsail.
Sole – The floor in a cockpit or cabin.
Spar – A pole used to attach a sail on a boat, for example, the mast, the boom, or a gaff.
Spinnaker – A large downwind headsail not attached to the head stay.
Splice – The joining of two lines together by interweaving their strands.
Spreader – A support strut extending athwartships from the mast used to support and guide the shroud from the top of the mast to the chainplate.
Spring line – A dock line running forward or aft from the boat to the dock to keep the boat from moving fore or aft.
Squall – A fast moving short intense storm.
Stanchions – Stainless steel or aluminum supports at the edge of the deck which holds the lifelines.
Standing rigging – The permanent rigging of a boat, including the forestay, backstay, and shrouds.
Starboard – The right-hand side of the boat when looking forward from the stern.
Starboard tack – Sailing on any point of sail with the wind coming over the starboard side of the boat.
Stay – A wire support for a mast, part of the standing rigging.
Staysail – Any sail which is attached to a stay.
Steerage way – The minimum speed of the boat through the water that allows the rudder to function efficiently.
Stem – The foremost tip of the boat.
Stern – The aft part of the boat.
Stern spring – A line running from the stern of the boat parallel to the dock or mooring that stops the boat from moving backward along the dock.
Stow – To store properly.
Swamped – Filled with water.

T

Tack – To alter course so as to cause the bow of the boat to pass through the eye of the wind.
Tackle – A series of blocks and line that provide a mechanical advantage.
Tail – To hold the end of a line so as to keep it under tension on a winch.
Telltales – Short lengths of yarn or cloth attached to the sails which indicate when the sail is properly trimmed.
Tide – The rise and fall of water level due to the gravitational effects of the sun and the moon.
Tiller – A long handle attached to the rudder which is used to steer the boat.
Toe rail – A low rail around the outer edge of the deck.
Topping lift – A line used to hold the boom up when the mainsail is lowered or stowed.
Topsides – The sides of a boat between the waterline and the deck.
Transom – The vertical surface of the stern.
Trim – To adjust the sail controls to create optimum lift from the sails.
Trimaran – A three-hulled vessel.
True wind – The actual speed and direction of the wind as you would feel when standing still.
Tune – To adjust the boats standing rigging.
Turnbuckle – A mechanical fitting attached to the lower ends of stays allowing the standing rigging to be adjusted.

U

Underway – A boat that is not attached to the ground by either anchor or mooring lines.
Upwind – Towards the direction of the wind.
U.S.C.G. – United States Coast Guard.
U.T.C. – Universal Time Coordinated. As the modern term for Greenwich Mean Time, this is the standard reference time which is used internationally for navigational information.

V

Vang – A block and tackle system, which pulls the boom down to assist sail control.
Veer – A clockwise change in the wind direction.
Vessel – Any sailboat, powerboat, or ship.

W

Wake – Waves caused by a boat moving through the water.
Waterline – The horizontal line on the hull of a boat where the surface of the water should be.
Weather helm – The tendency of the boat to head up towards the wind, this increases as the sailboat becomes overpowered.
Whip – To bind together the strands at the end of a line.
Whisker pole – A pole temporarily mounted between the mast and the clew of the jib. Used to hold the sail out and keep it full when sailing downwind.
Winch – A deck-mounted drum with a handle offering a mechanical advantage when used to trim sheets.
Windward – Towards the wind.
Windward side – The side of the boat closest to the wind.
Wing-and-wing – Sailing downwind with the jib set on the opposite side to the mainsail.
Working sails – The mainsail and the standard jib.
Working sheet – The leeward sheet that is under tension.

Y

Yard – The horizontal spar from which a square sail is suspended.
Yawl – A two-masted vessel on which the mizzenmast is mounted aft of the rudderpost.