Nautical Terms



Abeam:    Directly to the side of the boat.

About:     On the opposite tack.

Aft:     At or near the stern.

Alee:     To the leeward side.

Aloft:     Above the deck.

Anchor:     A device shaped so as to grip the bottom, secured to a line from the boat to hold it in the desired position.

Apparent wind:     The direction and speed of the wind felt by the crew. Combination of the true wind and that created by the motion of the boat.

Astern:     Behind the boat.


Backstay:    Any single wire supporting the mast from the stern.

Ballast:     Weight placed in the bottom of the boat to give it stability.

Batten:     Thin wooden strips fitted into pockets for stiffening the leech of a sail.

Beam:     Measurement of the width of a boat.

Beam reach:     Sailing with the wind coming across the boat’s beam.

Beam wind:    A wind at right angles to a boat’s course.

Bear away:     To steer the boat away from the wind.

Bearing:     The compass (magnetic) direction from one object to another.

Beat:     Sailing against the wind by tacking (sailing a zigzag course towards the wind).

Beating to windward:     To sail to windward close-hauled, tacking as you go, to reach an objective to windward.

Bend:     To connect two ropes with a knot.

Bilge:     The very lowest part of a boat’s interior, where water is most likely to collect.

Block:     A pulley.

Bollard:     A short heavy post on a pier or boat used for fastening docking lines.

Boom:     Spar that takes the foot of a sail.

Bow:     The forward part of a boat.

Broach:     Turn sideways to wind and the surf.

Broad reach:     The point of sailing between a beam reach and a run, when the wind blows over the quarter.

Buoy:     Floating navigational marker.


Cabin:  A room on a boat for passengers and crew

Cabin sole: The floor of a cabin

Capsize:     To overturn.

Cast off     To let go of a line when leaving the dock or mooring; to ease sheets.

Center of Effort (COE):     The point at which all the forces acting on the sails are concentrated.

Center of Lateral resistance (CLR):     The underwater center of pressure about which a boat pivots when changing course.

Centerboard:     Retractable keel to stop a boat’s leeward drift.

Chain Plate:     Metal fitting bolted to the side of a boat to hold the ends of stays and shrouds to support the rigging.

Cleat:    Fitting to which a line is secured, without knotting.

Clew:     Aft bottom corner of a sail, where the foot and leech meet.

Close-Hauled:     Sailing close to the wind with sails pulled in.

Close Reach:     The point of sailing between close-hauled and a beam reach, when the wind blows forward of the beam.

Cockpit:     The space at a lower level than the deck in which the tiller or wheel is located, may be center or aft.

Come About:     To change course so as to be sailing at the same angle but with the wind on the other side.

Course:     The direction in which a vessel is steered, usually given in degrees.

Cutter:     Single-masted fore-and-aft boat having an inner staysail and outer jib.


Daggerboard:     A board normally attached to dinghies to reduce sideways drift. Released vertically, unlike a centerboard, which lifts around a pin.

Dead Ahead:       Straight forward direction.

Dead Astern:     Straight aft direction.

Deadlight:    Fixed light in a cabin’s roof.

Deck:      Solid covering over a hull, does not always cover all of it.

Depression:      Low-pressure area in meteorology.

Dew point:      The point of temperature and air pressure at which water vapor forms mist or fog.

Dinghy: A small to medium sized, open boat.

Dismasting: If the mast breaks and goes off. Sucks badly.

Displacement: The amount of water that is displaced by a boat and thereof – according to Archimedes – as heavy as the boat

Dock: A protected area that is normally part of a port where boats can be moored.

Dodger: A simple, protective screen that protects the cockpit from wind and water; also used for cloth that is used for weather protection of boats or accessories.

Downhaul: The rope that is used to pull a sail down.

Downwind: All courses further away from the wind than a beam reach.

Draft: The depth of water that a boat draws.

Drift: Strength of a tidal current.


Ease:  To let out.

Ebb: A receding tide or current.

EP: Estimated Position, a value plotted on a map or chart in temporal intervals.

EPIRB: Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon. Radio signaling aid that allows the transmission of emergency position calls.


Fairlead: A fitting that is used to direct or re-direct lines and ropes.

Falling Off: Turn away from the direction of the wind.

Fathom:  Nautical measurement for the depth of water where one fathom equals to six feet.

Fender: A cushion-like thing that is placed along the hull to protect it from collision with other boats, pier walls or cliffs to prevent damage normally when mooring.

Figure Eight Knot: A common knot that is often used to prevent lines and ropes from slipping through a fitting.

Fin Keel: A single keel that is centrally located and ballasted.

Flare: An emergency signal.

Flood: A current moving towards land.

Fluke: The barbs or hooks of anchors.

Following Sea: An overtaking sea coming from astern.

Foot: The bottom end of a sail.

Foremast: The mast that is most forward on a boat.

Foresail: The lowest square sail on the most forward mast.

Forestay: The wiring that supports the mast and keeps it from falling backwards. Leads from masthead to bowsprit or foredeck.

Foretriangle: The triangle that is formed by the forestay, mast and deck.

Fouled: If gear or parts of the boat are jammed, messed up or dirty.

Foul Weather Gear: Clothing and accessories that are designed to accommodate needs that arise from bad weather issues

Freeboard: The area from the deck to the waterline.

Freer: A change in the wind direction to the aft of a boat


Galley: The cooking facility on a boat; in larger yachts normally called kitchen.

Gangway: The part of a ship or large yacht where passengers and crew board or disembark.

Gear: All equipment used for sailing except the boat itself; rather a commercial than a nautical term.

Gennaker: A sail that is a hybrid between a spinnaker and a genoa.

Genoa: A large headsail, which overlaps the mast and often meets the deck with its foot.

Gimbals: A fitting that moves in a way that keeps delicate or potentially dangerous objects in an upright position even in the case of the boat heeling; e.g. gimbaled stove or compass.

Gloves: Sailing gloves protect hands of competitive sailors and allow the fast handling of wires and lines.

Gooseneck: A universal joint fitting that links the boom with the mast.

GPS: Global Positioning System.

Ground Tackle: Anchor and all related anchoring equipment such as warp or capstan used to secure a boat to her mooring.

Gunwale: Upper edge of the side of the hull.

Guy: A wire or line controlling the spinnaker pole.


Halyards: Ropes or wires for lifting or lowering sails and associated spars.

Hanks: The metal clips that attach a sail to a forestay.

Hatch: An opening in the deck to enter the space below it.

Head: The top-corner of a sail; in larger yachts also the toilet or bathroom and washing facility.

Headway: Forward motion of a boat.

Heading: The direction into which a boat is steered, the intended course.

Heads: Toilet facility on a boat.

Headsails: All sails that are used forward of the foremast.

Heel: The tilting of a boat into an angle whilst it sails.

Helm: The wheel or tiller through which you control the rudder.

Helmsman: The Sailor that steers the vessel.

Hitch: A common knot that is often used to secure a rope to another one – or an object.

Hold: The space in the hull that is used for the storage of cargo.

Hoist:  The vertical edge of a sail: to haul aloft.

Hull: The main body of a boat or ship.


Impeller pump: A type of pump commonly used on large sailing vessels.

Inboard: Toward the center of a boat; sometimes used for “engine”.

In Irons: To head into the wind and refuse to fall of; a boat in irons will not go off.

Isobars: Bars or lines on meteorological maps to show pressure areas.


Jacklines: Ropes or wires that run along the side decks to allow the crew to attach harnesses for self-protection in case of foul weather.

Jettison: To throw overboard.

Jib: The triangular sail in front of the foremast, in front of the main sail.

Jib sheets: Lines that allow you to trim the jib.

Jibe: Changing direction/tack on a downwind course; to change from one tack to another by turning the stern through the wind; also spelled gybing.


Kedge Anchor: A secondary, lighter anchor.

Keel: The lowest part of a boat that stabilizes the hull and decreases sideways drift. In wooden vessels, frames are normally attached to the keel.

Knot: A measure of speed in navigation that is defined as one nautical mile per hour.


Latitude: The north-south distance of the equator measured in degrees.

Lazarette: The small space below deck, usually aft, where spare parts are kept or an outboard motor is mounted.

Lazyjacks: Lines or wires that are rigged from the mast to the boom to retain the sail when it is lowered.

Leech: Aft edge of a sail.

Leech line: The rope or wire that runs through the leech of the sail and controls its tightness.

Lee: The side facing away from the wind.

Lee helm: The leeward course an unsteered boat takes.

Leeward: The direction facing away from the wind. Pronounced like “loo-ard”.

Leeway: Sideways drift of a boat through wind or water current.

Lifelines: Line or wire that encircles the deck to prevent crew members from falling overboard, it attaches a safety harness to a fitting or jackstay.

Lines: Thin ropes used to control sails, secure spars and for manifold other important things aboard.

Log: A protocol of the actions on and course of the boat.

Longitude: The east-west distance from the meridian in Greenwich in degrees.

Lubber-line: Mark on a compass that indicates the forward direction of a boat.

Luff or luffing or to luff up: The forward edge of a sail; the verbs describe the action that brings the boat’s front closer to the wind; the flapping of a sail caused by the boat being head to wind.


Magnetic north: The direction to the magnetic north pole, which does not match with the geographic North Pole.

Magnetic variation: The variant angle of the difference between magnetic and geographic North Pole. The variation results from the movement of the magnetic North Pole.

Mainsail: The lowest sail on the mainmast.

Mainsheet:  The line for controlling the main sails.

Mast: A vertical spar that holds the sails and their respective rigging.

Masthead: The top end of a mast.

Mayday: An internationally valid distress signal that is repeated three times and has highest priority of all signals.

Midship: Center of the vessel, middle between bow and stern.

Mooring: Action that secures a boat to a pier, anchorage or buoy.


Nautical Almanac: A calendar and advice book for nautical applications.

Nautical Mile: One minute of latitude, 1852 meters.

Navigation: The teaching of commanding a boat safely from one point to another.

Navigation Regulations: Also “Steering and sailing rules”; a set of rules that govern the movement of boats with respect to each other.

No-sail-zone: The area of plus minus 45 degrees into the wind in which boats generally can’t sail.


Oar: Long type of paddle used to row a boat.

Offshore wind: A wind blowing off the land.

Onshore wind: A wind blowing onto the land.

Outboard: Mounted externally to the boat, near the boat’s side – for example an engine.

Outhaul: Rope or wire that is used to haul out a sail.

Overboard: Outside the boat.


Painter: Mooring line attached to the bow of dinghies.

Pan Pan: The second-highest (after “Mayday”) priority signal that expresses distress.

Pier: A platform to which a boat can be moored.

Pile moorings: Moorings made from wood or metal piles driven into the ground.

Planing: A boat racing that fast, that hardly any part of the hull is under water; gliding.

Planing Hull: A hull built in a way to support gliding at high speeds.

Plotter: A nautical tool to plot a course on a map or grid of latitudes and longitudes.

Port: Left to the vessel as one faces forward; a harbor.

Privileged vessel: The vessel with the right-of-way according to nautical rules.

Pulpit: Metal railing or frame around the bow of a boat, mostly for safety reasons.

Pushpit: A pulpit around the stern of a boat.


Quarter: The portion of a vessel’s side near the stern.


Rake: The angle of a mast (forward/back).

Reaching: Holding a course with the wind roughly abeam.

Reef: An aid to reduce the size of a sail during periods of strong wind.

Rig: The sum of all sails, spars and masts on a boat.

Rigging: The sum of all ropes, lines and wires that hold and control sails and mast on a boat.

Roach: The curved part of a sail that goes beyond a straight line between head and clew.

Rocker: The curve from stern to keel to bow.

Rode: The line and chain that secure the anchor to the boat.

Rub-rail or strake: A rail used as a buffer to protect the hull when the vessel is moored to a pier or another boat

Rudder: Underwater board that supports the steering of a boat.

Run: Point of sail with the wind directly aft.

Running: Sailing on a direct downwind course.

Running rigging: The sum of all lines and wires that control sails and that can be manually adjusted whilst sailing.

Running Lights: Light signals that indicate the position of a vessel in the hours of darkness.


Safe course: A determined safe route across dangerous water.

Sail: A kind of cloth that is arranged in a way to catch wind and transmit its power via a mast and rigs into a sailing vessel.

Sailing Rig: Pretty much all gear on a boat that is of immediate use for sailing it except the boat itself – sails, booms and masts, lines and wires.

Safe room: All water surface within a certain distance from potential hazards such as the shore.

Schooner: A sailing boat or ship with at least two masts. Generally used for ships of larger size.

Sculling: A technique of “rowing” a dinghy with a single oar.

Scupper: Drains in the decks or inner parts of boats (cabins, cockpit and alike) that lead water overboard.

Sea Cock: A valve in the hull that protects the plumbing pipes of a yacht to water from outside the vessel.

Securite: A safety signal that precedes a warning.

Seaworthy: In principle, any boat meeting all necessary requirements for sailing offshore.

Secure: To fasten a rope, line or wire.

Sheets: Lines or wires that are applied to a sail in order to control and adjust it.

Sideways force: The part of the force generated by the wind in the sail that moves the boat sideways.

Skeg: A fitting to which the rudder is attached.

Slack: loose ropes, lines, wires.

Slip: A ramp for launching a boat.

Sloop: A boat with only one mast and sail.

Sole: The floor in a cabin.

Spar: A pole on a boat that is normally used to spread a sail or to support lines and wires.

Spinnaker: A light, triangular, balloon-like sail that is used in front of all other sails for sailing downwind.

Spreaders:  Horizontal structures that branch off the mast towards the sides of a vessel to control the angle of the shrouds.

Spring line:  A line used when the boat is docked to keep her from moving forward and aft.

Springtides: Tides with the maximum difference between highest and lowest water level.

Spritsail: An aft sail that is supported by a spar from the mast.

Standing Rigging: Opposite of running rigging, all rigging that remains fixed on the boat to support spars and mast.

Starboard: Right-hand side of a boat or ship as one faces forward.

Stay: A line or wire that supports the mast in a direct line from the mast to the bow of a boat.

Staysail: A sail that is set on a stay instead of a mast.

Stem: The upright structure at the bow.

Stern: The aft part of the boat.

Stern line: A mooring line that runs off the stern.

Stern quarters: The aft corners of the hull.


Tack: Forward lower corner of a sail; steering the bow of a vessel through the wind; to change course by passing into the wind.

Taffrail: Rail at the stern of a vessel.

Tail: To pull on the tail of a sheet when winching.

Tell-tales: Strips of some kind of fabric that are attached to sails to indicate the wind and right trim.

Tender: Small boat that is used to transport passengers to bigger vessels.

Tide: The rise and fall of the sea water level due to the moon’s gravity.

Tidal drift: Strength of the tidal drift.

Tidal stream: Current caused by the rise and fall of the tides.

Tiller: A control handle that is connected to the rudder with a universal link.

Topping lift: A line or wire that supports the boom when a vessel is moored.

Topsides: The part of the hull between the water surface and the edge of the deck.

Transom: The surface that makes the stern of a boat.

Traveler:  A sliding fitting to which the mainsheet is attached, keeping the boom in the same place as it is moved in and out.

Trim:  To adjust the sails; The position of the sails relative to the wind.

True north: The direction to the geographic North Pole.

True Wind: The wind that is felt by somebody stationary.


Upwind: Any course closer to the wind than a beam reach.


Veer:  A change of direction, as in the wind.

Vessel: Any kind of boat, ship or yacht.


Warp: Anchor line or mooring line.

Waterline:  An imaginary line around the hull at the surface of the water when the boat is on an even keel.

Winch: A mechanical device that is used to pull in/trim sheets. It consists basically of a coil, on which the line is wound, and a crank to do the winding.

Windward: Towards the wind, opposite of leeward.


Yacht: From the Dutch word “Jaghd”, widely used term for pleasure vessels, mostly bigger boats primarily for sailing, but often seaworthy and equipped with strong engines

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