Welcome to the world of boating! If you’ve ever felt lost in the lingo of the maritime world, you’re in the right place. Boating terminology might seem like a foreign language at first, but with a bit of guidance, it will become as clear as calm waters on a sunny day.
This guide aims to be your compass, helping you navigate through the essentials of boating jargon. Whether you’re a seasoned skipper, a budding sailor, or just dipping your toes in, we hope to provide clarity on your journey. Ready to learn the language of the seas?
A1 — Ship classifications indicating top quality or the best.
Abaft — Towards the rear (stern) of the boat, often in reference to a specific object or position.
Abandon Ship! — A command to exit the vessel quickly, typically due to danger.
Abeam — At a right angle to the boat’s keel, either to the side or off the boat, not on the boat.
Aboard — On or inside the boat.
Above Board — Being on or above the deck, in plain view. It also means actions that are honest and transparent. The term’s origin is linked to gambling, not nautical practices.
Above Deck — On the deck, not above it. (For “above it”, see “Aloft”).
Abreast — Side by side or alongside something.
Adrift — Floating freely without being anchored or powered, moved by currents and tides.
Afloat — A vessel that is floating freely, not grounded or sunk.
Aft — Towards the rear or stern of the boat.
Aground — A vessel touching or stuck to the bottom, usually unintentionally.
Ahead — Moving or positioned in a forward direction from the boat.
Ahoy — A call to get attention, especially to hail a boat or ship.
Ahull — A boat lying sideways to the sea. A technique used to ride out a storm with no sails and helm to leeward.
Aid to Navigation (ATON) — Devices outside a vessel or aircraft, like buoys or lighthouses, to help navigators determine position or safe paths.
Alee — Away from the wind’s direction, opposite of windward.
All Standing — Having all sails up while moving with the wind.
All-Round Light — A light that displays continuously in a 360-degree arc, like a masthead light on power vessels.
Aloft — Above the boat’s deck, typically on the mast or rigging.
Alongside — Next to a ship or pier.
Amidships — At or towards the boat’s centre.
Anchor — A weighty object used to stop or reduce a ship’s drift.
Anchor Ball — A round black sign raised at the front of a vessel to indicate it’s anchored.
Anchor Buoy — A small buoy attached to an anchor with a light line to show its position on the seabed.
Anchorage — A location ideal for anchoring, considering wind, seas, and seabed. It can also refer to a harbour area.
Apparent Wind — The wind felt on the boat, combining true wind and wind from the boat’s movement.
As the Crow Flies — A term meaning the shortest distance between two points. It’s often mistakenly linked to a maritime story about crows. It’s said that crows always know the direction to land.
Ashore — On the land or beach.
Astern — Behind or towards the rear of the boat.
At Loggerheads — In disagreement or conflict, originates from a tool that was sometimes used as a weapon.
Athwartships — Positioned at a right angle to the boat’s centerline, like rowboat seats.
Autopilot — A device, either electronic or mechanical, that automatically steers the boat on a set course.
Auxiliary Power — A permanent engine on the boat for tasks other than moving. Jokingly, oars can be called this.
Awash — So submerged that water constantly flows over the top.
Aweigh — Describes an anchor when it’s lifted off the seabed.
Back and Fill — Using the tide’s advantage when the wind isn’t favourable.
Bailer — A tool for removing unwanted water from a boat. Usually a bucket.
Ballast — Heavy material, like lead or iron, in the boat’s keel or bilge for stability.
Bank — A large elevated area of the sea floor.
Bar — A raised area of sand or earth in the sea, often near river mouths, that can be hazardous.
Bar Pilot — A guide for ships navigating dangerous sandbars at river mouths or bays.
Barge In — Refers to the forceful movement of large, hard-to-maneuver river barges.
Batten Down — Secure loose objects and hatches on the boat.
Beam — The boat’s widest part.
Bear Down or Bear Away — Turn away from the wind.
Bearing — The direction of an object, either as shown on a chart or relative to the boat’s heading.
Below — Under the boat’s deck.
Berth — A boat’s sleeping space, a place to anchor, or a safe distance between vessels.
Bight — The rope section where a knot forms.
Bilge — The boat’s bottom compartment where water collects.
Bimini — A weather-resistant fabric stretched over a frame, providing shade above a boat’s cockpit.
Bitter End — The last or loose end of a rope or cable.
Boat — A waterborne vehicle smaller than a ship.
Bombora — A shallow area where waves might break.
Boom — A pole extending at a right angle from the mast.
Boot Top — A painted line indicating the boat’s intended waterline.
Booty — Refers to plunder or treasure, often associated with pirates.
Brass Monkey — A term mistakenly believed to refer to a tray holding cannonballs on ships.
Bridge — The place from which a vessel is steered and its speed controlled.
Bridle — A line or wire secured at both ends to distribute strain.
Brightwork — Varnished woodwork or polished metal on a boat.
Broach — A sudden, sharp turn of a sailing vessel, often causing it to tilt or capsize.
Bulkhead — A vertical wall inside a ship separating its compartments.
Buoy — A floating marker anchored in place, used for navigation or mooring.
Buoyancy Operated Aquatic Transport — A humorous, incorrect origin for the word “boat.”
Burdened Vessel — A vessel that must yield to another according to navigation rules.
Burgee — A small flag indicating yacht club membership, flown from a yacht’s masthead.
By and Large — Refers to a ship’s ability to sail well in various wind conditions.
Cabin — An enclosed room on a boat.
Cable — A thick rope.
Capsize — When a boat overturns.
Careening — Tilting a ship on its side, often when beached, for maintenance.
Cast Off — Release or let go.
Cat out of the Bag — Revealing a secret. It has not been proven to have a nautical origin related to the cat-o-nine tails whip.
Catamaran — A boat with two hulls side by side.
Centreboard — A board that pivots to prevent the boat from sliding sideways.
Chafing — Wear and tear on a line or sail caused by constant rubbing.
Chafing Gear — Material used to protect a line from rubbing against rough surfaces.
Chain Locker — A space in the front of the ship for storing the anchor chain.
Chart — A map used by navigators.
Chart Datum — The baseline for tidal height used in Tide Tables.
Chine — Where the bottom and sides of a flat or v-bottomed boat meet.
Chock — A fitting, often U-shaped, for anchor or mooring lines.
Clean Slate — Starting fresh. Originates from the idea of cleaning writing slates, not specifically nautical.
Cleat — A fitting to which lines are secured.
Clove Hitch — A knot for temporarily attaching a line to a spar or piling.
Coaming — The raised edge of a hatch or cockpit to prevent water entry.
Cockpit — The area from which the boat is steered.
Coil — Laying a line down in circular turns.
Colregs — International rules for preventing collisions at sea.
Come to — To steer the boat closer to the wind’s direction.
Compass — Instrument showing the boat’s direction relative to Earth’s poles.
Course — The direction a boat is steered.
Cuddy — A small sheltered cabin on a boat.
Cunningham (also called a Downhaul) — Adjusts the tension of a sail’s front edge.
Current — The horizontal movement of water.
Davit — A device, similar to a small crane, used to lift a tender on and off a boat.
Dead Ahead — Directly in front.
Dead Astern — Directly behind the vessel.
Dead Reckoning — A method of navigation.
Deadrise — The angle between the boat’s keel and a horizontal line. Indicates the hull’s shape.
Deadwood — Wooden part in the centerline structure of a boat, typically between the sternpost and the middle of the boat.
Deck — A covering over a compartment or part of a boat, serving as a floor.
Deck Supervisor — A person overseeing all activities and maintenance on the deck.
Deckhand — Individual assisting the deck supervisor with tasks like cleaning and maintenance on the deck.
Deckhead — The underside of the deck above.
Decks — Covering over a compartment or part of a ship that acts as a floor.
Deep Six — To discard or get rid of something. Originates from the nautical term for a depth of six feet (a fathom).
Devil and the Deep Blue Sea — Being in a difficult situation with no easy way out. Refers to a challenging seam on a ship and the sea below.
Dinghy — A small open boat, often used as a support vessel for a larger craft.
Displacement — The weight of a boat, is equivalent to the weight of the water it displaces.
Displacement Hull — A hull design that moves through the water by displacing its weight in water.
Distance — Refers to nautical miles, with one nautical mile equaling 1.852 km.
Dock — A protected area in water where vessels are moored, can also refer to a pier or wharf.
Dolphin — A structure made of piles bound together, used for mooring or other purposes.
Draft or Draught — The depth of a ship’s keel below the waterline; indicates how deep water needs to be for the ship to float.
Ebb — A receding current, typically when the tide falls and the water level lowers.
Ebb Tide — A tide that is decreasing or going out.
Echo Sounding — A method to measure water depth using sonar.
Embayed — A sailing vessel trapped between two headlands by onshore winds.
Enclosed Waters — Ports or navigable waterways.
Ensign — A flag indicating a vessel’s nationality.
EPIRB — An emergency device signalling a vessel’s position using radio. Short for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. Learn more about EPIRB.
Fairway — A navigable channel or waterway.
Fast — Held firmly; e.g., stuck on the seabed or tied securely.
Fathom — A unit of length, 6 feet (1.8 m), used to measure depth.
Fender — A cushion used to prevent boats from damaging docks or each other.
Fetch — The distance wind or waves have traveled across water; or to reach a mark without changing course.
Figure Eight Knot — A knot shaped like the number eight, used to prevent a line from slipping through a hole or loop.
Flank — The maximum speed of a ship, faster than “full speed.”
Flare — A signalling device indicating distress; or the outward curve of a vessel’s sides near the bow.
Flood or Flow — An incoming current.
Flood Tide — A tide that is increasing or coming in.
Floorboards — The surface of the cockpit where the crew stands.
Fluke — The palm or flat part of an anchor.
Flybridge — A driving station located above the main level of the boat.
Following Sea — Sea with waves approaching from the boat’s stern; waves moving in the same direction as the vessel.
Fore and Aft — In a line parallel to the keel.
Fore or Foreward — Towards the bow of the boat.
Forefoot — The lower part of a ship’s stem.
Forepeak — A compartment located in the bow of a small boat.
Forward — Toward the bow of the boat.
Fouled — Refers to equipment that is jammed, entangled, or dirtied.
Freeboard — The distance from the waterline to the deck; the minimum vertical distance from the water surface to the gunwale.
Galley — The kitchen area of a boat or ship.
Gangplank — A movable bridge for boarding or leaving a ship at a pier.
Gangway — An opening in the ship’s side for boarding or disembarking; also the area of a ship’s side where people board and disembark.
Gear — A general term for ropes, blocks, tackle, and other equipment.
Ghost — To sail slowly in very light wind.
Give-way — To slow, stop, go astern, or change course to avoid another vessel.
Give-way Vessel — The vessel that must yield in situations involving risk of collision. Also known as the “burdened vessel.”
Global Positioning System (GPS) — A satellite-based navigation system providing continuous worldwide coverage.
Go Astern — To reverse engines or move backward.
Grab Rails — Hand-hold fittings on cabin tops and sides for safety when moving around the boat.
Ground — The bed of the sea.
Ground Tackle — A term for the anchor and its associated gear.
Grounding — When a ship touches the seabed or goes “aground.”
Gunwale — The upper edge of a boat’s sides; pronounced “funnel”.
Gybe or Jibe — Turning the boat so the stern crosses the wind, changing the direction in which the boat is sailing.
Hand Over Fist — Earning or pulling in something rapidly, originating from sailors quickly pulling in ropes.
Harbor — A safe and protected place for boats to anchor, can be natural or man-made.
Hard Chine — The sharp intersection between the side and bottom of a boat’s hull.
Harden Up — To sail closer to the direction of the wind.
Hatch — A watertight cover for an opening in a boat’s deck.
Hatchway — An opening in a ship’s deck for cargo or access; its cover is the hatch.
Hauling Wind — Sailing towards the direction of the wind.
Hawse Pipe/Hole — The hole in a ship’s bow for the anchor chain.
Head — A marine toilet or the upper corner of a triangular sail.
Head Sea — Waves coming directly against the ship’s direction.
Head Up — Sailing in a direction closer to the wind.
Heading — The direction the ship’s bow is pointing.
Headway — The forward movement of a boat.
Heave — The up-and-down motion of a vessel.
Heave To — Sailing with minimal forward motion by steering into the wind.
Helm — The device, wheel or tiller, used to steer a ship.
Helmsman or Helmsperson — The person responsible for steering a ship.
Hitch — A knot for tying a rope to an object or another rope.
Hold — A compartment in a large ship for carrying cargo.
Hull — The main body or frame of a vessel.
In Irons — A sailboat stalled with its bow facing the wind, unable to move.
In the Soup — A boat in thick fog.
Inboard — Towards the centre of a vessel or a motor fitted inside a boat.
Inboard Motor — An engine inside the hull of a vessel, driving a propeller via a shaft.
Intracoastal Waterway — A series of waterways along coasts, allowing travel without entering the open sea.
Irons — A boat facing the wind with sails flapping, potentially moving backward.
Jacobs Ladder — A rope ladder lowered from a ship’s deck for boarding.
Jetsam — Debris from a ship that has sunk or washed ashore.
Jetty — A structure projecting from the shore, often protecting a harbour entrance.
Jibe or Gybe — Turning the boat so the stern crosses the wind, changing its direction.
Keel — The backbone of a vessel, running from the front to the back.
Keel Over — Refers to a boat capsizing; also means passing out or dying.
Kicker — A device to prevent the boom from rising.
Knot (speed) — A unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour.
Knot (tie) — A method of fastening or securing linear material such as rope by tying or interweaving.
Know the Ropes — Understanding how something is done; also refers to a sailor’s familiarity with the ropes on a ship.
Land Lubber — A person not familiar with the sea or sailing.
Lanyard — A small rope used to tie or secure something.
Latitude — The distance north or south of the equator, measured in degrees.
Layline — The course on which a boat can directly approach a windward mark.
Lazarette — A storage space located at the back end of a boat.
Leads — Marks indicating the centre of a navigable channel when aligned.
League — A unit of length, typically equal to 3 nautical miles.
Lee Shore — The shore onto which the wind is blowing.
Lee Side — The side of a ship protected from the wind.
Lee Ward — The direction away from the wind; the downwind side.
Leeway — Sideways movement of a boat due to wind or current.
Length Overall (LOA) — Total length of a boat.
Length Water Line (LWL) — Length of the boat at the water’s surface.
Life Buoy — Floating ring used for safety in water.
Lifebelt — Device to keep a person afloat in water.
Lifeboat — Small vessel for safety, often used in emergencies.
Limey — Slang for British people, originating from the British Navy’s use of limes.
Line — Rope used on a vessel, with a specific name based on its use.
Log — Record of operations or a device to measure speed.
Longitude — Distance in degrees east or west of Greenwich, England.
Loose Cannon — An unpredictable person or thing; that originates from unsecured cannons on ships.
Lubber’s Line — Line on a compass indicating forward direction parallel to the keel.
Luffing — Pointing the boat into the wind, causing the sail to flap.
Magnetic North — The direction a compass points to, aligning with Earth’s magnetic field.
Mainsheet — Line controlling the mainsail’s position.
Making Way — Vessel moving through water using power or sail.
Man Overboard! — Alert given when someone falls into the water.
Marina — Place for boats to get fuel, water, and services.
Mark — A reference point for navigation or race requirements.
Marlin Board — Small deck at the rear for easy water access.
Marlinspike — Tool used for rope splicing.
Mast — Vertical pole supporting sails or rigging.
Mess — Ship’s dining area or a group of crew eating together.
Midship — Central part of a ship, between bow and stern.
Mile — Refers to nautical mile.
Moor — To secure a boat to a buoy, post, or dock.
Mooring — System to secure a boat to a buoy or pier.
Nautical — Relating to sailors or maritime activities.
Nautical Mile — Distance equal to 1.852 km or 1.151 miles; used in maritime navigation.
Navigation — Art of guiding a boat safely from one place to another.
Navigation Lights — Lights on a vessel for nighttime or low visibility.
Navigation Rules — Guidelines for vessel movement to avoid collisions.
Obstruction — Object that forces a boat to change course to avoid it.
On the Quarter — Direction towards the back of the boat, but not directly behind.
Open Waters — Navigable waters not enclosed, often referred to as the ocean.
Outboard — Beyond the boat’s sides or a detachable engine on the boat’s rear.
Outboard Motor — External engine on the back of a small boat.
Outhaul — Adjuster that tightens the sail’s bottom edge.
Outward Bound — Leaving port for the open ocean.
Overboard — Falling or thrown outside the boat.
Overhaul — Adjusting ropes over sails to prevent wear.
Overhead — The bottom of the deck above, or “ceiling”.
Personal Flotation Device (PFD) — Lifejacket, categorized by usage. Mandatory in some places like Australia.
Personal Watercraft (PWC) — Recreational vessel designed for standing or kneeling operation.
Pier — Loading platform extending from the shore at an angle.
Pile — A pole driven into the bottom, used for support or to tie boats. It can be made of wood, metal or concrete.
Piling — Supports made of piles, used for wharves, piers, etc.
Pilot — Expert navigator for guiding vessels through challenging waters.
Piloting — Navigating using visible landmarks and water depth.
PIM (Points of Intended Movement) — Charted course for naval movements.
Pipe Down — Means to be quiet; originated from a signal to go below deck.
Pitch — Boat’s up and down motion at the front and back.
Planing — When a boat skims on the water’s surface due to high speed.
Planing Hull — A boat designed to glide on water at high speeds.
Plimsol Line — Mark showing the waterline when a ship is fully loaded.
Port — Left side of a boat when facing forward; also a harbour.
Port Tack — Sailing with the wind coming from the left side; must yield to boats on the right side.
Port-Side — Left side of a boat when looking from the back.
Porthole — Round window on a ship’s side.
Posh — English term for fancy; falsely believed to originate from ship luggage labels.
Privileged Vessel — Vessel with the right-of-way according to navigation rules.
Quarter — The sides of a boat behind its middle section.
Quartering Sea — Sea waves approaching a boat’s side towards the back.
Quayside — The dock or platform where a boat is tied up.
Radar — Electronic system to detect objects by reflecting radio signals.
Radar Reflector — Device enhancing a vessel’s visibility on radar.
Reaching — Sailing across the wind at various angles.
Recreational Skipper’s Ticket — An official certification proving an individual’s competence to operate recreational vessels safely in specific waters. Learn how to get a skipper’s ticket.
Reefing — Reducing sail area due to strong winds or to slow down.
Rig — The setup of a boat’s mast, sails, and supporting structures.
Rigging — System of masts and lines on sailing vessels.
Rode — The line and/or chain connected to an anchor.
Roll — Boat’s side-to-side rocking motion.
Rope — Cordage as bought from a store; becomes “line” when used on a vessel.
Rudder — Underwater plate used for steering a boat.
Run — Letting a line move freely.
Running — Sailing with the wind, sails fully extended.
Running Lights — Lights on boats used from sunset to sunrise while moving.
Sail Trim — Adjusting sail position relative to the wind.
Sandbar — Raised area in shallow water formed by waves or currents.
Satellite Navigation (Sat. Nav.) — Positioning system using signals from satellites.
Scope — Ratio of anchor line length to the distance from the boat’s bow to the water bottom.
Screw — Another term for a boat’s propeller.
Scuppers — Drains on a boat’s deck or sides.
Sea Anchor — Stabilizer used in rough weather to keep a boat aligned with the wind.
Sea Room — Safe distance from hazards like the shore.
Seacock — A valve in a boat’s hull for drainage.
Seamanship — Skills and knowledge related to boat handling and maintenance.
Seaworthy — A boat’s ability to safely navigate at sea.
Secure — To fasten or make tight.
Set — The direction a current is flowing towards.
Sextant — An instrument for measuring the angle between a celestial object and the horizon, used in navigation.
Ship — A large vessel designed for deep-water travel, capable of carrying smaller boats.
Skipper — The person responsible for operating and ensuring the safety of a boat or ship; the captain. Learn more about a skipper.
Slack — Loose or unfastened; also refers to loosening a rope or line.
Sole — The floor inside a cabin or saloon; also, the bottom part of a rudder or the deck of a cockpit.
Sounding — The action or process of measuring water depth, often using specialized equipment.
Speed — Measurement of velocity in ‘knots’, where one knot equals one nautical mile per hour.
Spinnaker — A large, lightweight sail used for sailing downwind, especially during races.
Spinnaker Pole — A pole used to extend the spinnaker sail outwards from the boat’s edge.
Sponson — A projection from a ship’s side, serving various purposes like protection or as a gun platform.
Spreader — Small horizontal bars on a mast to hold the shrouds away from the mast, aiding in its support.
Spring Line — A rope used to secure a boat to a dock, preventing it from moving forward or backward.
Squall — A sudden, strong burst of wind, often accompanied by rain.
Square Knot — A knot joining two ropes of similar size; also known as a reef knot.
Square Meal — A substantial, satisfying meal. The term’s origin is debated, but “square” has historically meant “proper” or “satisfactory”.
Stand On — Continue on the current course and speed.
Stand-on Vessel — The vessel that has the right-of-way in a navigation situation, typically when encountering another vessel.
Standing Part — The main section of a rope that remains fixed.
Starboard (side) — The right side of a boat when facing forward.
Starboard Tack — Sailing with the wind coming from the right side; has the right-of-way over boats on the left (port) tack.
Stem — The frontmost part of a boat’s bow.
Stern — The rear or back part of a boat.
Stern Line — A rope used to secure the back of a boat when docking.
Stinkpot — Slang term for fast powerboats that leave a trail of exhaust.
Stow — To store or place an item in its designated spot.
Strong Wind Warning — A warning is issued when winds exceeding 25 knots are expected.
Surge — A boat’s forward and backward motion.
Swamp — To fill a boat with water without it sinking to the bottom.
Sway — A boat’s side-to-side motion.
Swimboard — A platform at the back of a boat for easy water access.
Tack — The lower front corner of a sail.
Tacking — Changing a boat’s direction by turning its front into the wind.
Tender — A small boat used to transport people or goods to and from a larger boat.
The Devil to Pay — A phrase with debated origins, one being related to a challenging seam on a ship to caulk.
The Whole Nine Yards — A phrase with multiple supposed origins, one being related to having all sails up on a ship.
Three Sheets to the Wind — Refers to being drunk; originates from uncontrolled sails on a ship.
Thwart — A seat that goes across a boat.
Thwartships — Positioned at a right angle to the boat’s centerline.
Tide — The regular rise and fall of the sea’s water level due to gravitational interactions with the Moon and Sun.
Tiller — A handle used to steer a boat’s rudder or an outboard motor.
Topside — The upper part of a boat’s hull; sometimes refers to the area above the deck.
Transom — The flat back surface of a boat.
Trim — How a boat is balanced in the water.
True Bearing — A bearing using the geographical North Pole as a reference.
True Colors — Revealing one’s true nature; originates from ships hiding or deceiving with flags.
True North — The direction pointing towards the geographical North Pole.
True Wind — The actual wind direction and strength. Not influenced by the boat’s movement.
Under the Weather — Feeling ill; originates from sick sailors being sent below deck to avoid worsening conditions.
Underway — When a boat is moving and not anchored or moored.
Upwind — The direction from which the wind is coming.
V-Berth — Sleeping areas in the shape of a “V” at the front of a boat.
V-Bottom — A boat hull shaped like a “V”.
V-Hull — Refers to the front sleeping areas of a boat shaped like a “V”.
V-Sheet — A fluorescent sheet with a black “V”, used offshore to signal distress.
Vanishing Angle — The maximum tilt degree after which a boat can’t return to an upright position.
Vessel — A broad term for all waterborne vehicles.
VHF (Very High Frequency) — Radiofrequency used for marine communication.
Wake — The trail of waves a boat leaves as it moves.
Wash — Waves created by a moving vessel.
Waterline — The line on a boat’s hull where it meets the water when properly balanced.
Way — A boat’s movement through the water.
Waypoint — A navigational point defined by coordinates on a planned route.
Weather Side — The side of a ship facing the wind.
Windward — The direction from which the wind is coming.
Yacht — A luxury boat, either sail or power-driven.
Yaw — A boat’s side-to-side movement, especially when off course.
Zephyr — A gentle breeze.
Zinc Block — A sacrificial metal block, typically zinc, used to prevent corrosion of a boat’s underwater parts due to electrolysis.
Thanks for learning the language of boating with us! We hope this guide helps you understand nautical terms and boating terminology that once seemed confusing.
Just as every boater relies on their compass and map, let this glossary be a constant reference on your maritime adventures. Whether you’re a casual boater or a seasoned captain, understanding these terms will help you with a smooth boating journey.
As you continue to explore your boating knowledge, always remember: that every journey starts with a single wave. Happy boating!