Speak the Sea Lingo: Sailing Terms for Becoming a Savvier Boater

Boating and sailing have a lot in common, especially in terms of earning your sea legs. But getting out on the water is much simpler with an engine-powered watercraft. Still, learning to sail is a worthwhile endeavor for many water sport enthusiasts. But before you can start trimming the sails and sailing the seas, however, you need to learn just what all those unusual pirate terms mean.

Sailboat Terminology: Boat Structure

Most casual boaters understand essential terms like bow and stern. But sailboats have more parts than motorboats, meaning you need to start with the sailboat’s basics first. Here are the structures and terms for sailboats.

Boom

The boom is a huge pole which holds the sail. When you move the boom, you point the sail into or out of the wind to capture it and propel the boat.

Bow

The bow is the front of the boat.

Centerboard/Daggerboard

Smaller boats have a centerboard instead of a keel, and this helps the boat balance.

Heeling

What happens when the wind tips your sailboat as you glide across the water.

Helm

The place where you steer the boat. On a bigger boat, you might see a large wheel (think pirate ship). On a smaller watercraft, it could be a transom mount motor with a tiller, a long stick-like handle.

Jib

A jib is a secondary sail (in addition to the mainsail).

Jibe

A jibe is an action which indicates a change in direction. If you jibe, you move the stern of the boat into the wind so that the side facing the wind changes. It’s less common than tacking, however.

Keel

Sailboats have “fins” which dip down into the water and keep the craft stable. Even though a sailboat may heel, it’s tough to capsize one.

Lines

Another term for ropes—but the official sailing term.

Mainsail

A self-explanatory term which means the primary sail on a boat. It has a boom (a pole along the bottom).

Point of sail

Point of sail references the direction you’re moving in conjunction with the wind’s movements.

Rigging

The rigging of a sailboat is a catchall term for the lines, sails, boom, and mast.

Rudder

On a sailboat, you use the rudder—a flat piece underneath—to steer.

Stern

The stern is the rear of the boat.

Tacking

Tacking is the opposite of jibing: it involves turning the bow of the boat through the wind.

Sailboat Terminology: Directions

While on the water, you won’t hear anyone use the words “left” or “right.” Instead, there’s an entire set of directional vocabulary for sailing.

Aft

Aft refers to the back of the ship, the stern.

Leeward

Leeward means the direction that's the opposite of the way the wind is blowing (windward). The term can also indicate the lower side of the sailboat—the side which is farthest away from the wind—when heeling.

Port

Port is the left side of the boat when you’re facing the bow (front). Instead of saying directions of left or right, you reference the boat’s side as a directional tip.

Starboard

Starboard refers to the right side of the boat when facing the bow.

Sloop

A sloop is a type of sailboat with only two sails.

Windward

Windward indicates the direction the wind is blowing in (the opposite of leeward).

Sailboat Terminology: Speaking with the Crew

Odds are, when out on a sailboat, you’re likely part of the crew (or the captain). Whether you’re sailing with professionals or learning the lines, it’s helpful to know what typical boat-speak involves. Here are a few common terms you might hear from professional sailors.

Aboard

Aboard means something or someone is on or in a boat. The phrase “close aboard” also means you’re near a ship.

Adrift

A boat is adrift in the water if no one can control it—and its anchor is not in use. Your gear can also be adrift if you haven’t secured it properly.

Ahoy

Though ahoy is often part of pirate speak in TV shows and movies, the word isn’t exactly a greeting. Ahoy is a means of attracting attention. Use it when you need to call another boat or notify the captain of a problem.

All Hands

You have likely heard the phrase “all hands on deck,” and it means what it says. The term “all hands” means everyone on the ship, including officers and staff. Of course, on a private sailboat, all hands might be your family and friends.

Aloft

Like on land, aloft means higher up or in the air. It can also refer to the ship’s highest point or structure.

Alongside

When you pull up next to a pier or another boat, you’re alongside—another dry land term that is versatile for sailing, too.

Anchor Buoy

An anchor buoy shows where the anchor is by attaching to the anchor and floating above it.

Anchor Detail

If you have a sailboat, you might assign an anchor detail—a crew to handle the anchor as you arrive or depart.

Anchor Watch

On sailboats without electronic equipment, anchor watch is an assignment for a crewmember. Watching the anchor is crucial because you need to know whether your ship is staying in one spot or if it’s drifting. In modern times, anchor watch can also be a technological function of your ship’s monitoring system.

Bar Pilot

A bar pilot helps guide the captain and crew over sandbars. You might encounter sandbars when entering bays and rivers, so even on a layperson’s sailboat, a bar pilot is a helpful crewmember.

Beacon

Beacons are navigation symbols on land or sea. An obvious example of a beacon is a lighthouse, but other beacons—both lighted and unlighted—exist.

Bilge

Many boats have a bilge pump, which helps eliminate water from the hull compartment in a ship.

By the Board

If you drop your cell phone over the side of the sailboat, it’s by the board—and it probably isn’t coming back.

Decks

The surfaces of the ship—horizontal parts of the structure.

Following Sea

Ships which move in the direction of the waves or the tide are following sea.

Galley

A galley is a kitchen, and you can find a galley on larger sailboats. Smaller sailboats typically lack a galley, though they may have a cabin.

Haul Wind

If you have ever heard the term “haul tail,” this phrase is similar. Haul wind means to travel in the same direction the wind is going.

Head

The head is the toilet or commode aboard a sailboat or other ship.

In the Offing

You can use this term to describe things in the water. In the offing means anything you can see in the water from the deck. It could also mean something that’s about to happen.

Ladder

On any type of ship or boat, stairs are not stairs—they are ladders.

League

A measurement of distance, a league is about three nautical miles.

List

“Listing” can mean tossing in the water—leaning or rolling.

Lying Ahull

It might sound as if you would be lying around doing nothing but lying ahull has a sailing-specific meaning. Lying ahull involves allowing the boat to drift without making use of its sails.

Nautical Mile

Nautical miles measure marine navigation (and air). A nautical mile is a little more than a land mile.

Moor

You moor your boat by attaching it to a dock, post, or buoy.

Pitch

A description of the bow’s movement, pitch refers to the bow going up and down.

Transom

Transom is the mostly flat area at the rear (stern) of a boat.

Wake

Wakeboarding comes from the description of how people ride over this type of wave. Wake is turbulence behind a boat—often resulting in enjoyable waves you can ride on.

Yaw

The side-to-side movement of the boat, for example, the bow yawing from side to side.

Sailing Terminology: Parts of a Sail

Starting out by mastering the terminology for sailing is a smart idea. But learning to sail requires hands-on preparation and practice. To operate a sailboat of any size, you need to understand how sails work and how to operate them.

Your biggest sail is the mainsail, and it does most of the work of all your sails. It attaches to the mast (the vertical pole coming up from the middle of the boat). Along the bottom of the mainsail is the boom, the large pole which sailors can turn a full 360 degrees. A mainsail adjusts to capture the wind no matter what direction it blows.

Though the sails use the wind to push the boat, the rudder (which you operate via the tiller) dictates what direction you’ll move. In a smaller sailboat, you’ll have a centerboard or daggerboard instead. A centerboard rises or lowers in the water as you adjust it.

When it comes to the sails themselves, there are more terms to know:

  • Head: the uppermost edge of the sail
  • Tack: the lower corner of the sail nearest to the mast
  • Foot: the bottom edge of the sail which attaches to the boom
  • Luff: the leading/forward edge
  • Leech: the back edge
  • Roach: an extra piece of material on the leech which, instead of flapping in the breeze, attaches to battens
  • Clew: the corner of the sail farthest from the mast

Sail-Specific Vocabulary for Boating

More vocabulary covers the components of your sails and how to operate them. For example, trimming the sails is how you begin sailing. On the water, trim means to adjust or position. When you trim the sails, you’re maximizing the sails’ ability to harness the wind. Here are the terms you should know for finding and adjusting the right components of your sails.

Backstay

This cable reaches from the stern of the boat to the top of the mast.

Block

On land, we call them pulleys, but on the water, a pulley is a block.

Boom Vang

A tool for holding down the boom.

Cleat

You secure lines with a cleat to keep them from moving. Often, you’ll use specialized knots to secure lines to a cleat.

Halyard

Halyards are specific lines you use to raise your sails. Each halyard raises a separate sail.

Outhaul

The outhaul offers tensioning for the foot of the sail. It affixes to the clew.

Shackle

A shackle is a metal piece that connects halyards and sails.

Sheet

To trim the sails, you need a sheet. A sheet is a rope you use to adjust a sail.

Stays

Stays help hold the mast up. The front-most wire is the forestay.

Spreader

Spreaders are struts which connect to the mast and help increase the stays’ power.

Winch

Like on a vehicle, a sailboat’s winch winds up metal lines and helps make tensioning easier.

Sailing-Specific Knots (& Their Names)

Endless sailing knots exist for securing your lines, but there are some essentials before you set out on the open sea. Three crucial knots to learn for sailing include the bowline, clove hitch, and cleat hitch.

Bowline Knot

A bowline knot is the traditional sailing knot that has been in use for centuries. It’s helpful for tying lines to posts or other secure spots. You can tie two lines together, secure a halyard to a sail, or even hang a hammock with a bowline knot.

Learning a bowline includes these steps:

  • Forming a loop near the end of the line
  • Running the end of the line back through the loop
  • Running the line around the standing end and back through the loop
  • Grabbing the end and pulling the knot tight

Clove Hitch Knot

Clove hitch knots are fast and handy for quick untying, too. It’s not as secure as a bowline knot, however. You can tie a clove hitch to an object easily.

  • Wrap the end of the line around the object
  • Cross the line over itself and wrap it around the object again
  • Loosen the wrap enough to slip the end under, then pull tight

Cleat Hitch Knot

A cleat hitch is a unique knot for tying your line to a cleat. You can use it in a variety of scenarios, such as towing, docking, and more. You do need a cleat to practice, however.

  • Wrap the line around the base of the cleat
  • Make a figure eight, then repeat as necessary (more times for heavier pressure situations)
  • Add a hitch to the final turn: make a loop with the tail end underneath, then hook it around the cleat and pull it tight

Buying a Sailboat: What You Should Know

Learning the right language isn’t all you need to know for buying a sailboat. Here’s what you should know about sailing before you go shopping for a boat.

Sailboats Offer Many Modern Amenities and Features

You might think of sailboats as antiquated boats, but today’s sailboats have plenty of technology on board. Sailboat prices vary widely from bare-bones setups to those with multiple sails, tracking systems, and entertainment features.

New boat prices vary based on the amenities they offer, the overall size, and other factors like geographical location and demand. You should also consider maintenance costs for overall upkeep, storage, and equipment.

Considerations such as the cost of boat insurance, transportation costs and requirements, and learning how to sail can limit your options when it comes to purchasing a new boat. Of course, used sailboats are often an excellent deal, even if they lack the modern technology of newer models.

Like a power boat, your sailboat can have plenty of speed, comfortable amenities, and location and entertainment features.

Do Sailboats Have Engines?

It might seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s worth inquiring. Most sailboats do have an engine, if only for backup power when under duress. As confusing as it seems, you may never need an engine on your sailboat. In fact, the physics of sailing—as contrary as they appear—make complete sense once you understand how sails capture and utilize the wind.

If you want your sailboat to have a motor but it doesn’t come with one, choosing an used outboard motor can provide a functional solution. Depending on the size of your boat, you may need a larger engine with more horsepower. Battery power is another crucial consideration, and if you have a motor, you will need to keep the batteries charged so your engine can perform whenever you need it.

Do I Need a Boating License?

Depending on what state you live in, you may need a boating license to legally and safely operate your watercraft. However, requirements vary with location and type of boat. That said, taking a boating course to learn how to sail is ideal. In a boating license course, you learn elements such as:

  • Water safety
  • Best boating practices
  • How to communicate effectively on the water
  • How to handle boating emergencies

In sailing courses, you will have hands-on experience with all the elements of a sail. You’ll practice sailing terms and vocabulary, experience heeling, learn to tie knots, and much more. By the time you complete the class or course, you will feel more confident about sailing—including using your newfound terminology to communicate while aboard your sailboat.

Where Can I Learn to Sail?

You can take courses to learn to sail with many organizations around the world. The American Sailing Association is one resource for finding certified sailing schools across the globe.