Yachting Terms

When on a yacht, or any vessel for that matter, the terminology can be blinding. All of a sudden you’re surrounded by people speaking an almost foreign language. Don’t worry, it’s not. We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of sailing terms below that with a little learning and experience afloat, you’ll pick up in no time.

The below are partially important if you are sitting an examination for a Yachtmaster or Master certificate. You’ll be picked up on any wrong terminology – so save yourself them embarrassment and learn them!

Think we’re missing something? Leave us a comment at the bottom of this page and we’ll add it to the list.

Sailing Glossary

Abaft: A location on the vessel which further to the rear of the boat. “The cockpit is at the rear of the vessel.”

Abeam: The beam refers to the widest part of the vessel. When another something such as another vessel is abeam of you, it’s at a right angle to the beam of the vessel.

Aft: At, near, or towards the stern of a ship. For example: “Can you go to the aft of the vessel and get me the toolkit”.

Ahead: This refers to forward of the vessel. For example: “Good god sir, have you seen that rock ahead?”.

Aids to Navigation: This includes anything external from the vessel which can be used to help navigate the vessel such as lateral markers, special marks, cardinal marks, isolated dangers, lights and so on.

Amidships: In the middle of a ship, either longitudinally or laterally.

Apparent Wind: The wind as it is experienced on board a moving sailing vessel, as a result of the combined effects of the true wind and the boat’s speed.

Astern: An external factor behind or towards the rear of a vessel. For example “have you seen that ship astern of us?”.

Bulkhead: A dividing wall or barrier between separate compartments inside a vessel.

Backing Wind: A backing wind is a wind that turns counter-clockwise with height This usually a sign of bad weather is approaching.

Backstay: A wire stay on a sailing ship leading downwards and aft from the top or upper part of a mast.

Batten: A long flat strip of squared timber or metal used to hold something in place or as a fastening against a wall. A sail batten is a flexible insert in a sail, parallel to the direction of wind flow, that helps shape its qualities as an airfoil. Battens are long, thin strips of material, historically wooden but today usually fibreglass, vinyl, or carbon fibre, used to support the roach of a sail.

Beam: The beam of a ship is its width at the widest point as measured at the vessel’s nominal waterline.

Beam Reaching: A “beam reach” is when the true wind is at a right angle to the vessel.

Bearing Away: Turning the vessel away from the wind.

Beating: Tacking a vessel on a course as close as possible to the wind.

Belayed: Secured, tied to, made fast to.

Bend On: To secure an object to another. For example tying two lines together or bending on the headsail.

Bight: A loop or bend in a line.

Bilge: The lowest inner part of a vessel’s hull.

Bitter End: The bitter end is the inboard end of an anchoring line. In modern terms it refers to the end of a rope that is tied off, hence the expression “hanging on to the bitter end”.

Boat Fall: Equipment used to raise or lower a vessels boat.

Boat Painter: A painter is a rope that is attached to the bow of a dinghy, or other small boat, and used for tying up or towing.

Bollard: A short, thick post on the deck of a vessel or a quayside, to which a vessel’s rope may be secured.

Boom: In sailing, a boom is a spar (pole), along the foot of a fore and aft rigged sail, that greatly improves control of the angle and shape of the sail.

Bowline: A very strong, non-slipping, pressure knot which is used to create a loop at the end of a line.

Breast line: A mooring line, which is run at 90 degrees from the vessel, to secure it to a berth.

Broad Reach: A point of sailing in which the wind blows over a boat’s quarter, between the beam and the stern at roughly 120 degrees from the bow.

By the Lee: Sailing downwind with the mainsail remaining on the same side of the boat that the wind is hitting. [I.e very close to gybing].

Clew – The lower aft corner of a sail

Cabin: The below deck quarters.

Cable: 0.1 nautical miles, 185.2 meters, 607.61155 feet or 202.537183333333 yards.

Cam cleat: Working lines are run through fitting which consists of two cams that pinch the line and stop it from passing through the fitting.

Cardinal Aids to Navigation: Buoyed ain to navigation which alerts vessels to a danger and the location of safe water. There are four types of cardinal mark: North, East, South, West.

Catboat: A boat with one mast and no headsail.

Cast Off: To release the lines allowing the boat to leave it’s mooring.

Chainplates: Very strong metal plates fixed to the hull to which the forestay, backstay, shrouds and so forth are attached.

Chart Datum: Is displayed on navigation equipment and charge. It is a measurement between the lowest astronomical tide and the seabed.

Chock: Mooring lines are often passed through either an oval or u-shaped metal fitting to reduce chafe or wear and tear on the lines.

Cleat: A small deck fitting, which is normally metal, with horns used for securing lines.

Clew: The lower rear corner of a sail.

Close Reach: A point of sail where the wind is 60 degrees off the vessel’s bow.

Close Hauled: A point of sail where the wind is 45 degrees off the vessel’s bow.

Cockpit: The area from where the boat is helmed.

Companionway: The stairs or ladder on a boat which leads below decks.

Cringles: An open metal ring attached to the sail (also referred to as a grommet) which is used for reefing, attaching halyards, lines and outhauls

Cunningham: In sailing, a Cunningham or Cunningham’s eye is a type of downhaul used on a Bermuda rigged sailboat to change the shape of a sail.

Current: An ocean current is a continuous movement of ocean water from one place to another. This excludes tidal movement as it is not continuous.

Cutter: A cutter has one mast but sails with two headsails.

Draft – This describes the total depth of a boat measured from the waterline down to the deepest part of the vessel.

Davit: A crane onboard that can be swung out over the side for hoisting or lowering dinghys.

Dead Reckoning: A method of navigating using the course already travelled by measuring speed and time to calculate distance. Also refereed to as a DR.

Deep Six: A slang term meaning to discard an item or object over the side of the boat.

Degree: A distance of measurement on a nautical chart. One degree equals 60 nautical miles.

Deviation: A vessel’s magnetic compass reading can be affected by metal objects on the boat. The difference between the vessel’s compass and it’s true magnetic heading is called deviation.

Downhaul: A line attached to the tack of the sail and used to pull down or tighten the mainsail to increase sale efficiency.

Ease: To let out, release pressure or ease off a line.

Ensign – The national flag of the boats home country which is flown from the stern.

Fairleads: A ring mounted on a boat to guide a rope, keeping it clear of obstructions and preventing it from cutting or chafing.

Fairway: A navigable channel in a river or harbour.

Fast: To make fast. To secure something.

Fathoms: A unit of length equal to six feet (1.8 metres), often used in reference to the depth of water.

Fenders: A plastic cylinder, tyre, piece of old rope or matting, etc., hung over a vessel’s side to protect it against impact.

Fetch: The distance over open water the wind has blown.

Faked: A line is faked by zig zagging it back and forth so that when it is used it will not tangle on itself.

Flaked:A sail is flaked when lowered. Flaking a sail is the process of folding the sail back and forth upon itself like a paper fan. Flaking helps prolong the life of the sails.

Foot (Sail): The foot is the lowest side of a sail.

Forepeak- The a cabin forward in the bow of the boat

Forestay: The forestay is a wire that runs from the top of the mast (or near the top of the mast) to the bow of the boat. The forestay supports the mast from falling backwards and is also used in shaping the bend in the mast for maximum efficiency. The luff (front) of the foresails (jib, genoa) are also generally attached to the forestay depending on the rigging system.

Forward: When on a boat, forward means towards the bow. “Move forward” – move towards the front of the boat.

Galley: The boat’s kitchen.

Genoa: The Genoa is a foresail that is larger than a jib. The clew (lower corner at the foot of the sail) extends aft of the mast unlike a jib.

Give-way Boat: Navigational rules – the boat not having the right-of-way. The Give-way boat must stay clear of the Stand-on boat. The Give-way boat must make it’s intentions known by making a decisive maneuver to alert the Stand-on boat.

Gooseneck: This is a metal fitting that attaches the boom to the mast.

Goosewinging – To sail downwind with the mainsail set on one side and the foresail on the other

Gybing: Sailing down wind and turning through the wind causing the sails to move from one side of the boat to the other.

Gybe ho: Term used by the helmsman to let his crew know that he has started to turn the boat into a gybe.

Halyard – A line which is used to raise things on a boat, so the main halyard line would be used to raise the mainsail

Halyards: Lines used to lower and raise sails.

Hanks: Clips found along the luff (front) of the foresail used to clip the sail onto the forestay (wire running from the bow to the top or near the top of the mast).

Hard over: Turning the wheel or pushing the tiller all the way over.

Head: Generally used to refer to the boat’s toilet. When talking about a sail, the Head is the top of the sail.

Head to Wind: The bow of the boat is pointed directly into the wind.

Heading up: Turning up more into the wind.

Heaving to: A way to, in effect, stall a sailboat by backing the jib, easing out the mainsail and turning the rudder hard into the wind. The forward wind pressure on the foresail wants to force the bow downwind. The rudder turned towards the wind wants to force the bow windward. These two counter effects balance each other causing the boat to hold it’s position with little movement. The mainsail is eased out all the way so that it does not catch any wind and therefore has no bearing on the boats postion.

Heeling: Leaning or heeling over caused by wind pressure on the sails.

Helm: The Helm is the steering mechanism of the boat (wheel or tiller). The person at the helm is called the helmsman.

Helms Alee: A term used by the helmsman to notify the crew that he has started to tack. Hypothermia: A dangerous condition where the body core temperature has been lowered causing extreme shivering, loss of co-ordination, in ability to make decisions and in extreme cases, loss of conciousness and even death.

Inlet – A recess, such as a cove or bay, along a coastline

In Irons: This occurs where the boat has been turned directly into the wind and has lost all forward momentum. Without forward momentum the boat loses it’s ability to steer.

Jackstay – A strong line, that can be made of wire, which runs fore and aft alongside the boat that can be used to attach your safety harness to.

Jacob’s ladder: A light ladder made of rope or chain with metal or wooden rungs used over the side or aloft.

Jib: The jib is a foresail (smaller than a genoa). The jib is about the same size as the triangular area between the forestay, mast and foredeck.

Jiffy reefing: This is a way to make the mainsail smaller by partially lowering it, tying or reefing the lower slack part of the sail onto the boom through gromets (holes in the sail) called reefing points. This is done in high wind conditions to power down the sail.

Jury rig: Makeshift – adapting parts and materials for a use not specifically designed for in order to get by until proper parts or repairs can be obtained.

Ketch – A sailboat with 2 masts

Kedging: A method used to free a grounded boat by dropping it’s anchor in deeper water and then pulling on the anchor rode to attempt to free the boat.

Keel: The large heavily weighted fin like structure secured to the bottom of the boat. The keel helps to keep the boat upright and also reduces leeway (side slipping across the wind).

Ketch: A two masted boat. The second and smaller mast (mizzen) is positioned just forward of the rudder post.

Knot: Rate of speed. On land it is miles per hour, on the water it is knots (nautical miles) per hours. One knot equals 1.15 land miles – so one knot is just a bit faster than one mph.

Leeway – The sideways movement of a boat caused by wind and currents

Lateral Aids to Navigation: channel buoys (Red & Green), isolated danger buoys (Black & Red), safe water ahead (Red & White), regulatory buoys (Yellow), bifurcation buoys (Black & Yellow) plus channel identification markers and navigation markers are all considered Laterial Aids to Navigation.

Lazarette: A storage compartment, usually under the seats of the cockpit.

Lee Helm: Also called Weather Helm, this is the tendancy of the boat to turn into the wind once it has heeled over at a sharp angle.

Lee Shore: Feared by most sailors, this is the downwind shore from the boat.

Leech: The rear edge of the foresail or the mainsail running from the head (top) to the clew (rear corner) of the sail.

Leeward: Downwind.

Leeway: When a boat sails across the wind, the force of the wind causes the boat to slip sideways. This drifting or sideway motion is known as Leeway.

Lifelines: The lines running around the outside of the deck creating a railing. The lines are attached to stanchions (upright metal posts).

Luff: The forward edge of a sail running from head to tack (front corner of the sail).

Luffing: A sail is luffing when it starts to flutter in the wind. The term Luff is also used to describe the same situation. “The sail is starting to luff.”

Luff Up: To turn into the wind to cause the sails to start luffing.

Multihull – Any boat that has more than one hull, such as a catamaran.

Made fast: Secured to.

Mast: The upright pole supported by the shrouds, forestay and backstay to which the sails are attached.

Masthead fly: A windvane attached to the top of the mast to show which direction was wind is coming from.

Monkey fist: A type of knot, heavy in nature and tied to the end of the rope. The weighted knot makes it easier to throw the rope a farther distance.

Mooring ball: An anchored ball to which you can secure your boat. Safer alternative to anchoring provided the mooring ball and lines are in good condition.

Mooring lines: Lines used to secure a boat to a dock or mooring ball.

MSD: Marine sanitation device (toilet).

Neap tide – When during the four week tidal cycle, the tide rises and drops the least.

Nautical mile (NM): International standard for measuring distance on water. One nautical mile equals one minute of latitude. (One nautical mile equals 1.15 land miles.)

Outhaul – This is a line used to tension the foot of the sail, to better control the curvature of the sail

Pulpit – A sturdy rail around the deck on the bow, normally surrounding the forestay

Pad eye: A metal eye (ring) through which lines can be passed in order to stop chaffing.

Painter: The bow line of a dinghy.

P-effect (Prop Walk): When a boat is in a standstill position and put into forward or reverse, the resistance of the boat to move and the motion of the propeller creates a paddlewheel effect pulling the stern of the boat to either port or starboard side depending on the spin of the propeller. This paddlewheel effect is known as P-effect or Prop Walk. P-effect is especially noticable in reverse where there is greater boat resistance to move backwards thus making it easier for the prop to pull the boat sideways.

PFD: Personal Floatation Device – life jacket.

Pintle and gudgeon: The pintle and the gudgeon together form a swinging hinge usually associated with the installation of the rudder on smaller tiller steered boats. The pintle has pins that fit into the holes on the gudgeon thus creating a hinge like fitting.

Points of sail: A reference for the direction the boat is travelling in relation to the wind. (in irons, close hauled, close reach, beam reach, broad reach, running)

Port: When on a boat and facing forward, the left hand side of the boat.

Port tack: Sailing across the wind so that the wind hits the port (left) side of the boat first.

Pulpit: Located at the bow of the boat, this area is enclosed by a metal railing.

Pushpit: Located at the stern of the boat and like the pulpit, this area is enclosed by a metal railing.

Quadrant – This is a device connected to the rudder that the steering cables attach to

Regatta – Boat races

Pad eye: A metal eye (ring) through which lines can be passed in order to stop chaffing.

Painter: The bow line of a dinghy.

P-effect (Prop Walk): When a boat is in a standstill position and put into forward or reverse, the resistance of the boat to move and the motion of the propeller creates a paddlewheel effect pulling the stern of the boat to either port or starboard side depending on the spin of the propeller. This paddlewheel effect is known as P-effect or Prop Walk. P-effect is especially noticable in reverse where there is greater boat resistance to move backwards thus making it easier for the prop to pull the boat sideways.

PFD: Personal Floatation Device – life jacket.

Pintle and gudgeon: The pintle and the gudgeon together form a swinging hinge usually associated with the installation of the rudder on smaller tiller steered boats. The pintle has pins that fit into the holes on the gudgeon thus creating a hinge like fitting.

Points of sail: A reference for the direction the boat is travelling in relation to the wind. (in irons, close hauled, close reach, beam reach, broad reach, running)

Port: When on a boat and facing forward, the left hand side of the boat.

Port tack: Sailing across the wind so that the wind hits the port (left) side of the boat first.

Pulpit: Located at the bow of the boat, this area is enclosed by a metal railing.

Pushpit: Located at the stern of the boat and like the pulpit, this area is enclosed by a metal railing.

Shroud – The wires at the side that hold the mast up

Schooner: A sailboat that has two masts both the same height or on some schooners, the aft mast is higher than the fore mast.

Scope: Expressed in terms of a ratio, it is the length of the anchor rode let out compared to height above the sea bed. Height is measured not from the water line but from the top of the deck to the sea bed. A safe anchoring ratio is 1:7 which translates to 7 feet of anchor rode for every foot of height. Many sailors incorrectly assume that height means water depth and therefore find themselves dragging the anchor for lack of proper scope.

Seaworthy: A boat that is fit to be sailed at sea.

Self-bailing cockpit: A cockpit that allows water to drain automatically from the cockpit to the outside of the boat.

Shackles: Metal fittings (often U shaped) that open and close with a pin across the top of the ‘U’. Lines and halyards often use shackles. The mainsail halyard is secured to the head of the mainsail with the use of a shackle.

Sheave: A roller/wheel to guide a line or wire.

Sheets: Lines that are used to adjust sails by either pulling them in or by letting them out.

Shrouds: Also called sidestays, shrouds are the metal wires found on both sides of the mast running from the deck to the top or near top of the mast. The shrouds support the mast by providing lateral support.

Slack water: The period between the flood (tidal water moving in) and the ebb (tidal water moving out) where the water has in effect stalled – little or no movement.

Slides: The groove in the mast to which the luff (front side) of the mainsail is inserted. The slides hold the sail tight against the mast and allows the sail to be easily raised or lowered.

Sloop: a sailboat that has one mast and sails with the mainsail and one foresail.

Soundings: Water depths.

Spar: A spar can refer to any of the following: mast, boom or a pole.

Spinnaker: A large balloon-like foresail used for sailing downwind (running or broad reach).

Spinnaker pole: The spinnaker pole is boom-like in nature, but smaller and lighter, and attaches to fore part of the mast a few feet up from the deck. The other end of the spinnaker pole attaches to the leeward (down wind) base of the spinnaker.

Spreaders: Bars extending sideways from the mast (gives the mast a cross-like appearance). The spreaders hold out the shrouds so that they do not interfer with the rigging.

Springlines: Springlines are used to secure a boat to a dock and stop the boat from moving forward or backwards. The aft springline runs from a point on the boat near the bow to a point aft on the dock. The forward springline runs from a point on the boat near the stern to a point forward on the dock.

Squall: A sudden isolated storm associated with potentially high wind gusts.

Stanchions: Upright metal posts running around the outside of the deck supporting the lifelines.

Stand: This refers to the short period of time where the tide is neither rising or falling. (At a stand still.)

Standing rigging: Standing rigging includes the forestay, backstay and the shrouds. Unlike the ‘running rigging’, the standing rigging is generally only adjusted when the boat is not underway.

Stand-on boat: The boat that must retain her current course and rate of speed in order to avoid a potential collision with an approaching give-way boat.

Starboard: As you face towards the bow on a boat, starboard is the right hand side of the boat.

Starboard tack: Sailing across the wind with the wind hitting the starboard (right) side of the boat first.

Steerage: The ability of the boat to be steered. In order for a rudder to be effective in steering a boat, there must be boat movement. A boat not moving cannot be steered.

Stern: The most aft part of a boat (the very back of the boat).

Storm jib: Same as a jib but not as big. The smaller sail is used in high wind conditions.

Tender – A small boat or dinghy used to ferry crew between the boat and shore

Tack: The front lower corner of a sail. Also means to sail back and forth across the wind in either a port or starboard tack.

Tacking: Also called “Coming About”. Tacking is when the bow of the boat is turned through the wind onto the opposite tack.

Tail: The bitter end of a sheet tailing out from a winch.

Tang: A metal fitting used to affix the stays to the mast.

Telltails: (Also called Ticklers) These are small strings (wool, plastic) attached to both sides of the luff of the sail. When the telltails on both sides of the sail are blowing straight back, this indicates that the sail has been properly trimmed.

Through hulls: Through hulls are holes that go through the boat. Each through hull will have a shuttle cock (value) to stop the flow of water. An example of a through hull would be the head (bathroom). A through hull value is opened so that water from outside the boat can be pumped into the MSD (toilet). The value is closed and the toilet pumped empty into a holding tank.

Tide: The vertical rise and fall the oceans.

Tide rips: This is an area of rough water where the wind is blowing across the water in the opposite direction from which strong tidal current is flowing.

Tiller: In boats that are not steered by a wheel, a tiller (long handle) is attached to the top of the rudder in order to facilitate steering.

Toe rail: A small metal railing running around the outside of the deck used to support your feet.

Topping lift: A line running from the top of the mast to the end of the boom. The topping lift supports the boom when the sail has been lowered.

Topside: The portion of the hull above the water line.

Transom: The flat area across the stern of the boat.

Trim: To trim or adjust the sail to make it more effective against the wind.

True wind: The actual wind felt wind the boat is not moving.

Turnbuckles: Adjustable fittings usually attached at the end of shrouds and stays. Turning the turnbuckle one way or the other tightens or loosens the wire.

Unfurl – To unroll a sail

Upstream: Moving from seaward into harbour, moving with the flood of the tide, moving up river toward the headwaters.

Vane – A wind direction indicator

Veering: A wind shift in the clockwise direction usually indicating that good weather is approaching.

Winch – A mechanical device for pulling in a line

Wake: The waves created behind a boat as a result of the boat moving through the water.

Way: Movement of the boat.

Weather helm: The tendancy of the boat to turn up wind after heeling (leaning over).

Wheel: Controls the rudder. Taking control of the wheel is taking the helm.

Winch: Provides a mechanical advantage. Used to raise the sails, tighten the sheets and other lines.

Windward: Towards the wind.

Wing to wing: Running (sail directly downwind) with the mainsail out one side of the boat and the foresail out the other side of the boat.

X marks the spot on the treasure map!

Yawing – The side to side movement of a boat on an uneven course

Yawl: A sailboat that has two masts. The aft mast (mizzen) is shorter than the foremast. The mizzen mast is located aft the rudder post. (On a Ketch, the mizzen mast is located fore of the rudder post – this is the distinguishing factor between the two.)

Zephyr – A very light westerly wind

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