Key Nautical Terms to Learn

“Hoist your mainsail!”

“Prepare to jibe to starboard!”Key Nautical Terms to Learn

“Hard alee!”

These commands don’t make sense to many non-sailers, which is one reason why sailing can appear as a forbidding or overwhelming sport. The world of boating has a unique vernacular, and it’s essential to learn them so you can sail efficiently.

Sailing lingo can sometimes sound like a secret language, but that’s what makes it charming! It’s like being part of a timeless club where we keep using words that sailors have used for ages. So when you’re familiar with the jargon, you can skip the “Can you pass me that… umm, thing?” and effortlessly join the proud sailing tradition.

Here’s a list of the key nautical terms that you may need to know if you want to be a sailor:


Abaft: Refers to the area behind or towards the stern of the boat.

Abeam: The position or direction perpendicular to the centerline of the boat, either to the port or starboard side.

Aft: Towards the rear or stern of the boat.

AIS (Automatic Identification System): A system used to track and identify nearby vessels, providing information on their position, speed, and course.

Alee: The opposite of windward, away from the direction of the wind.

Anchor: A heavy device attached to a chain or rope and dropped to the bottom of the water to keep the boat stationary.

Apparent wind: The combination of the true wind and the wind created by the boat’s motion.

Ashore: Pertaining to being on land or away from the water.


Backing: Changing the direction of the wind in a counterclockwise manner.

Backstay: A supporting cable or rod that extends from the top of the mast towards the stern, providing stability to the mast.

Ballast: Heavy material, often in the form of a keel or internal weight, used to stabilize the boat and maintain balance.

Bailer: A container used to remove water from the boat.

Bareboat: Refers to the rental or charter of a boat without a crew or provisions.

Beam: The width of the boat at its widest point.

Beam reach: A sailing direction where the wind is coming from the side of the boat at a 90-degree angle to the centerline.

Berth: A designated sleeping or resting area on a boat.

Bight: A curve or loop in a line or rope.

Bilge: The lowest part of the boat’s interior where water collects and is pumped out.

Bimini: A fabric-covered frame structure extending from the boat’s cockpit to provide shade and protection from the sun.

Boom: A horizontal spar or pole that extends horizontally from the bottom of the mast and supports the bottom edge of the mainsail.

Boom vang: A line or rigid rod that controls the tension and position of the boom.

Boot top or boot stripe: A painted stripe on the hull of a boat, typically located at or just above the waterline.

Bow: The forward part of the boat.

Bowline: A knot used to create a fixed loop at the end of a line, often used for securing the boat to a dock.

Bowsprit: A spar or pole extending from the bow of the boat, used to attach the forestay and support additional sails.

Bow thruster: A small propeller located at the front (bow) of a boat, used to provide additional maneuverability, especially in tight spaces.

Bridle: A line or cable used to distribute the load from the boat’s anchor or mooring lines.

Bridge: A raised structure on the boat from which it is steered and navigated.

Broach: A sudden loss of control or stability, causing the boat to turn sideways to the wind and waves.


Capsize: The act of overturning or flipping the boat upside down in the water.

Cast off: To release or untie lines holding the boat to a dock or mooring, allowing it to move freely.

Centerboard: A retractable or removable fin or plate located in the center of the boat’s hull, used to improve stability and prevent leeway.

Centerline: An imaginary line running longitudinally down the center of the boat, dividing it into port and starboard halves.

Chart: A navigational map used by sailors to plot their course and determine their position at sea.

Cleat: A fitting, often made of metal or wood, with two horns used to secure lines on a boat.

Clew: The aft lower corner of a sail, where it is attached to the boom or other control devices.

Clove hitch: A knot used to temporarily secure a line to a post or a spar.

Cockpit: The area of the boat where the helmsperson steers and controls the vessel.

Coil: To neatly arrange a line in circular loops to prevent tangles and make it easier to handle.

Current: The movement of water, either in a river, stream, or ocean, which can impact the boat’s speed and direction.

Cutter rig: A type of sailboat rigging that features two or more headsails, with the innermost headsail known as the cutter.


Deck: The horizontal surface of the boat that provides a platform for walking and working.

Dipping light: A white light mounted on the boat’s bow to indicate the presence of another vessel at night.

Dinghy: A small boat, often inflatable or collapsible, used for transportation between the shore and a larger vessel.

Dock: A structure or platform where boats can be moored or secured.

Draft: The depth of a boat’s hull below the waterline, which determines the minimum water depth required for safe navigation.

Drogue: A device deployed in the water to slow down a boat’s speed and provide stability in heavy weather conditions.


Ease: To release or let out a line slowly and smoothly.

Ebb tide: The period of the outgoing or falling tide when the water level is receding.

EPIRB: Stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, a distress signal device used to alert rescue authorities in case of an emergency at sea.


Fender: A cushioning device, typically made of inflatable or foam material, used to protect the boat from damage when it comes into contact with a dock or another vessel.

Fid: A tapered wooden or metal tool used to separate strands of rope and splice or secure them.

Fiddle: A railing or barrier around a flat surface, such as a table or galley stove, to prevent items from sliding off in rough seas.

Floorboards: Removable wooden or synthetic panels that cover the bottom of the boat, providing a stable and comfortable walking surface.

Forestay: A structural cable or wire that supports the mast and keeps it from falling backward.

Freeboard: The vertical distance between the waterline and the uppermost point of the boat’s deck.

Furling system: A mechanism that allows the sails to be rolled or folded up neatly when not in use.


Galley: The kitchen area on a boat where meals are prepared.

Genoa: A large headsail that overlaps the mast and mainsail, providing increased power for sailing upwind.

Gimbals: A set of pivoting rings or supports that allow objects like compasses or stoves to remain level and stable regardless of the boat’s motion.

Gooseneck: A fitting that connects the boom to the mast, allowing it to pivot and control the angle of the mainsail.

Gybe: To change the direction of the boat’s course by turning the stern of the boat through the wind.


Halyard: A line or rope used to raise or lower a sail on a mast.

Hatch: An opening in the deck or cabin roof that provides access to the lower compartments of the boat.

Head (sail): A sail located at the front or bow of the boat, used for propulsion when sailing upwind.

Heads: Refers to the onboard toilet or bathroom facilities on a boat.

Heave: To throw or hoist an object, such as a line or anchor, using physical effort.

Healing: The tilting or leaning of the boat to one side due to the force of the wind on the sails.

Helm: The steering mechanism or control station of the boat, typically where the helmsperson stands or sits.

Hitch: A type of knot used to secure a line to an object or another line.

Hold The enclosed space within the boat’s hull used for storage of cargo or provisions.

Hull: The main body or structure of the boat that floats on the water.


Inboard: Refers to the placement of an engine inside the boat’s hull, as opposed to an outboard engine mounted on the transom.

In-irons: Refers to a sailboat that has turned directly into the wind, causing the sails to luff and lose power.


Jetty: A structure built out into the water to protect a harbor, provide mooring, or control water flow.

Jib: A triangular sail set forward of the mast, used in conjunction with the mainsail to propel the boat.

Jibe: To change the direction of the boat by turning the stern through the wind, similar to a gybe.

Jib sheet: The line used to control the jib sail allows it to be adjusted and trimmed according to the wind conditions.


Kedge anchor: A smaller, secondary anchor used in addition to the primary anchor, typically used for temporary or emergency anchoring.

Keel: A structural fin or blade extending from the bottom of the boat’s hull to provide stability and prevent sideways drift.

Knot: A unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour, commonly used in measuring the speed of boats.


Lanyard: A short line or cord used for various purposes, such as securing equipment or connecting objects together.

Latitude: The angular distance north or south of the equator, measured in degrees.

Lazyjacks: Lines or webbing rigged to help contain and control the mainsail when it is lowered or stowed.

Leech: The trailing edge of a sail that is not attached to a mast or a boom.

Leeward: The direction opposite to the side from which the wind is blowing.

Longitude: The angular distance east or west of the Prime Meridian, measured in degrees.

Lunch hook: A secondary anchor used for temporary mooring during a meal break or rest period.


Mainsail: The primary sail on a boat, typically set on the mast and controlled by the mainsheet.

Marina: A facility or harbor specifically designed to provide docking, storage, and other services for boats and yachts.

Mast: A tall vertical spar or pole that supports the sails and rigging of the boat.

Mayday: The international distress signal used in emergency situations, indicating a serious threat to life or property.

Mooring: The act of securing a boat in place using lines or anchors attached to fixed structures such as docks or buoys.

Multihull: A type of boat with more than one hull, such as a catamaran or trimaran.


Nautical mile: A unit of distance used in maritime navigation equal to one minute of latitude or approximately 1.15 statute miles.

Navigation: The process of planning and controlling the movement of a boat from one location to another using charts, instruments, and knowledge of the environment.

No-sail zone: An area where sailing or boating is prohibited, often due to safety or navigational reasons.


Orientation: Refers to the awareness of the boat’s position, direction, and surroundings in relation to navigational references.

Outboard: Refers to an engine or motor mounted on the outside of the boat’s transom.

Overboard: Refers to something or someone falling or being thrown from the boat into the water.

Outhaul: A line used to adjust the tension and position of the foot of a sail.


Pier: A structure extending from the shore into the water, often used for docking boats or as a recreational area.

Port: The left side of the boat, when facing forward, is distinguished by a red navigation light.


Quarter: The area of the boat between the stern and amidships, often used to refer to the rear portion of the boat.


Reefing: The process of reducing the size of a sail by partially lowering or securing it, typically done to manage excessive wind conditions.

Rode: The combination of anchor line or chain and its associated components used to secure the boat to the anchor.

Rudder: A vertical flat plate or blade at the stern of the boat used for steering and maneuvering.


Salon: The main living area or cabin of the boat where occupants gather for socializing, dining, or relaxing.

Screw: A colloquial term for a boat’s propeller, which is responsible for propelling the boat through the water.

Sculling: A technique of propelling a boat using a single oar or paddle, typically by moving it back and forth over the stern.

Shrouds: A set of supporting cables or rods that run from the mast to the sides of the boat, providing lateral support and stability.

Shackle: A metal link or fastener used to connect or secure lines, chains, or other components.

Spar: A general term for any elongated, slender, and horizontal support on a boat, such as a mast, boom, or yard.

Spinnaker: A large, lightweight sail set forward of the mast, used for downwind sailing.

Square knot: A type of knot used to secure two lines together, typically with two ends of the same line.

Stanchion: An upright post or pole, typically made of metal, used to support lifelines or guardrails on a boat.

Starboard: The right side of the boat, when facing forward, is distinguished by a green navigation light.

Stern: The rear or aft part of the boat.

Stern line: A line used to secure the boat’s stern to a dock or mooring.


Tack: It can mean two things. To tack is to change the direction of a sailboat by turning the bow through the wind. A tack is also the course a boat is on relative to the wind.

Telltales: Thin strips of fabric or yarn attached to the sails to indicate the flow of wind and help optimize sail trim.

Thwartships: Refers to a direction perpendicular to the centerline of the boat, from one side to the other.

Tiller: A lever or handle connected to the rudder used for steering the boat.

Topping lift: A line or cable that supports the boom when the mainsail is not in use.

Transom: The flat, vertical surface at the rear of a boat, forming the stern.

Traveler: A device or track used to control the lateral position of the boom.

Trim: The adjustments made to sails to maximize their efficiency. It also refers to the position of the hull relative to the waterline.

True wind: The actual direction and speed of the wind unaffected by the boat’s motion.


Underway: Refers to a boat that is in motion or actively being operated.


Vang: A line or rigid rod used to control the vertical position of the boom and shape the mainsail.


Waterline: The line where the hull of the boat meets the water’s surface.

Winch: A mechanical device with a handle and gears used to apply tension to lines and assist in hoisting sails or other heavy loads.

Wing on the wing: Refers to a sailing configuration where two downwind sails, typically a jib and a mainsail, are set on opposite sides of the boat.


Yaw: The side-to-side swinging or oscillation motion of a boat caused by various factors like wind, waves, or steering inputs.