The lingo of sailing is baffling to many newcomers. While the actual sailing is pretty easy, it’s hard to wrap your mind around the bookwork when it seems like every little thing on a boat goes by its own nautical term.
Here are a few names for parts of a sailboat that you might not have thought about before. For even more nautical word play, check out our complete guide to sailing terms.
Parts of Sailboat Hulls
The boat’s hull is its main body. Most are made of fiberglass, but there are a few aluminum sailboat models out there too. Wood is more traditional but more difficult to maintain than these modern alternatives. Sailboat hulls are displacement hulls, which means they sit low in the water and move relatively slowly. The hull’s job is to displace water, so you stay afloat!
The forward “pointy end” of the boat.
The rear end of the boat.
If the stern of a boat has a flat section, it is called the transom. (I wrote about it in detail here: What Is the Transom on a Boat)
Canoe Stern or Double-Ender
Some boats lack a transom; instead, their stern comes to a point like a bow. This is a “double ender” or a canoe stern.
Port and Starboard Sides
Port is the left side, and starboard is the right side.
This is the height of the sides of the boat above the water.
The upper portion of the boat that you walk on.
Sheer is the curve of the deck when viewed from the side. Some boats have none, and some boats have a lot.
Cabin Coach Roof
Most sailboats have a raised coach roof on top of the cabin area.
Bottom of a Sailboat – Keels and Things
There are tons of parts on a sailboat that you only ever see if it’s out of the water. Boats are hauled out at boatyards by giant cranes, or a special machine called a travel lift.
The boat’s keel is the underwater feature that counters the effects of wind pressure on the sails. It keeps the boat from tipping over, but it also keeps the boat going in a straight line as it moves through the water. If a boat has no keel, the wind will push it downwind.
A keel is heavy–it is weighted with thousands of pounds of ballast (usually lead). So when someone refers to a “keelboat,” they mean that it is a big boat with a weighted keel built for cruising. The built-in weight of a keel keeps the boat from capsizing. Also, the water flow over the curved surface of the keel helps the boat sail into the wind.
Smaller boats with centerboards or daggerboards are on the opposite end of the spectrum from keelboats. These aren’t weighted and could tip over (capsize) in the wrong conditions.
Types of Keels
A classic and time-tested design, full keel boats are favorites among passage-making and ocean-crossing cruisers. They’re stable and comfortable at sea and very safe. However, they have a reputation for being slow compared to more modern designs.
Modified Full Keel
The modification is a cut-away forefoot. That means it looks like a full keel, but there isn’t as much keel up near the bow. This reduces the underwater “wetted surface area” and makes the design a little bit faster while preserving the other good things about full keel designs.
The fin keel looks like a shark’s fin pointed downward. Some are narrow and very deep, while others are longer and shallow. Fin keels are bolted to the bottom of an otherwise flat-looking hull design. The fin has a foil shape that creates a lifting force as water flows over it. In addition to its ballasted weight, this opposes the sails and leeway. Most modern sailboats have some version of a fin keel.
The ballast should be placed as low as possible to lower the boat’s center of gravity. The bulb keel is a fin keel with a lead bulb added to the bottom. The bulb has an efficient shape, making it more efficient than just the fin alone.
Like a bulb, a wing keel works by adding more weight and hydrodynamic force to the bottom of the keel. As a result, the wings look like a little airplane mounted on the bottom of a fin keel.
A swing keel is a fin that pivots up and into the boat, meaning that you can have a very shallow draft when you are docking or anchoring but also a very deep draft when you are sailing in open waters. This heavy keel requires a powerful and complicated electric or hydraulic-electric system.
A lifting keel is similar to a swing keel, only the keel lifts up into the hull vertically.
A bilge keel boat has two fin keels mounted at 45-degree angles below the hull. The advantage is that the boat can “dry out.” This makes them very popular in harbors around England, where the massive tidal range means that the harbor is only mud for half the day.
Centerboards look like swing keels, but the “keel” part is just a board. It isn’t weighted with lead or iron, so it doesn’t change the ballast of the boat any. They are often found on smaller sailboats like sailing dinghies, but there are also large cruising boats that have full keels or long-fin keels with centerboards, too.
A daggerboard is like a centerboard, only it doesn’t swing. Instead, it goes straight up and down like a dagger into its sheath. They’re not only common on very small sailing dinghies but also large cruising catamarans.
Canting keels are some of the latest technology items in racing, so they aren’t found on cruising boats yet. They move from side to side, allowing the crew to precisely control the forces made by the keel.
Types of Rudders – What Steers a Sailboat
As with keels, you’ll see various types of rudders on sailboats. The rudder is one of the most critical parts of a sailboat’s equipment, so the differences in rudders are mostly about how protected it is from damage.
The rudder is the thing that steers the sailboat. It’s mounted on the back of the boat, sometimes looking a bit like a second keel. When the operator turns the steering wheel or tiller, it moves the rudder one way or the other. That, in turn, turns the yacht’s bow left or right.
The most basic type of rudder is hung on the transom. It’s usually controlled with a tiller instead of a wheel. You can see a transom-hung rudder above the water.
On a full keel boat, the rudder will be mounted on the back edge of the keel. This protects it completely from damage since anything the boat might hit will hit the keel first.
The rudder might be mounted to a skeg if a boat has a fin keel. A skeg is a small fixed surface that holds the rudder and supports it. In the case of a full skeg, it also protects the rudder as a full keel would.
Spade rudders have no skeg, so the entire underwater surface moves when you turn the wheel. Most modern yachts have spade rudders because they are incredibly effective. They are easily damaged, however, which is why some offshore sailors still prefer skeg-hung rudders.
Bottom of Sail Boat – Running Gear
Running gear is the generic name given to all equipment under the boat that connects to the engine and moves the boat under power. It consists of the propeller, prop shaft, and supports.
Also called the prop or screw, the prop is what converts the engine power into thrust. The water flow over its blades creates a pushing force that moves the boat. Since the sailboat doesn’t use the propeller when it is sailing, sailboats often have folding or feathering props that stop moving.
The metal shaft that connects the engine to the propeller is called the prop shaft.
Where the prop shaft exits the hull, a rubber cutlass bearing keeps it centered and rotating freely.
A saildrive is a common arrangement on modern sailboats that uses a vertical drive leg with the propeller. The saildrive installs on the back of the engine and includes the transmission. It’s like the lower unit of an outboard motor, but you cannot raise it out of the water.
Up Top – Types of Sailboat Designs
The “classic” design of the modern sailboat, if there is such a thing, is called the aft cockpit. This layout has the cockpit in the rear-most section of the hull, behind the cabin.
The center cockpit sailboat has the cockpit closer to the mast. That leaves a lot of space in the rear of the hull for a huge stateroom. This design means that the cockpit will be closer to the boat’s center, making handling easier. But it is also higher, making more windage and motion at sea.
A pilot house sailboat has a second helm inside a protected area. These are popular in colder climates, where the pilot house provides a warm place to steer the boat from. The rear cockpit is usually smaller than a typical aft cockpit, but it’s still where the sail handling occurs. A pilot house has a raised level, so the salon typically surrounds the interior helm to utilize that space and visibility when not underway.
Like a pilot house, a deck salon has big windows and better visibility than a typical sailboat cabin. But it lacks a true interior helm. Many, however, have nav stations with forward visibility and autopilot controls, making it a comfortable place to sit and keep watch during a passage.
Most sailboats have a raised coach roof where the interior cabin is. But some designers make their decks flush with the sides of the boat, making a wide open deck that is easy to move around on.
On Deck Sailboat Components – Sailboat Front
The deck of a sailboat is all about safety at sea. Most modern cruising boats are rigged such that there are few things you might need to go “out on deck” or “go forward” for. Instead, these things are rigged back to the cockpit, so you can stay safe and dry while doing your thing.
Since the wet pitching deck of a sailboat at sea is tricky, many of the things you’ll find there are safety-related.
Places to grab should be located all over the boat, so there’s never a risk of not having something to hold onto to stabilize yourself.
Lifelines run the perimeter of the boat and provide a last-ditch safety device. You can grab them, and they should be high enough that they’ll keep you from going overboard.
The stands that lifelines attach to.
The solid rail around the front of the boat provides a safe handhold and a starting point for the lifelines.
The same, but on the stern of the boat.
The raised edges of the deck on the sides so that you can’t slip overboard on accident.
In areas where people will be walking, the deck is treated with a special product to make the deck “no-skid.” That way, it isn’t slippery, even when wet.
Sailing harnesses are designed to clip onto the boat and keep a sailor onboard even if the boat takes a huge wave or the sailor slips. The harness is the staple of offshore safety.
Jack lines are temporary lines secured on the deck where sailors can attach their harnesses.
Many boats also have extra rails and handholds located in spots where sailors might work on deck, like around the base of the mast.
At the bow of the sailboat, you’ll find her ground tackle.
The bowsprit is the spar that extends from the deck forward of the bow. They’re used on sailboats to gain more sail area since getting the sail farther forward means you can fit a bigger sail. Some have just a spar, while others have a bow platform that is part of the deck.
The generic word for the anchor, chain, and all the equipment needed to use it.
The anchor is “the hook” that digs into the seabed and keeps the boat in the same place. Anchors are safety devices since they allow you to stop in shallow water. But they also provide access to areas with no marinas since you can anchor offshore and go in on your dinghy.
A winch that pulls up the anchor and chain. They can be manual, with a handle, or electric, with a button.
The generic name for the anchor line. It can be a chain or rope.
A short length of rope that attaches to the chain to secure it to the boat.
A horn-shaped piece of deck hardware used to secure a line or rope.
A large vent opening on the deck of a boat which is designed to let air in but not water.
Hatches are upward-facing windows that you can open to increase ventilation in the cabin.
A generic term for a cabinet or compartment on a boat.
Going Aloft – Basic Boat Parts of a Sailing Rig
The rig of a boat is the mast and all of its associated parts. If you’re wondering about the many different kinds of rigs that are out there, check out our rundown on sailing terms. There you’ll find definitions for boats with just one mast or multiple masts, like sloop rig and what a boat with two sails in front might be called. It’s a cutter, if you’re wondering.
A generic name for a mast, boom, or any other long pole used to hold a sail. It can be wood or metal or vertical or horizontal.
A vertical spar upon which a sail is hoisted.
A horizontal pole that holds a sail and gives it shape.
The wires or rope that holds the mast upright.
Standing rigging that goes fore to aft. The head stay runs from the masthead to the bow, and the backstay runs from the masthead to the stern.
Standing rigging that goes to the sides of the boat. From the masthead to each side runs a cap shroud. Some masts also have intermediate and lower shrouds.
All lines that are used for sail handling are called running rigging.
A halyard hoists a sail to the top. Each halyard is named for the sail it hoists, i.e., main halyard, jib halyard, spinnaker halyard.
The sheet controls the sail. If you ease the sheet, the sail is loosened. If you winch the sheet in, it is tightened. Like all running rigging, each sheet is named for the sail it controls, i.e., main sheet, jib sheet, etc.
If a sail has a boom, the traveler can be used to adjust it from side to side. The sheet is attached to the traveler. Most main sail travelers are located near or in the cockpit.
The articulating attachment that holds a boom on a mast.
A line that holds the rear end of a boom up. It runs from the masthead to the boom.
A control line pulls the boom down and puts pressure on the sail to keep it flatter. Large boats may have hydraulic or solid vangs.
The rest of the world would call this a pulley, but sailors call it a block.
Deck organizers that keep the lines tidy and running in the direction they should go on deck.
Wraps the sail around the stay so that it doesn’t not have to be raised and lowered each time. Instead, you pull on the sheet and the sail unrolls or “unfurls.”
On Deck – Back of Sailboat
On most boats, the cockpit is located at the back.
The main operations center and party central on a sailboat. This is where the skipper sits at the helm, and the linesmen control the sheets.
The cockpit is protected from waves and splashes by the coaming, the tall walls that enclose it. It also makes the cockpit safe since you are unlikely to get swept overboard from here.
The main storage locker in the cockpit.
The station where the skipper steers the boat from.
If a boat doesn’t have a wheel, it will have a tiller. A tiller is just a handle connected to the rudder, and the skipper pushes or pulls it to steer. Even if a boat has a wheel, it probably has an emergency tiller in case the steering system breaks.
Winches provide a mechanical advantage to make it easier to haul in lines. In the cockpit, all the sheets have winches.
A clutch locks a rope in place so it can be taken off a winch, even when loaded.
A jammer does the same as a clutch, but it’s a simpler device found on smaller boats.
A weathervane is used to steer the boat like an autopilot but uses wind direction and mechanical linkages. As a result, they use no power and never complain about their workload. They mount on the stern of the boat and are controlled by simple lines to the cockpit. Windvanes are often referred to by their brand name, i.e., Monitor or Hydrovane
Arms on the back of the boat that lift the dinghy or tender.
A flat area on the transom that allows you easy access in and out of the water. A standard feature on newer boats but not on older ones that just had long swim ladders.
Catamaran Sailboat Parts Explained
For the most part, the components of a catamaran share the same terms and labels that they would on a monohull. Cats often have a few extra features with other names, however.
A catamaran is made with two hulls connected together. Each hull has an interior, just like a monohull sailboat does. The cabins and heads are usually located in the hulls, and sometimes the galley is also down below.
A catamaran layout that is made for private owners. Usually, one hull will be dedicated to the owner’s stateroom with a private door, a huge head with a walk-in shower, and a large berth.
It has more staterooms and heads than an owner’s version does. Usually, a charter cat has at least two staterooms and heads in each hull.
The deck connects the two hulls, which usually has the salon and cockpit. If the design is “galley up,” the galley will be on the bridgedeck with the salon.
Just like on a monohull, the cockpit is the operations center. But catamarans have huge cockpits, and there is usually a large outdoor dining table and entertainment area as well.
Some designs have lounge seating forward of the salon on the bridgedeck.
Some designs have the main helm mounted on top of the salon on an upper level. It’s almost the catamaran equivalent of a center cockpit.
Forward of the salon, the bridge deck stops, and a trampoline connects the hulls over the water. This is a great place to hang out, but it’s an integral safety feature for a catamaran. The trampolines allow any water to immediately drain away, not weighing the boat down on the bow. This prevents a pitchpole when a boat capsizes by tipping forward into the water.
Cross Beam and Dolphin Striker
Since there is no center bow to mount the head stay and foresail, catamarans use a cross beam that connects the hull. A piece of rigging keeps this in place, and it’s called the dolphin striker. No dolphins were hurt in the rigging of these boats, however.
Instead of a single snubber line on the anchor, catamarans use a wide bridle that connects each hull bow to the anchor line.
Parts of a Sail Boat FAQs
What are parts of a sailboat called?
Sailing is a challenging hobby, and one reason it’s so difficult for beginners is because every part of a sailboat has its own name. From each wire and rope to every piece of deck hardware, a beginner must learn the basics before they can even start.
What is the front part of a sailboat called?
The front part of a sailboat is called the bow. Many boats also have a spar extending forward of the hull, called the bowsprit.
What are the 5 basic parts of every sailboat?
Every sailboat has at least these five parts, but most boats have many more.