Boating terminology is often a complex mix of archaic words and modern approximations, confusing mixes of parts of traditional vessels and their modern equivalents.
One example of this is the term prow. Many know what the bow is, but what about the boat’s prow? We’re going to dive in and look at some differences between these two terms.
Table of Contents
- Prow of Boat
- What’s On the Prow of a Boat?
- Boat Prow? Bow? Stem? 🤯
- Prow of Boat FAQs
Prow of Boat
The prow of a ship is the forward most part of the bow. If the bow is raked, as is the case on old clipper ships, then the prow is far ahead of the normal waterline. The prow is not necessarily the farther forward part of the vessel, however. On sailing ships and cutters, a long bowsprit (a long horizontal spar) might be mounted on the prow to hold sails. So, the prow is the forward edge of the gunwales and deck.
The parts of a sailboat or ship can be especially befuddling, especially when you start thinking about what ancient boats looked like when these parts got their names. Now, look at your modern fiberglass cruiser or steel cargo ship. While they all float, they don’t share much in terms of parts and construction.
One good way to think about the prow is that it’s the location of the ship’s figurehead if it has one. We’ll look more at figureheads in a moment.
Bow vs Prow
The term bow is often used to describe the pointed end of a boat. But it is actually directional—the bow is the forward end. It can further be described as the port bow or starboard bow, depending on which side of the bow you’re talking about. In fact, some people would refer to the two sides together as the “bows”—plural to indicate one to port and one to starboard. So, does a boat have one bow or two bows? Either way, using either the single or plural form is correct.
The prow, on the other hand, is a specific part on the bow of a ship. It’s the pointed part of the bow that meets the water. On deck, you might describe the prow as the very tippy top of the bow.
Stem of a Boat
Adding even more confusion to the mix is the fact that there are even more words out there that describe the front part of a boat! One of those is the stem. So what’s the stem of a boat?
The stem is the most forward part of the bow where the keel curves upward toward the prow and the side meet at a point. A common saying is, “From stem to stern.” That means from end to end or the entire boat, but it’s commonly used in everyday language to describe “the whole thing.”
Like many nautical terms, this one comes from a time when all boats were built of wood. The stem was a part of the physical structure, a board that connected to the keel below and where the sides of the boat attached. Metal and fiberglass boats don’t necessarily have stems today, but you might hear the term nonetheless. A raked stem is one that curves above the waterline, either forward or aftward.
What’s On the Prow of a Boat?
Often, old-school sailing ships would have a figurehead mounted on the prow. Figureheads are sculptures that have significance to the ship or the crew. Maidens, mermaids, and other scantily-clad female figures are nautical favorites.
But the figurehead can be anything. Examples include animals, deities like King Neptune, monarchs, or symbols of the vessel’s namesakes.
Since the ancient seafaring cultures of the world took to the seas, there has been a long history of ships figureheads. For example, the Egyptians put holy birds on the prow as symbols of vision and protection, the Phoenicians used horses to indicate swiftness, the Romans used boars to show their ferocity, and the Vikings used serpents or dragons to intimidate their enemies.
During Britain’s maritime prowess in the 16 and 17th centuries, the largest warships were decorated with gilded carvings. These ships were powerful, but they themselves were figureheads of the nation’s might. A carved lion became the standard warship figurehead for the Royal Navy.
Even after the world’s navies moved away from figureheads, many sailors felt a ship without one was unlucky. So, they crafted and mounted their own. Merchant ships continued the figurehead tradition for years. Many of the great clipper ships used a mermaid or female figurehead, which is still the best-known example today.
The prows of modern ships are shaped differently than traditional vessels. The steamship era heralded an end to the widespread use of figureheads on most boats. Most of these have plumb bows with no good place to mount such a sculpture.
Boat Prow? Bow? Stem? 🤯
It’s no wonder that the jargon and sailing terms put many people off boating. When you’re first learning, it’s a lot to take in. If all of this has left you so that you can’t tell your stem from your stern or your prow from your bow, don’t worry. Stem and prow are seldom used. Unless you’re planning a career in naval architecture, just stick with “bow,” and pretty much everyone knows what you’re talking about!
Prow of Boat FAQs
What is the difference between prow and bow?
Both terms describe the forward parts of a boat or ship. Technically, the bow is the entire forward end of the vessel. On the other hand, the prow is specifically the pointed, forwardmost section of the bow.
What is the meaning of prow and stern?
The prow of a boat is the forwardmost part of the bow on the front of a ship or boat. Similarly, the stern is the aftmost part of the vessel. So saying “prow and stern” is akin to saying “end to end.”
What is a boat front called?
The front end of a boat or ship has a few different names. The term “bow” describes the entire forward section of the vessel. And the prow is the very forward-most section of the bow.
What is the woman at the front of a boat called?
Carved statues mounted on the prow of a boat are called figureheads. Figureheads are commonly women or mermaids, but they can be anything. They often hold meaning to the ship. For example, the figurehead on the training tall ship USCGC Eagle is an eagle.