100 Sailing Terms You Need To Know in 2023

Published Categorized as Living On A Boat

Boost your sailing vocabulary with these terms. In compiling this list, we’ve stuck with terms used today. So, you won’t find pirate lingo like, “Avast ye matey, or walk da plank!” Instead, this is a list of a bunch of things a newbie would want to know before stepping aboard a boat.

This list of sailboat terms might look slightly intimidating initially, but it’s only meant as an introduction. A few trips on the water and a few good sailing movies into your new lifestyle will set you straight. Soon, you’ll be “cooking the galley” and “hitting the head” in your Midtown apartment, making your friends wonder what has gotten into you.

Table of Contents

sailing terms

Sailing Direction Terms – Orientation From Your Boat

Before you can set sail, it’s good to know which direction you’re headed. While sailors love technicalities like north, south, east, and west, it’s usually more convenient to reference the world based on the boat beneath their feet. It’s the same for everyone, no matter where they might be–as long as they’re all in the same boat.

Many of these words, and many words on the rest of this list, might be combined with others. Examples will be included.

The left side of the boat when you are looking forward. Port is used to describe anything found on the left side, like the port engine or the port-side dock line.

The right side of the boat when looking forward. These aren’t confusing once you get the hang of it, but here are a few tips to get you started on how to remember port and starboard.

Anything on the forward half of the boat.

Anything in the back half of the boat.

Anything in the middle of the boat.

Something that is right off the side of the boat.

The pointy end of the boat. You can combine it with directional terms, like “Look off of the port bow.”

The quarters are the aft sides of the boat, as in, “There’s a ship coming up on our starboard quarter.”

Apparent Wind
Sailors love using the wind as a reference. The apparent wind is the wind you feel on deck, which is the sum of both the boat’s movement and the true wind.

True Wind
What the weather provides, regardless of what it feels like on deck. For example, if there are 10 knots of true wind from the north and you are motoring north at 5 knots, you will feel 15 knots of apparent wind on deck. On the other hand, if you are sailing south, you would feel 5 knots of apparent wind on deck. In either case, the true wind is 10 knots.

The side of the boat that is downwind or away from the wind. If the boat is heeling, then the leeward side is the lower side.

The side of the boat facing the wind. If the boat is heeling, the windward side is the high side.

Basic Sailing Terms – Points of Sail from Starboard Tack to Sailing Downwind

Sailors love to talk about the wind, and so each of the points of sail has its own terms for what the sails are doing.

In Irons
A boat cannot sail into the wind. If it’s pointed dead into the wind, the sails will flap, and the boat will stop. Sails don’t flap, by the way. They flog or luff.

Tacking is how sailboats sail upwind. They cruise in a zig-zag course, about 45 degrees off the wind blowing. Each turn through the eye of the wind is called a tack. Tacking is tedious. Sailors sometimes call it “beating into the wind.”

Close Hauled
When you’re sailing as close to the wind as the boat can, you are close hauled.

Close Reach
If you head down (away from the wind) a little, you are close reaching. The sails ease out a bit, and the boat speeds up.

Reaching or Beam Reach
Reaching is when the wind is off the boat’s beam. This is a sailboat’s fastest point of sail.

Broad Reach
Continue turning downwind, and you will be broad reaching.

Running is when you are sailing downwind.

Heave To
Heaving to is a maneuver where you steer the boat into the wind and make it stop. It’s handy to use if you need to fix something or just want to stop to take a break. Sailors should also know how to heave to when heading offshore, as it’s a good storm tactic in many boats.

To reef a sail is to shorten sail, which is handy when it gets too windy for your liking. Reefing allows you to slow the boat down, ride more level, and reduce stress on the rig and the crew. Knowing how to reef a sail is a vital skill for all sailors.

Sail Boat Terms – Types of Sailboats by Rig

Sailboats are classified based on their rig, so different designs each have their own name. We won’t go into barques and tall ships here since you won’t be seeing those every day.

The masts and booms that hold the sails up.

Mast Head Rig
A mast head rig has the forward sail attached at the masthead.

Fractional Rig
The opposite of a masthead rig, a fractional rig has the forward sail attached lower than the top.

A single-masted sailboat with a large mainsail and a large forward sail (the jib).

A single-masted sailboat with a large mainsail and two smaller forward sails, the jib and staysail.

A two-masted sailboat with the rear mast being shorter than the main. The rear mast is called the mizzen mast. The mizzen mast is attached forward of the rudder post.

Two masts, with a shorter mizzen mast rigged behind the rudder post.

Has two or more masts of equal heights.

Sailing Vessel Terminology – Names of Sails and Rigging

We’ve touched on some of these, but individual sails and parts of the rig also have names. We’re only talking about the fore and aft sail inventories found on modern sailboats here, not square-rigged tall ships.

The primary sail, which is carried on the main mast. If you want to sound traditional and salty, you could also spell it “mains’l,” since that’s how it’s pronounced anyway. Usually the main is the most important sail and often the one with the most sail area.

Another word for foresail, or a sail mounted on the front of the boat.

The most common type of headsail. A 100-percent jib fills the foretriangle in front of the mast.

If the sail extends farther aft than the mast, it is a genoa. 110 and 135 percent genoas are common on sloops. Although, many sailors would still call them jibs.

A stays’l is a smaller headsail that mounts inside of the jib or genoa. They are a fixture on cutters, but many sloops and ketches have them added for heavy-weather sailing.

Downwind Sails
Sails can be designed to be good upwind, good downwind, or okay at both. A downwind sail is usually larger and lighter than an upwind sail. It will have more shape to it, too.

The classic downwind sail is a spinnaker, a huge billowing sail usually made from colorful nylon. Spinnakers can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. Most cruising sailors use asymmetrical spinnakers since they require less rigging and can also be used on broad reaches.

Code Zero
A code zero is a downwind sail that also does some teaching. It looks like a cross between a giant genoa and a spinnaker.

Mizzen Sail
The mizzen sail is a small sail flown from the mizzen mast. If a boat is sailing with its jib and mizzen only, it is called “jib and jigger.”

Horizontal spars that hold the foot of a sail. Usually on the main and mizzen, but sometimes jibs and staysails have booms, too, to improve sail shape.

Sail Terms for the Parts of a Sail

What’s that, the “foot” of the sail? That’s right, the parts of each sail has it’s own name, too. A square sail would have a few extra parts, but we’ll skip those since they are pretty rare.

The upper point of a triangular sail.

The back lower corner of a triangular sail.

The forward lower corner of a triangular sail.

The bottom edge of a sail.

The forward edge (leading edge) of a sail.

The rear (trailing) edge of a sail.

Sail Boating Terms for Parts of a Boat Hull

Enough talking about sails and sailor stuff. Let’s dive into some terms that apply to nearly every kind of vessel.

The main component that modern boats are made of. It is also called FRP, or fiberglass reinforced plastic.

Fiberglass is coated in a colored resin that protects it from water and the sun’s UV rays. Gelcoat is usually white, although it can be tinted any color.

The forward, “pointy end” of the boat.

If the boat has a spar or platform extending forward of the hull, it’s called a bowsprit.

The rear of the boat. On boats that have a flat stern, the flat part is called the transom. (I wrote about it in detail here: What Is the Transom on a Boat)

The widest part of the boat. What is a boats beam is usually a key figure when determining how it will handle.

The center strip of a boat’s hull that runs from the bow to the stern. The shape of a boat’s keel depends on its purpose. A sailboat will have a deep keel to counter the effects of the wind on the sails. A powerboat will have a flat keel to help it get up on plane.

Weight added to the bottom of a boat (or to its keel) to help make it stable. For example, the keels of sailboats have thousands of pounds of lead ballast built into them.

Sea Cock
A rooster stuck on a boat. Ha! No, a sea cock is an underwater valve installed on a boat that lets water in or out through the hull. Most sink drains go out through sea cocks, and the engine and other appliances get water from them.

Mounted on the stern of a boat, the rudder moves when the skipper moves the steering wheel. The rudder makes the boat turn left or right.

Running Gear
The generic term given to the underwater equipment that makes the boat move–the propeller and prop shaft.

The height of the sides of the boat above the water. A boat with a lot of freeboard is tall, and the decks farther out of the water.

Coach House/Coach Roof
On a sailboat, the cabin area is called the coachroof. However, some boats have a flush deck, so they don’t have a coachroof.

A vessel with a single hull.

A vessel with two hulls of equal size, connected together over the water by a bridge deck.

A vessel with three hulls, or–more accurately–a primary center hull with two smaller outboard “amas.”

Where Do Sailors Rest on a Ship? Down Below

Now for a tour below decks.

The open area on the back of a boat, usually where you drive the boat from. On most boats, there is space to hang out and perhaps even eat a meal in the cockpit. It’s like the boat’s patio.

The location where the operator steers the boat with a wheel or tiller. The helm for a boat could be inside or outside, and many boats have more than one.

On a sailboat, the main entrance way to the cabin.

The living space or enclosed area of the boat.

Windows that open to let air in.

Windows that don’t open.

An overhead window that opens.

The main “living room.”

The kitchen on a boat.

The bathroom, lavatory, washroom, water closet, WC, loo, or whatever you like.

The bedroom.

The bed.

A smaller bed.

The lowest point of the boat, underneath the cabin sole (floor boards).

Engine Room
The room where the engine lives.

The part of the inside of the boat that is up in the bow. Most boats have a locker here to store their ground tackle.

A cabinet.

A wall.

Sailing Lingo Out on the Ocean

Okay, you know all about your boat, its parts, and its rooms. So let’s set sail and talk about why we’re here in the first place. Let’s go boating!

On Passage
A passage is a long voyage, usually offshore. When sailors talk about setting off on a long trip, they talk about it in terms of individual legs, or passages.

Off Soundings
When the water is so deep that the depth sounder no longer works, you’re off soundings.

On Watch
All vessels must maintain a lookout by sight and sound for other vessels at all times. It is the bedrock of safety at sea and the international laws governing preventing collisions (COLREGs). The person with this duty is “on watch” or “standing watch.”

A general term for ocean sailing. A bluewater sailboat is needed to go on a bluewater passage, and anything could happen out there.

Coastal Cruising
Near-shore sailing is usually only a few hours away from civilization.

Cruising on rivers and lakes that are not on the ocean. Technically, even most estuaries and bays are “inland.”

Milk Run
A term given to an easy passage that is made downwind in good weather. The Coconut Milk Run is the passage from the Americas to the islands of the South Pacific.

Organized passages or longer trips, like the World ARC, an annual around-the-world rally.

An area of shallow water. It can be a verb, noun, or adjective. As in, “The water shoals near the point,” “There’s a shifting shoal over there,” or “The shoal water comes right up to the channel.”

The common occurrence of shoal water at an inlet. In windy weather, seas can break on the bar and create hazardous conditions.

A deep-water (or deeper, at least) path that boats can take through an area of shoals.

A good spot to drop the hook. Some anchorages at shown on charts; others are just made up by folks who like to anchor there. A good anchorage should protect you from waves and wind.

A mooring is a permanent anchor that the boat can be attached to. It’s usually marked by a mooring ball, a white buoy with a blue stripe.

A floating marker that indicates a channel, obstacle, or mooring.

A Coast Guard marker that shows a channel, usually green squares or red triangles. Some might also have lights on them. They are shown on charts to help you navigate.

Aid To Navigation, the Coast Guard’s term for buoys, day beacons, and lights.

Nautical Mile or Knot
Distance at sea is measured in nautical miles (nm), which differs from the statute miles used on land. One nautical mile is an international standard, so even places that use kilometers would use a nm at sea. 1 nm = 1.15 sm = 1.85 km

A nautical mile per hour is called a knot.

sailing terms on passage nautical miles

Sailing Terminology FAQs

What do sailors say when they set sail?

When the boat leaves the dock, it is “casting off” or departing.

What is the term for sailing into the wind?

Sailing into the wind could be called “sailing to weather.” Alternatively, some sailors might call it “beating.” To sail into the wind, a sailboat must “tack”–the act of turning back and forth in a zig-zag pattern. This is because a sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind.

What is it called when you go sailing?

Some people call it a lot of fun, but others have a miserable time–sailing has been called all sorts of things. If you’re going on a trip, most boaters would say that they are going “cruising.” If they’re crossing an ocean or making a long trip, they’re going on a “passage.” But if you’re just on the boat for a day, you’re going “boating” or “sailing.” Sailing would specifically require using sails, so powerboats go on trips, not sails.

By Matt C

Matt has been boating around Florida for over 25 years in everything from small powerboats to large cruising catamarans. He currently lives aboard a 38-foot Cabo Rico sailboat with his wife Lucy and adventure dog Chelsea. Together, they cruise between winters in The Bahamas and summers in the Chesapeake Bay.

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