Boating has its own vocabulary, and many of the nautical terms that we still use today come from the age of sail, a period from the 16th century through the 19th century when large boats with sails were commonly used for transporting people and goods. It’s a good idea to get familiar with the language of boating before you head out on the water, as it will help you understand what you need to do on the boat and communicate with other boaters.

Aboard: Being in or on the boat

Aft: Toward the back of the boat

Aground: When the boat is resting on the ground

Amidships: The middle of the boat

Anchor: A heavy object that’s been designed to grip the ground underwater so it can keep the boat in one place

Astern: Behind the boat

Backstay: A wire support for the mast that runs from the head of the mast to the stern

Backwind: A flow of air that hits the back of the sails

Ballast: A heavy weight, like rocks or water, that’s added to the lower portion of the boat to add stability

Batten: A thin strip, usually made of wood or plastic, that’s inserted into the back of a sail to help it keep its shape. Battens can also be nailed in place to secure things on a ship, as in the expression “batten down the hatches.”

Beam: The widest part of the boat

Beam Reach: When the wind is at a right angle to the direction the boat is facing

Bearing: The angle between north on a compass and the direction of your destination

Belay: To secure the boat by winding a rope around a pin or short rod to keep it from sailing away

Binnacle: The stand where you can place your compass

Bow: The forward part of the ship or boat

Bulkhead: An upright wall or partition within the hull of the ship that separates one part from another

Bulwarks: The railings around the upper deck

Buoy: An anchored float in the water that marks a position. It can also be used as a secure fixed object to tie your boat to.

Capsize: Turning a boat over in the water by accident

Cast Off: To release the lines keeping the boat at the shore or mooring

Clear the Decks: Removing unnecessary things from the decks

Cleat: A hook with two ends that can be used to secure a line to the boat

Course: The direction you’re traveling in

Dock: The place where the boat can be secured

Draft: The depth of the lowest point of the boat

Drift: The boat’s movement when it’s being pushed around by waves

Ease: To loosen or let out the sails

Fathom: A nautical measurement that is equivalent to about six feet of depth

Fluke: The pointed triangular blade at the end of an anchor that is designed to dig into the bottom of the sea to keep it secure

Foresail: The lowest sail on the foremast of the ship

Furl: To fold a sail and secure it to its main support beam

Hard Over: Turning the wheel of the ship as far in one direction as possible

Harden Up: Steering closer to the wind by pulling in on the sheets

Hatch: A covered opening on the deck, usually leading to a space for holding caught fish

Head: The top corner of a triangular sail

Header: A change in the direction of the wind toward the bow of the boat

Helm: The wheel or tiller of the boat

Hoist: To raise aloft

Jetsam: Debris that is floating out at sea

Keel: The fixed fin on the hull of the ship in the water. Its job is to help provide stability for the boat to keep it from slipping sideways.

Knot: A unit of speed. One knot is equivalent to 6,076 feet per hour.

Landfall: The first sight of land while at sea

Lazarette: An area near the stern of the cockpit

Leeward: A downwind vessel

Lifeline: A fence that surrounds the deck to keep crew members from falling overboard

Listing: Leaning to the side due to unbalanced weight

Mainsail: A sail attached to the mast and boom of the boat

Mooring: An anchor or weight that is permanently attached to the ground, usually attached to a buoy on the surface that the boat can tie itself to

Nautical Mile: A measurement of distance while at sea. Nautical miles are longer than regular miles; a nautical mile is a little more than 1.15 land miles or 6,076 feet.

Offing: A safe distance from the shore

Onboard: Being on the boat

Pinch: Sailing as close to the wind direction as possible

Pitch: The up and down motion of a vessel, when the bow and stern rise and fall in the same way as a teeter-totter

Point: Turning the boat closer to the wind

Port: The left side of the boat

Reaching: Sailing a course where the boat turns away against the wind

Ready About: An instruction to the crew to indicate that the boat is about to set sail

Reef: Reduce the size of the sail

Rigging: The lines on the mast and support that can be used to adjust the sails

Rudder: A hinged plate on the stern of the vessel that can be used to steer the boat

Safety Harness: A webbed harness worn over the shoulders and around the chest. It’s designed to prevent you from being injured by falling into the water or assist in recovery if you do fall in.

Sculling: Moving the boat forward using oars

Starboard: The right side of the boat

Stern: The back of the boat

Stow: Put away items or store them onboard

Tonnage: The weight of a boat in tons. The Law of Gross Tonnage is a rule that heavier boats always have the right-of-way on the water.

Underway: When the boat is not anchored or moored to the dock

Yaw: The side-to-side movement of the bow and stern of a boat


This page was last updated by Douglas R. Williams