A Nautical Glossary of Yachting and Sailing Terms

Written By: Rob Bowman

If you've ever watched experienced sailors working aboard a vessel, you may have been baffled by the dizzying array of nautical terms they throw around. What is the beam, and how does it relate to the boom? Which end of the boat is the bow, and which is the stern? What about port and starboard? And just what is a baggywrinkle?

Even if you've been sailing a few times, you may not know all of the terms sailors use. And while you can have a fun, relaxing day on the water without being a nautical vocabulary expert, maybe you just want to know more. If you're interested in the world of yacht racing, you'll definitely want to brush up on your terminology. In the heat of the moment, you don't want to be confused when your skipper tells you to trim the mainsail or tack into the wind. Finally, knowing more sailing terms may just help you to appreciate how much effort goes into corralling a sailing vessel.


Anchor: This can be either a noun, referring to the metal hook used to secure a boat in place, or a verb, meaning to deploy the aforementioned hook.

Apparent Wind: All of the wind affecting the vessel, including natural wind and the headwind caused by the vessel's forward motion

Ashore: On land, as opposed to aboard the vessel


Baggywrinkle: A soft covering used to surround rigging and protect it from chafing

Bareboat: A vessel that can be chartered without a provided crew. The person or group hiring the charter crews the boat.

Beam: The vessel's width, measured at its widest point

Berths: This term can refer to a sleeping space on a vessel or a location in port for mooring vessels. "Berth" is also used to mean the minimum safe distance from another vessel or object.

Boom: A large wooden or metal pole for attaching sails

Bow: The front of the vessel (rhymes with "wow"); opposite of stern

Bridle: A bridle divides the strain caused by anchoring between two points. This minimizes jolting and impact to the vessel from drifting and also reduces wear over time.


Cabins: Bedrooms on a boat or other water vessel

Catamaran: A vessel with two hulls, often abbreviated to "cat"

Chart: A map of the waterways used to plot a course and determine current position


Dinghy: A small boat used to travel between ship and shore

Draft: The depth of the vessel's lowest point in the water

Dunsel: Any part of the vessel (including crew) that serves no purpose


Ease: To release the tension on rigging, often to let out the sails in a controlled manner


Fender: A boat's bumper (frequently made of rubber), which is used to prevent damage when docking

Flemish: A way to stow a line that's not currently in use by coiling it to lie flat

Flotilla: A grouping of military vessels

Forepeaks: The front part of the vessel's hold, which is often used for storage


Galley: The vessel's food preparation area

Genoa: A large, front-mounted sail that is used to increase speed during periods of light winds

Gybe: To turn the vessel's stern through the wind and maximize the wind's angle to the sail


Halyard: Rope used to raise sails and flags

Heads: The vessel's sanitary facilities

Head to Wind: A position with the vessel's bow heading into the direction of the wind, rendering forward motion and maneuvering difficult or impossible

Hold: The space inside the vessel's hull

Helm: The vessel's steering wheel or tiller

Hull: The bottom and sides of the vessel, which float in the water and lend buoyancy


Iron Mike: A nautical autopilot system

Itinerary: The vessel's travel plan, consisting of a schedule of destinations and activities


Keel: The main fin on the underside of the vessel, which provides stability in the water

Knot: A loop of rope, which can be tied in a variety of ways, or a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour


Lazyjack: A system of rope lines that connect the vessel's mast to its boom

LOA: Length over all, the hull's maximum length

LWL: Load waterline length, the length of the portion of the vessel that's in contact with the water


Mainsail: The largest sail on the vessel, used to catch as much wind as possible to generate speed

Mast: The big metal pole that rises from the bottom of the yacht into the sky. The sails are hoisted up it using a complicated series of halyards.

Med Mooring: A technique performed by reversing into a gap to park with the vessel's stern toward the quay

Monohull: A vessel with a single hull

Mooring: Parking a vessel by attaching it to a structure


Nautical Mile: A measure of distance equal to 1,852 meters

Navigation: Planning and tracking the vessel's location and intended path


Ocean: One of the large bodies of saltwater covering most of Earth


Port: The left side of the vessel when facing the bow

Prow: Another term for the bow, or front, of the vessel


Quay: A platform used for loading and unloading vessels, also known as a wharf


Reefing: To reduce the size of the sail in order to slow the vessel or add stability in windy conditions

Rip Rap: A breakwater made of rubble and rocks, often surrounding a lighthouse or harbor


Sails: The large fabric components of a vessel that capture wind for propulsion and maneuvering

Saloon: The vessel's living area

Skipper: The vessel's captain

Starboard: The right side of the vessel when facing the bow

Stern: The rear of the vessel


Tacking: Turning toward the wind to change the angle of the wind on the sails

Trampoline: An area of netting toward the front of a catamaran that reduces forward weight and allows water to pass through

Trim: To adjust the sails to maximize their efficiency

True Wind Direction: The direction from which the wind is blowing


Water: The natural liquid that gives vessels buoyancy

Waterline: Where the vessel's hull meets the water

Winch: A machine that provides mechanical advantage for the raising and lowering of anchors

Winch Handle: The part of the winch that the user turns


Yacht: A general term for vessels used for racing or pleasure boating


Additional Information on Sailing and Yachting