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Sailing terms

The nautical phrases and sailing expressions found at sea can be very confusing for novices, and even experienced sailors find words they did not know. This glossary of nautical terms is not exhaustive, but is intended to give a flavour of the expressions and terms you might need.

It is worth remembering that all directions on board a boat are given with reference to the boat, not the person speaking. So port and starboard don't change sides when you face backwards, and if something is abaft the mast, it is always nearer the stern than the bow, no matter where you are standing.

Abaft Nearer the stern of the boat, i.e behind something
"The sailbag is just abaft the mast"
Abeam Alongside, or at right angles to the side of the boat
Aft Towards the rear, or stern, of the boat
Astern Past the rear, or stern, of the boat
Beam The width of the boat
Bow The pointy bit at the front of the boat
Draught The depth of a boat below the waterline. The verb is 'to draw'. i.e "What's her draught?" "She draws 1.8 metres."
Forward Usually pronounced forrard. Towards the front of the boat. Opposite of abaft
Knot A measure of speed at sea. A knot is one nautical mile per hour. In the Age of Sail, the speed of a vessel was determined by dropping a piece of wood (the log) over the side and measuring how much line ran out in a fixed period of time. The line was marked at precise intervals with a knot, giving rise to the phrase
Nautical mile A nautical mile is 2,000 yards. It is divided into 10 cables of 200 yards each. A nautical mile per hour is a knot


Port The left hand side of the boat, when you are looking forward. It does not change as you move around the boat. It is denoted by the colour red. Two ways of remembering it:
  • Red, left and port are all shorter than green, right, starboard
  • Use the phrase "There's no red port left in the bottle"
Starboard The right hand side of the boat when facing forward. It is always this side, even if you turn round and face backwards. It is represented by the colour green. One way to remember this is that green, starboard and right are all longer than red, port and left.
Stern The back of the boat
Tack Tacking is one of the fundamental maneouvres of sailing. A sailing boat cannot point directly towards the wind, but must always be at an angle to it. Tacking involves turning the bow of the boat throught the wind so that the wind is blowing from the other side of the boat. It is also the name of the bottom front corner of a triangular sail on a fore-and-aft rigged boat.
Transom Technically it means the beams attached across the sternpost of a ship. In practice, the back of the boat. "Oops, Bob just fell off the transom."
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