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Nautical & Sailing Terms: What to Know

Are you looking to learn to sail? Before you set foot on a boat, understanding the basic terminology is a good idea. Your instructor will appreciate it (as will your friends with boats).


Top Tier Sailing offers sailing courses for beginners and people who already know a bit about the beautiful British Virgin Islands. We can teach you the basics of sailing a keelboat in only a few days!


From Bow to Stern - Parts of the Vessel

The bow is the front of the boat, and the stern is the rear. Then there is port and starboard, which lots of people confuse. Port is anything to the left of the boat, and starboard is anything to the right of the ship. Try not to get them the wrong way around - it takes practice (and if you forget and say left or right… you will look like a landlubber.


What about the middle of the boat? The widest part of the middle is the beam. The body or shell of the vessel is the hull, and the horizontal structure or structures are the deck. Some very small sailboats may not have a deck, just seats, with your feet resting on the hull. The hull is built up from the keel, which is the deepest part of the boat.


The main sail is attached to the mast, which is typically somewhat central and is supported by rigging, and the horizontal pole, which extends aft, is the boom. Watch out for the boom - it swings when the boat changes direction). A sail that is forward of the mast is the headsail or foresail. Most sailboats only have two sails.


Nautical Terms Every Beginner Should Know

Other than the parts of your boat, there are some terms you need to know before you go out. Here are the most important:


  • Windward - the direction the wind is coming from.

  • Leeward - the direction the wind is going to.

  • Tack - to travel into the wind by moving across it in a zig-zag pattern, turning the bow through the wind.

  • Heel - this is when the boat leans over in the water. You need to sit on the upper side in smaller boats to stabilize the boat.

  • Jibe - to turn with the stern through the wind. This is harder than tacking.

  • Lines - ropes. You always say lines.

  • Point of sail - your direction relative to the wind.

  • In irons - heading straight into the wind. You never want to be "in irons." You're tied down and can't move.

  • Trim - adjusting the sails towards the center of the boat.

  • Reef - reducing the sail's area to reduce power, such as if the wind is too strong

  • Ease - adjusting the sails away from the centerline of the boat.

  • Apparent wind - the wind you feel which combines the wind and the boat's motion.

  • Cockpit - where you sit on the boat

  • Helm - the steering mechanism. Small sailboats use a tiller. Larger ones use a wheel.

  • Fender - these are the rubber, vinyl, or foam pieces that hang off the side of the boat to keep it from bumping into the dock. Don't call them bumpers!

  • Dock line - ropes used to tie the boat to the dock

  • Nautical mile - the primary measurement of distance on the water. It's about 1.2x a "regular" mile.

Of course, there are many more, but these will get you started! Becoming familiar with these terms and what they mean sets you on a path for a successful sailing adventure.


Charting a Course to Success: Mastering Nautical Terminology with Top Tier Sailing School

At Top Tier Sailing School, we can help you with your nautical terminology and help you learn to sail. We offer introductory courses for beginners and advanced ones to work towards your captain certification. Contact us to find out how we can help you learn the best way to experience the water.


Charting a Course to Success: Mastering Nautical Terminology with Top Tier Sailing School




IMG Credit: Joel Blit























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