Top 50 Sailing Jargon You Should Know


Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

“Hey move the Thing! No, you idiot, the Other Thing!” This line from a famous sailing scene in The Princess Bride pretty much sums up how every sailor feels at some point when she’s under way: What in the world is the name of the doohickey that moves that thingamabob?

There are hundreds of arcane words that either were invented for sailing or have a specific meaning or purpose in sailing. But the good news is that you learn the words as you go, on a “need to know” basis. Sooner than you know it, you’ll be absorbing this new jargon and telling your mates to watch the boom as you jibe and to make sure they tack in time to give way to that tanker.

And as soon as you think you’ve learned what you need to know, you find out there are two or three different words that mean basically the same thing! It’s a great way to build neuroplasticity—keep learning new words.


Table of contents

Types of Boats

Let’s start with some of the types of boats out there. There are dozens, but these are ones you’ll here most often while sailing:

  • Yacht. There’s no technical definition of a yacht, but you could say that a well maintained recreational or racing boat that’s more than 45 feet long is a yacht. Yachts can be powered by sail or motor.
  • Cruiser. A sail or motor boat with a cabin between 25 and 44 feet long.
  • Dinghy. Any small boat that fits just a few people. It can be a sailboat or motorized, and is usually less than 18 feet long.
  • Tender. A specific type of dinghy. The tender is usually a motorized dinghy that is lifted onto a cruiser or a yacht. The tender is often a hard-bottomed inflatable boat and is used by sailors to get to shore or explore nearby areas while at anchor.
  • Sloop. Now we’re getting fancy, but you will hear these words thrown around! A sloop is a sailboat with one mast and one headsail, for a total of two sails.
  • Cutter. A cutter has just one mast, but it has two headsails, for a total of three sails.
  • Schooner. These are the pirate-ship looking boats. They have two masts and one headsail, for a total of three sails. The aft mast is taller than the fore mast.
  • Monohull. This is the classic sailboat most people think of — it means a boat that has one hull and in most cases a keel to act as a counterweight to the mast and sail and keep the boat right side up and sailing straight.
  • Catamaran. Much more popular in the last few decades, catamarans have two hulls that are attached either by a trampoline (in the case of a dinghy) or a cabin (in the case of a yacht). They have a keel on each hull, but it does not draft as deep as a monohull’s keel, as the two hulls also act as counterweights to one another.

Main Areas of a Boat

In a house you’ve got a living room, dining room, family room, bedrooms, and so on. A sailboat isn’t all that different, except that for the most part there aren’t any walls separating the areas of a boat. Moreover, some of the areas are overlap! But don’t worry—once you get aboard it all makes sense. Here are the main ones:

  • Bow. This is the pointy front of a boat. Also known as the place where Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio had their “I’m flying” moment in Titanic.
  • Stern. No, this does not mean a grouchy boat—it’s the opposite of the bow—the back of the boat.
  • Fore. This also means the front of the boat, but it’s the general area in front.
  • Aft. You guessed it! The opposite of “fore” — it means the general area in the back of the boat.
  • Starboard. If you’re facing the bow, starboard is on your right. It means anything to the right of the midpoint of the boat
  • Port. Port is the lefthand side of the boat if you’ve got the stern at your behind and the bow in front. A trick for remembering this is that “left” has four letters, and so does “port."

Big Stuff on Boat

This is a handful of the really big and important parts of a sailboat.

  • Mast. This is the large pole that comes out of the middle of the boat that holds the main sail up.
  • Boom. Attached to the mast perpendicularly, this pole stretches out and holds down the bottom of the mainsail.
  • Keel. This is your friend if you’re in a monohull and the reason you don’t tip over. The keel is a heavy blade-shaped structure that juts out from the bottom of the boat and acts as a counterweight to the mast which keeps the boat from tipping over. It also helps the boat steer—it keeps the boat from slipping sideways as the wind pushes into the sail.
  • Centerboard / Daggerboard. In dinghies and smaller boats, this is a rectangular-shaped blade usually a few feet long, that juts out from the bottom of the boat. It keeps the boat from slipping sideways as the wind pushes into the sail.
  • Rudder. A hinged blade-like rectangle fixed to the hull below the waterline at the stern of the boat that allows for steering.
  • Helm. This is where you steer the boat. What you steer it with is, of course, another word! It usually either a wheel or a tiller. A tiller is basically a pole that connects directly to the rudder which allows you to change the rudder’s angle directly. A wheel is also connected to the rudder, but it’s a little more sophisticated.
  • Deck. The horizontal surfaces or areas on the outside of a boat—almost like the floors on the outside of a boat.
  • Poop. It’s not what you’re thinking, silly! Though not used often, it must be included. This means the highest aft deck of a boat.


Not all ropes were created equal on a sailboat. In fact, knowing what each rope does—or at least the most important ropes—and being mindful of the ropes can literally be the difference between whether you part with a finger or keep it attached to your hand. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s to always pay attention to the ropes!

  • Sheet. A rope that is attached to a sail that controls the sail’s angle to the wind.
  • Line. Pretty much any rope on the boat that’s not a sheet or doesn’t have its own super special name.
  • Mainsheet. A rope with a super special name because it’s that important! This is the sheet that’s attached to the end of the boom, and which controls the mainsail’s angle to the boat and wind.
  • Main Halyard. A halyard is a rope that attaches to the top of sail. The main halyard is important especially in big boats because it’s the rope that allows you to remove your sail power. Think of your sail as an engine, and the halyard as the “stop” button on an engine.

Sails and Point of Sail

Sails are the engine of a sailboat—they are what translate wind power to forward power. The vast majority of sailboats—including dinghies—have two principal sails—the mainsail and headsail. Point of sail is a fancy term for talking about the angle of the sail in relation to the wind direction.

  • Mainsail. This is the large sail that’s the main power of the boat—it's attached to the mast and the boom and is hoisted at about the middle of the boat.
  • Headsail. This sail lives at the front (fore or aft) of the boat. The words used for this sail seem to increase every year. There’s the Jib, Genoa, Gennaker, Solent, and Code 0, among others. To be fair, each one of these is a slightly different type of headsail, but be forewarned: this one has many quasi-synonyms.
  • Reef the mainsail. A reef is a mechanism that reduces the surface area of a sail in order to decrease its power. Reefing in high winds is a necessary safety precaution.
  • No Go Zone. Sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind, and there is 30- to 50-degree area that’s off limits.
  • Beating into the wind. A tricky way to get around the no go zone. This basically means zigzagging the boat towards the direction of the wind by staying outside the no go zone but tacking as needed.
  • Sailing upwind. A point of sail that is also known as a close haul or sailing close to the wind. This basically means that you’re sailing as close as possible to the direction that the wind is coming from. While you cannot sail directly into the wind—something about the laws of physics that make that impossible—sailing upwind means pointing the bow as close as possible to the wind direction.
  • Running downwind. The opposite of sailing upwind, the wind is coming from behind the boat if you’re sailing "on a run” or running downwind.
  • Sailing on a reach, broad reach, or close reach. What’s the opposite of up or down? Well, there wasn’t really a good word for that, so what we have is a “reach.” This is somewhere between sailing upwind and downwind, and what kind of reach it is basically depends on the angle to the wind. Suffice it to say that if you know that you’re on a reach, that’s good enough!

Things To Change a Boat’s Speed or Direction

Sailing often involves long periods of chilling out punctuated by brief but very intense moments. Unless you’re an America’s Cup race crew member, in which case it’s probably intense all the time. So what do you do during these intense moments?

  • Tack. This word has two meanings. "Ready to tack?” As a verb, it means you’re going to change both the direction of the boat as well as move the sail from port to starboard or vice versa, and the wind is in front of you. When you’re beating into the wind, you’re tacking frequently. “Let’s stay on this tack.” As a noun, tack means a specific direction and sail angle—it means to stay exactly as you are.
  • Come about. Tacking—turning the bow of the boat through the wind to change direction.
  • Jibe. Jibing is similar to tacking, however, the wind is behind you. This means the sail switches from port to starboard (or vice versa) with a lot of power and really fast. This is more difficult to control than tacking.
  • Ready about? This is a signal that the boat is about to tack or jibe. Ideally the crew will respond with “Aye!” so they get to feel a tiny bit like pirates.
  • Helm to Lee / Lee Ho. This means you’re turning the boat, and it’s going to tack or jibe. When you push the “helm” to the “leeward” (non-windy) side of the boat, the result is naturally a tack or a jibe.
  • Trim the sails! A command to adjust the sails so that they are optimally placed to the wind, which increases the efficiency and speed of the boat.
  • Luff. When a sail isn’t trimmed properly, it will have pockets of fabric that flap. This is called luffing.
  • In irons. This is what happens when you spend too much time in the “no go zone.” Essentially the boat is trapped in the no go zone and unable change directions because it has lost speed. Without speed, the boat cannot be steered. There’s usually a lot of luff in irons.
  • Heeling. You’re heeling when there’s a great wind, the boat leans, and the mast is no longer perpendicular to the water.

Encountering Other Boats (or Land!)

Sailing is really easy when the weather is great, you’re going in one direction, you’re not looking to stop, and there are no other boats around. Even a 5-year-old can be at the helm in those conditions! What happens when you see another boat or you’re done for the day?

  • Rules of the Road / Right of Way. There usually aren’t stop lights or left turn lanes out on the water, so when two boats are at risk of colliding, what’s the protocol? The “rules of the road” are guidelines that describe who yields to whom. In general, the vessel that is most easy to maneuver gives way to a vessel that’s harder to maneuver. Imagine an oil tanker trying to move out of the way of a dinghy—that wouldn’t make much sense. The rules of the road help sort out the pecking order and everyone has a better time when all boats follow the same rules.
  • Give way. This means to yield to another boat—“We need to give way to that boat off the bow to port” means that we need to shift our course to get out of their way.
  • Piloting. This is for larger boats, especially larger charter boats. Piloting means maneuvering a boat carefully through congested or dangerous waters—some charter companies will require that the skipper pick up a professional pilot outside the marina or harbor to bring the boat into its berth safely.
  • Mooring balls. Ready to stop sailing for the day but no marina in sight? That’s where mooring balls come in. Mooring means tying your boat to a rope or chain with a floating ball that is secured to a concrete block at the bottom of the bay or harbor. Mooring is usually more secure and reliable than using an anchor.
  • Berth. A place to sleep, either for you or the boat! The beds in a boat’s cabin are called berths, and so are the slips in a marina where boats can spend the night.

Once you start sailing and learning the ropes, you will get moments of giddiness when you realize how much sailing terminology has infiltrated the English language. Phrases such as “we need all hands on deck,” “he’s been making waves,” “she runs a tight ship,” “we were in close quarters,” “give him a wide berth,” “we’d better batten down the hatches,” and “I’m about to keel over!” all come from sailing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg--which is a big chunk of floating ice made famous by the Titanic.

Top 50 Sailing Jargon You Should Know
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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