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Nautical Terminology

Marine terminology may all sound like archaic jargon to some landlubbers. But there are good reasons why it's important to use the right words aboard a boat.

Illustration: Parts of a Boat

Give this story to your guests, or to new boaters, to help everyone aboard to feel involved, and to improve communications. (llustration: Tim Barker)

I remember well the first time I went sailing on a larger boat. My sailing buddies were all good friends of mine, but it seemed that as soon as they stepped aboard, they started to talk in a foreign language I couldn't quite follow. That was many years ago, and since then I've learned that there are legitimate safety reasons for using the correct terms on board boats. Let's start with the most important four terms. The front of a boat is called the "bow," and the back is the "stern." "Starboard" refers to what is the right side of the boat if you're facing the bow; "port" refers to what is the left side if you're facing the bow. (To remember this, note that "port" and "left" each have four letters.)

So why don't we just say front, back, left, and right? The answer is that the starboard side is ALWAYS the starboard side, no matter which way you, or anyone else, is facing on board. This is important. Imagine that you're on a boat and the captain asks you to quickly put fenders over the right side. If you were facing one another, would that be your right or his? Or imagine it's getting dark, or heavy weather is upon you, and you can't see which way people are facing on the boat. Saying "It's to your left!" or "Look to the right!" would make no sense to anyone and would create confusion that could threaten the crew and boat. If someone yells, "Man overboard! Port side!," clear directions and the use of accurate terms could mean the difference between locating, or losing sight of, a victim.


What to learn more about nautical terms, and how to use a VHF radio. Visit and

"Learning the ropes" has become a modern idiom, but it's rooted in the era of sailing ships when apprentices needed to be able to identify each one of the many ropes on board — for clarity, fast action, and safety. Today, ropes are often called "lines" on boats, and there are a few worth memorizing so you're ready to give or follow clear commands. When powerboats or sailboats come alongside a dock, you'll tie up using a "bow line," a "stern line," and a "midship line." All are attached to the boat using "cleats" — metal fittings shaped like two horns and fixed to the boat; lines are secured to them.

On sailboats, a "halyard" is a line used to hoist a sail up the mast; there's a mainsail halyard, for example, and a jib halyard. A "sheet" is a sail-control line that's normally controlled by wrapping it around a "winch"; a sheet holds the bottom part of a sail tight so it can use the wind to propel the boat. If you're asked to "sheet in the jib," it means the skipper would like you to turn the winch holding the jib sheet with the winch handle, and trim (pull in) the sail a bit more. If he or she asks you to "let the sail out," with the winch you'd ease the jib line out a few inches at a time until it's optimized.

Many boats have a "windlass," which is the piece of equipment at the bow that lowers and lifts the chain and line attached to your anchor. It may be manual or powered.

The Invaluable Phonetic Alphabet

To make sure you're clearly understood, especially when using the VHF radio, words often need to be spelled out using what's known as the phonetic alphabet. On a radio transmission, static can produce mistakes. For instance, over the past couple of years, a popular boat name, according to our BoatUS records, has been Blew By You. In audio communications, this can be mistaken for Blue Bayou. Learn the phonetic alphabet by heart so that you can easily spell out names and words quickly, especially in emergency situations. BoatUS spelled out is Bravo Oscar Alpha Tango Uniform Sierra.

A  Alpha G  Golf M  Mike S  Sierra Y  Yankee
B  Bravo H  Hotel N  November T  Tango Z  Zulu
C  Charlie I  India O  Oscar U  Uniform  
D  Delta J  Juliet P  Papa V  Victor  
E  Echo K  Kilo Q  Quebec W  Whiskey  
F  Foxtrot L  Lima R  Romeo X  X-ray  

"Gunwale" (pronounced GUNN-ell) is the edge of the boat where the hull meets the deck; the name is derived from the lip at the edge of the deck that at one time prevented cannons from sliding into the sea as the ship rolled. The toilet on a boat is called the "head," which gets its name from its traditional location in the head, or forepart, of the ship. Cabins and other compartments within the boat are divided from each other by "bulkheads" (walls), which are vertical partitions between the cabin "sole" (floor) and the underside of the deck that provide structural stability to the boat's design.

Instead of tying up at a dock, you may "pick up a mooring," the latter a permanent weight on the seabed to which a chain is attached, leading to a large floating ball. Attached to the ball is a short length of strong rope, called a "pennant," and tied to that is a pickup buoy. When the pennant is correctly tied and secured, it's said to have been "made fast" around a cleat. When it's time to "cast off" (untie and release) the mooring, the boat will be free, and it gets "underway."

There are wonderful books that spell out the names and origins of these age-old terms. Memorizing them, and consistently using them properly, will pay off if conditions go from peaceful to chaotic out on the water, if you're trying to execute a perfect docking maneuver, or if you're just trying to improve communications aboard your boat so everyone has a better time.

Origins of Port and Starboard

Many nautical terms have historical significance that's developed over centuries. For instance, "starboard" (the right side of the boat when you're facing the bow) is derived from the term "steerboard." This reference goes back to very early ships that were steered by a steering oar on the right-hand side of the ship — in the days before ships had rudders on their centerlines.

When these ships came into a port, they needed to dock keeping the steering oar safe on the outside, away from the dock. So the "port" side referred to the left-hand side of the ship when facing forward, the side tied to the dock once the ship pulled into the dock. However, another term that you may have heard is "larboard," which was in common use until the middle of the 19th century; like port, it, too, referred to the left side of the ship as determined by the point of view of someone facing the bow.

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Mark Corke

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A marine surveyor and holder of RYA Yachtmaster Ocean certification, BoatUS Magazine contributing editor Mark Corke is one of our DIY gurus, creating easy-to-follow how-to articles and videos. Mark has built five boats himself (both power and sail), has been an experienced editor at several top boating magazines (including former associate editor of BoatUS Magazine), worked for the BBC, written four DIY books, skippered two round-the-world yachts, and holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest there-and-back crossing of the English Channel — in a kayak! He and his wife have a Grand Banks 32.