What are Some Basic Sailing Terms?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
A sailor must know which direction is "windward" when deciding whether to tack or run before the wind.
A sailor must know which direction is "windward" when deciding whether to tack or run before the wind.

Sailing is exciting and fun whether on a bay or out in the open ocean. Sometimes sailing vocabulary is confusing for people who are new to the sport. Familiarizing yourself with basic sailing terms will make sailing safer and more enjoyable. If you are new to sailing, make sure to go out with an experienced sailor so that you will have a knowledgeable partner.

The rudder can be controlled by a wheel located at the stern of a sailboat.
The rudder can be controlled by a wheel located at the stern of a sailboat.

Some of the most important sailing terms are for orienting yourself on a boat. When you are on deck and facing the front of the ship, or bow, starboard is to your right and port is to your left. These directions remain fixed in relation to the ship. Therefore, starboard does not simply mean “right,” it means the right side of the ship. As you walk towards the stern, or back, of a sailing boat, you are moving aft. These sailing terms are important to know in emergencies.

The sail itself is attached to the mast, a vertical pole that extends the sail lengthwise.
The sail itself is attached to the mast, a vertical pole that extends the sail lengthwise.

There are also a number of sailing terms regarding the wind and weather. The term “windward” is used to indicate the direction from which the wind is blowing. Sailboats tend to move with the wind, making the windward direction an important thing to know. Boats often have windsocks which they use to orient themselves with the wind. The opposite direction is called the lee, which is also used to indicate a sheltered spot.

The sail itself is attached to the mast, a vertical pole that extends the sail lengthwise. At the bottom of the mast is the boom, a long pole attached to the foot of the sail. The boom can be moved to position the sail advantageously for the boat. You should be cautious moving around the boom because it can injure your head if you run into it, or it runs into you. The boat is said to be fully rigged when the sail, ropes, lanyards, and so forth are present. There are special sailing terms for different types of sails, which are used in a variety of situations.

Other sailing terms include the rudder, which is used to steer the ship. The rudder is a flat piece of wood, metal, or fiberglass which can be turned, forcing the ship to turn with it. The rudder can be controlled by a wheel located at the bow, or can be controlled directly aft. Smaller sailing boats are not usually equipped with a wheel because of the space it takes up.

There are numerous other sailing terms to learn, ranging from foods that come out of the galley to special sailing terms for unique weather conditions. The basic terms above will acquaint you with the crucial points of a sailboat, and allow you to feel more confident at sea. If you are just learning how to sail, remember to sail with experienced individuals and to follow their directions, especially in the case of emergency.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

FirstBase

@seafoam - I think the terminology for "head" is pretty old. Back in the days of the great sailing ships, the crew had no choice but to relieve themselves in the wind, so to speak.

The sailors supposedly found a way to relieve themselves all the way forward on both sides of the bow near the part of the hull where the figurehead was attached.

If it were me, I would be at the stern of the ship, not the bow where everyone could see me, lol!

seafoam

Great sailing terms and phrases to know! But if you are like me, you'll definitely want to know the term for ladies room, WC, toilet, or bathroom! It's called the "head" but I have no idea how it got that name!

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    • A sailor must know which direction is "windward" when deciding whether to tack or run before the wind.
      A sailor must know which direction is "windward" when deciding whether to tack or run before the wind.
    • The rudder can be controlled by a wheel located at the stern of a sailboat.
      The rudder can be controlled by a wheel located at the stern of a sailboat.
    • The sail itself is attached to the mast, a vertical pole that extends the sail lengthwise.
      The sail itself is attached to the mast, a vertical pole that extends the sail lengthwise.