Nautical Terminology

There is specialised terminology associated with many professions. In boating this is more pronounced, as it has its own language, evolved over centuries to suit the needs of seafarers. Understanding this terminology is important as it underpins boating knowledge and seamanship skill.

Like any terminology, it can be confusing at first. We hope this article helps to clarify key terms and inspire you to learn more about the language of the sea.

Right or left which is it?
On a boat (vessel), it’s neither! Left is called port. Right is starboard.

Front and back
The back of the boat is the stern, and the front is the bow. The transom is the surface of the boat which forms the stern, and upon which an outboard motor may be mounted. The rear of a vesel is referred to as “aft,” and the front as “forward.” Usually these terms are used in pointing someone to move or look in a particular direction such as, “Go aft and grab the boat hook from under the seat.” Or, “Go forward and haul up the anchor line. A related term is “abaft.” This points to a location aboard, toward the aft, or stern, “The engine hatch is abaft the Skipper’s chair.” Amidships refers to the middle section of the vessel. The ladder to the galley is usually located amidships. If you are in a rowboat, however, you will find that the rowlocks (hardware that holds the oars and keep them from falling overboard) are amidships.

At night, running lights are required, and they are very color-specific. Red is port, and green is starboard. An anchor light is required after dark if the vessel is at anchor. This is a white light, mounted at the highest available point on the vessel. It lets other boaters know that the boat is not moving.

Toilet? No, it’s the head!
On larger vessels with more amenities, don’t get tripped up by asking where to find the bathroom or toilet. On board, it’s the “head.” The origins date back to sailing ships, when the front (bow) of a ship was called the ‘head.’ The toilet facility was located there, so that the splashing of the water could provide automatic cleaning.

Below deck
The kitchen of a vessel is referred to as the galley. You don’t go “downstairs,” you go “below,” or “down below.” You arrive in that location via a ladder, or a companionway. (normal stairs )
On smaller  vessels, ladders will usually lead down into the engine room, or be accessed by removing hatch covers and lying on your stomach to reach down inside.

Ropes? No Lines!
There are only two ropes which may be found on a vessel; the bell rope and the bucket rope. Everything else is a line, halyard or hawser. It’s just a matter of size and usage.

  • A line is used to tie the vessel up at dock/berth, or to hang fenders over-side.
  • A halyard is used for hoisting sails or flags.
  • A hawser term for a large cable or rope used for towing or mooring a ship.

A fender is a soft plastic or rubber bumper , typically cylindrical in shape which is hung over the rails to protect the sides of the boat while at dock. They are pulled up and stowed (put away) when the boat is underway. Fenders are also used in rafting up. This is when a group of boats traveling together finds a good place to stop and drop anchor. They will tie up with lines from one boat to another, so they don’t drift apart. Fenders are dropped between to protect the boats from damage due to water motion. Once secured you can boat-hop between the boats.

Nautical origins of a few common expressions:

Three sheets to the wind
A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a three masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be “in the wind”. A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind.

Son of a gun
When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, wives and ladies of easy virtue often were allowed to live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a convenient place for this was between guns on the gun deck. If the child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun”.

The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea.

As the crow lies
When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be known as the crow’s nest.

The weather side of a ship is the side from which the wind is blowing. The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship. If a ship does not have enough “leeway” it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.

Go to the Resources Section of the College website to find more nautical terms.


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