Sheet not a rope
Catamaran, Learn to Sail

Nautical Terms — The Basics (Part 1)

Part 1 of a Learn to Sail Series

Have you ever wondered why boating and sailing have so many specialty words instead of using the non-boating words that could easily be used and understood everyone? Is it just to separate the boaters from the non boaters or are there any other reasons for this lingo?

As I did not grow up with English as my first language and only used to sail on an Optimist, most of these words are relatively new to me as well.  Today is a quiet rainy day on the AlyKat, so I’m sitting at the galley table and taking some time to Google sailing terms and learn where they originated from. I will start with the most common ones first.

Areas on Board

Starboard — this is the right side of the boat. The word comes from the Vikings who called it Styrbord meaning Steering Board. They steered the boat from the right side. Styrbord is still what it is called in Swedish.

Port — is the left side of the boat when facing forward.  Boats usually docked on this side so this was the side closest to port. I think the best way to remember which is which is what my friend Lori said “Port and Left both have 4 letters”.

Bow — This is the front of the boat. The term refers to boats bowing over the sea.

Stern — is the back of the boat. It is short for sternpost which is the end of the boat. Not sure anyone knows about a sternpost but just know that the back is the Stern.

Aft — when you are moving from the bow toward the stern you are going aft. Not sure where that comes from. Please chime in on the comments if you do!

Head — non-boaters would refer to this as the bathroom, toilet, or WC. Apparently the word comes from the fact that the toilet used to be up front in the boat, where the seas could wash it clean.

Galley — is the kitchen in the boat. The term is supposedly a shortened version of gallery.  The meals used to me cooked on a stone gallery in the middle of the boat.

Learning the (Sailing) Ropes

Sun on the catamaran sails
Halyards are used to hoist the sails

There are a lot of different names for the various ropes that are on a sailboat. The same rope has different names depending on what it is used for. Here are a few examples. The basic term rope is just the materials that it is made of. Once the specific rope has a use it becomes a line. And depending on their use the lines have different names.

Halyard is the line that runs up the mast. Sheets are the lines that are used to adjust the sail.  Depending on what sail it adjusts the name changes as well. It is a Mainsheet if it adjusts the mainsail and a Jibsheet if it adjust the jib (the triangular sail in front of the mainsail). And if you are heading to a dock you use the Dock lines to tie up your boat.

Fun trivia fact: the only rope on a boat that is called a rope is the rope that is used to ring the ship’s bell.

There are many, many other terms as well as saying that are derived from boating and sailing such as “Three Sheets to the Wind” but I will write about those on another rainy day.

Now you know more than I did the first time I stepped onboard AlyKat!

Morning cup of Joe
Kia enjoys a cup of coffee on deck.

I’m First Mate Kia Girard, and I would love to sail with you around Newport. Book a charter on our catamaran, the AlyKat, and see what fun you can have on the water!







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