Words, Words, Words...

The strange language of sailing.

Why All Those Weird Words?

Can't you just use the same words we use every day?

Aren't all the weird words just to make things sound clever and shut out the rest of us?

This is really good question as sailing seems to have lots of words that we don't use on land and that sometimes seem used just to show off. Sometimes that's true, but most often it isn't. Most words in sailing are used to make things clear and, ideally, precise. Sadly that doesn't always work, partly because people don't always use the right words.

I'm going to start you off with a few words that are quite important and easy to explain why they're important. Starting with perhaps the most obvious of all...

Port and Starboard

Why do we use those odd words Port and Starboard, rather than the words we're all used to: Left and Right?

Part of the answer to the question is that we do use the words left and right, but we use them as personal things about you or I. Left hand, right leg, left-hand button and so on.

Port is the left-hand side of the boat. It doesn't matter whether the boat is going forwards or backwards, or whether we are looking forwards or backwards. Port is always port, and is always the left side of the boat. If we are standing in the middle of the boat looking forwards, port and left are the same, which is why the word seems silly. But if we're standing in the middle of the boat looking backwards, port is still the boat's left, but it's now our right.

Now I think the reason for that one word port with it's precise meaning is probably clear. What ever direction we're looking, port is always the same side of the boat. If I say "go to port", I mean go to the boats left ... never mind where you or I are facing.

Starboard is, of course, the right hand side of the boat and the explanation is the same.

Fore, Aft, and their friends

Why not just front and back or even pointy-end and blunt-end?

OK, I'll admit it, when I'm not being too serious, I will sometimes talk about the pointy end and the blunt end, but again, the words are used to make things concise.

Some boats, though, don't have ends that are so different. Some boats are pointed at both ends, some are blunt at both ends. Think of a canoe ... pointy both ends, or a ferry .. often blunt at both ends. We need a better system.


Fore refers to the front end area of the boat. Note that this does not mean the very front bit itself. A foresail is a sail somewhere in the fore. A forehatch will be found on the foredeck as will a foremast if we have one (most boats don't).

Forward or For'ard.

The word is usually used in the form without the W, mostly because if we're out sailing in any kind of wind, you won't hear the W anyway when the word has to be shouted to be heard. Better to hear "Oard" that "Or Ard". If the skipper (captain) says "go for'ard" he or she wants you to go forward on the boat, except when you are actually steering the boat and controlling it's direction.

Aft or After

Aft refers to the back end of the boat. Again not that this does not mean the very back bit of the boat itself. An Aft Hatch will likely be found on the aft or after deck. Just to confuse things, the sails at the aft end of the boat are normally not called aftsails or aftersails. Sorry about that. I'll deal with sails and their names elsewhere.

Curiously, whilst we have forward and for'ard, we tend not to say aftward or aft'ard. Perhaps that last word called in windy conditions causes offence. We'll say "Go for'ard" or "Go aft".

Aft and After have much the same use as big and bigger, though perhaps less strongly. We would probably not say 'the bigger one' if there was only one of something, but we might say "the after one". Don't worry about the difference ... it normally really doesn't matter.

Afore and Abaft

Afore may be familiar from the expression "Afore ye go", meaning of course "before you go". It has the same meaning in sailing, but it also has a related meaning "in front of..", again referring to position on the boat. In practice, we're much more likely to say "forward of the mast" than "afore the mast". I have the word here more for completeness than because it's common or important.

Abaft though we often do use. Again it refers to position on the boat, but our everyday words don't fit as well. "Behind the mast" could be confuse if someone is standing directly to port of the mast. Does that mean "abaft the mast" or does it mean "the other side of the mast"? "Backwards of the mast" just sounds silly, I think.

Windward or Weather and Leeward or Lee'ard

These words refer to the parts or areas of the boat onto which the wind blows or away from which the wind blows.

Windward or weather

Oh rats .. a choice for no obvious reason ... some people use Windward and some people use Weather and some people use them both in slightly different contexts. Fortunately that does at least mean that it also doesn't matter much which we use. I'll use both in examples, pretty much randomly. At first, the words can also be a little confusing because the use is not immediately obvious.

Windward is the direction from which the wind is blowing. Perhaps the odd use of the word is because it's also the edge of the boat that the wind is blowing towards. If you re standing on a side deck, looking straight out to sea and the wind is blowing on your face, you are on the windward side or weather side of the ship. It's perhaps worth mentioning now, while that is in your mind, that if you feel the need for any ejection of substances from your body, you should carefully make your way to the other (leeward) side before doing so, if you don't want to get your own back, so to speak.

Leeward or Lee'ard, or maybe just Lee

Leeward is the direction where the wind is blowing away from the boat. Ejected substances blow away into the sea. If you're standing on the side deck, looking straight out to sea, and the wind is blowing onto your back, you are on the leeward side of the ship.

If you are on a sailing boat, you may well also notice something else here. Because most sailing boats lean over a bit (OK, sometimes quite a lot), you will also be on the downhill side of the boat and may be quite close to the water. especially if you are "amidships" ... near the middle. If you are this side, be doubly careful about holding on (Note ALWAYS at least one hand for yourself). Nobody, but nobody wants someone falling in, and it isn't just the paperwork that's involved. At best it's unpleasant and very scary, at worst people die. Fortunately that's actually very rare(*), but let's try to keep it that way!

(*) It isn't really a very helpful statistic, as few people sail in their cars, but in the UK at least, you are more likely to drown in you car than in a sailing accident. Of course if you do sail in your car, you probably have only yourself to blame for that.

Names of Ropes

Yes, well, this is a fairly large subject as there are lots of ropes on some boats and they all have their own name, which is why that expression "learning the ropes" ... it means exactly what it says, and on a sailing ship can take a while. Fortunately, on most boats, we don't have that many and they divide into a small number of groups:

Halyards or Haliards.

There is a good clue in the name if only we know what the clue is, and if you're reading this, you likely don't. Ah well. The word is made up of two parts ... "haul" and "yard". I guess haul is fairly obvious, it means to pull on something so that you move it along. Yard is odd though. On a boat or ship, a "yard" is a pole or spar or stick that is normally held somewhere up a mast and is usually something like horizontal. A haul-yard, then, is a rope used to haul a yard and generally that means hauling it up the mast. Halyards don't actually always haul yards. In fact on most modern boats they haul up only the sails, but whatever, the important bit is that they go up and down.


Some nautical words are a bit annoying, aren't they? Why call a rope a sheet, when it's obviously a rope? Sadly we do, so we have to live with it.

A Sheet is a rope that pulls or operates horizontally and generally attaches to the the leeward corner of a sail, so that the sail can be made to catch the wind.

So, as a general rule, halyards work vertically and sheets work horizontally. Or thereabouts.


Warps are a kind of "general-purpose" rope. Typically they will be the ropes with which we tie the boat to something else like the land or a floating dock or another boat.

The rest...

There are a number of other ropes that have specific group names, but generally the easiest thing is, when someone uses a term you don't understand, just say so and ask them to show you. Most sailors will be more than willing to do that. If they're not, except perhaps under duress, maybe you should consider whether they're the best person to sail with.

"The Heads"

This is a rather important phrase and I can't think why I didn't include it earlier.

"The Heads" is ... the toilet. The name is historic, and I'll explain that later.

On most boats, the toilet is quite a bit different from the type you use ashore, so whilst it's still a toilet, perhaps the different name also helps remind about the differences.

It is important to know how The Heads works. I have a page here that should help, but there's a risk of finding other types that work differently. Don't be afraid of them ... they're different, but they're not hard.

One other thought ... if on your first trip on a new boat the skipper doesn't, soon after your arrival, show how to use the heads, please ask: "How do we use the heads, please?" The most likely reason is that the skipper has just forgotten and the response will be "Ah, yes, good point". If nothing else, the same bits of different types of heads may simply be in different places from one boat to another, so the question and the answer are always important.

More than that, if you are familiar with the boat but you have a new visitor and the skipper forgets ... remind him or her to explain them. It's always easier to show and explain when on the mooring than when out on the water.

Why the name? In the early days of sail, the toilet facilities were located at the "Head" of the ship, that is, right forward, in a semi-open area right up the 'pointy end'. The facilities were, shall we say, very basic indeed, typically consisting of a board with a toilet-sized hole in it and with a drop below, right down to the sea. No problems with toilet paper blocking the pipes, but not exactly great privacy either.

Another minor aside here ... many people, even those who really should know better, refer to the 'pointy end' of the ship as "The Bow". Actually, there is no such thing. Strictly, the extreme pointy end is "The Head" of the ship and just behind that are the "Port Bow" and the "Starboard Bow". Most main parts of the ship are named after parts of animals ... the head, the bows (or boughs), which are the shoulders and the port and starboard quarters as in hind quarters. The very back bit is the stern, probably comes from the Old Norse for steering, so not from animals.

Nautical Glossary on Wictionary

FYI: Wiktionary has a huge list of words, organised in alphabetical order. You will not need to know many ... which is probably just as well :-)

There's also a very good list on working-the-sails.com, here: http://www.working-the-sails.com/sailing_terms.html

A very short English->Nautical dictionary.

FrontThe Bows, The Head
BackThe Stern
Backward(s)Aft, Aftward(s), Astern.
Left SidePort Side
Right SideStarboard Side
RopeIt depends, sorry. warp, sheet, halyard, painter. Nobody will too much mind 'rope'.
InsideBelow (usually ... on a ship they may use other terms for inside places at or above deck level.
WindowUsually "Porthole" if it can be opened and "Port Light" if it can't.
BedBerth or bunk
SeatUsually berth as they usually are both seat and bunk. Otherwise, probably 'seat'.
Living areaSaloon
ToiletHeads or "Sea Toilet"
Pointy EndThe Bows, the head.
Blunt EndThe Stern
Change DirectionThe important ones are "Tack", "Gybe" (or Gibe/Jibe), "Go About", "Lee (or Gybe) Ho!" because all of those mean the sails and their "Boom(s)" (pole at the bottom) will change side ... possible rapidly ... stay clear. Minor changes are "Bear Away" or "Luff Up"