Sailing Terminology

So, you’ve decided what to bring on your sailing excursion, and you are now properly outfitted for a day on the water. What else do you need to know to be safe and helpful? Whether you’re going just to relax and want to be ‘deck fluff’, or you’d like to learn enough to eventually skipper a boat yourself, it starts with basic stuff. Sailors have their own terminology, and this is important to know to have a successful trip.

Certainly, the most important thing you will need to remember is how to address the Captain of the vessel….particularly if he or she is the owner. You will probably know his or her name, but better results can usually be obtained by using the title of captain as well. You might also try something cheeky like Your Highness, Your Lordship, Captain Wonderful, Master and Commander.

Following is a detailed list of common sailing terminology that is useful for novices to learn, or at least be somewhat familiar with, before their first trip. At the bottom of this page, you will find diagrams of the boat with this terminology outlined. You will also find a link for additional terms if interested in learning more.

Basic Terminology – Parts of the Boat

BOW – [as in ‘bow wow’].         The front part of the boat – (the pointy end).

STERN –         The rear part of the boat – (the Not pointy end).

PORT –         To the Left. – Could be the left side of the boat or a direction, (“turn to port”).

STARBOARD –         To the Right. – Could be the right side of the boat or a direction, (“turn to starboard”).

** Hint: To keep port and starboard straight, just remember that both ‘port’ and ‘left’ have 4 letters. Also, ‘left and port’ are shorter words than ‘right’ and ‘starboard’.

RUDDER –         To Steering Flap in the water that controls the direction of the boat.

TILLER –         The Stick, connected to the rudder, that the captain moves to cause the rudder and boat to turn.

WHEEL –         On Larger boats, the Wheel takes the place of the Tiller, to allow for better leverage.

MAST –         Tall, vertical stick in the center of the boat to which the mainsail is attached.

BOOM –         Horizontal stick attached to the Mast, and to which the foot (bottom) of the mainsail is attached.

MAINSHEET –         Line / Rope that controls the mainsail.

WINCH –         A metal drum turned by a handle, around which the rope is wound to tighten a line.

MAINSAIL –         The large primary sail sheet that captures the wind to speed the boat.

FORESAIL –         The sail sheet at the front of the boat.


We usually use a jib, but there are others. What you don’t want to hear is, “break out the storm sail!?!”