Sailing knots on a yacht

Nautical Terms | A Guide

Essential sailing terms glossary

‘Hoist the mainsail!’


‘Rig the anchor bridle’

Sailing can appear a forbidding sport, a confusing world filled with off-putting jargon and technical terms. There are rules, conventions, techniques, equipment, and traditions to learn. But cut through the clutter and you discover a wonderful sport, full of freedom, adventure and the thrill of the open sea.

When you learn to sail you are literally shown the ropes and taught that they are called sheets, lines, warps or painters. You learn that knots are hitches, and the stern is the back. Learning the sailing lingo is a rite of passage for many.

Sooner or later, that jargon becomes second nature, a clear method of communicating that helps you maneuver your yacht around the world’s most beautiful sailing areas. To help you master the basics, here is Sunsail’s definitive guide to the most important bits you need to know. Think you’re an expert? Keep an eye out for a few fun ones that may surprise even the saltiest of seadogs.


Anchor: One method of ‘parking’ your yacht, usually for a lunchtime stop in a quiet bay. A chain or line with a weighted hook on the end that grips the bottom of the sea floor and prevents your yacht from floating away

Apparent wind: A combination of the true wind direction and the headwind created by a yacht’s forward motion

Ashore: On the shore. Not on the yacht. Why are you not on the yacht?


Baggywrinkle: A soft covering for cables (or any other obstructions) that stops sails chafing

Bareboat: Bareboat is to sailing as free fall is to skydiving. Essentially it is sailing a yacht on your own. It is exhilarating, exciting and the rush of freedom is infectious

Beam: The width of the yacht

Berths: The number of people able to sleep on a specified yacht

Boom: The big, wide metal thing that sticks out from the mast at 90 degrees and is attached to the foot of the sail. Also the noise it makes when it hits you. Avoid this at all costs

Bow: The front of the yacht, not a pretty knot

Bridle: A system used to share the strain of an anchor evenly across two points. It reduces wear on the yacht, acts as a shock absorber, and silences the rattle of the anchor chain. Also helps prevent your catamaran from floating away


Cabins: Bedrooms on a yacht

Catamaran: A boat with two hulls

Chart: The map on which you check your position and plan your next voyage


Dinghy: Designed for quick trips between ship and shore. The small inflatable boat attached to the yacht

Draft: Not a type of beer. The minimum depth of water needed to float your boat

Dunsel: A part on a ship that has no use. 


Ease: To let the sails out


Fender: The rubber bubbly thing dangling off the side of the boat or a pontoon to help prevent damage to the boat or pontoon

Flemish: To coil a line that is not in use so that it lies flat on the deck

Forepeaks: The forward section of the hull that, depending on the yacht’s design, may be used as a sleeping space or a storage area. Not a mountain range

Flotilla: A fun group sailing vacation with up 12 boats, with guidance and support from a lead boat with a Skipper, Engineer, and Host. This type of vacation is a Sunsail specialty. 


Galley: The yacht’s kitchen

Genoa: The sail at the front of the yacht. Ours have a big red stripe around the outside. This sail is used to control the direction of the yacht, as well as adding some power. Not an Italian city

Gybe: To change from one tack to the other away from the wind, with the stern of the vessel turning through the wind


Halyard: The ropes used to pull things like sails up things like masts

Heads: Water closet, toilet, loo, dunny, the bog (you get it…)

Head to wind: See ‘In Irons’

Hold: The inside of the yacht’s hull

Helm: A tiller or wheel for steering the yacht. Also, a term to describe the helmsman.

Hull: The bit that floats. The main body, including the bottom and sides of a yacht. Not an English city


In Irons: See ‘Head to wind’; when the bow is pointing into the wind and the boat is difficult to maneuver under sail

Iron Mike: A slang term for auto-pilot. Not a famous boxer.

Itinerary: The intended route of travel on your flotilla or bareboat vacation. Usually planned in advance, these need to remain flexible to respond to weather conditions and personal preference


Keel: The central structural basis of the hull

Knot: Not just the loop you tie in a rope or string, but also a unit of speed (equal one nautical mile an hour)


Lazyjack: A network of cordage led from a point on the mast to points on the boom that help the sail to go down smoothly when lowered

LOA: Length overall – The maximum length of a yacht’s hull, including overhanging ends that extend beyond the main bow and main stern

LWL: Load waterline length – the length of a yacht that is in contact with the water.


Mainsail: The yacht’s main sail. This catches a lot of wind, and is where the majority of the yacht’s speed is generated when sailing

Mast: The big metal thing that soars from the bottom of the yacht into the sky. The sails are hoisted up it, using a complicated series of halyards

Med mooring: The art of reversing into a small gap and parking a yacht stern-to the quay. The typical mooring technique in most Mediterranean harbours. A great spectator sport

Monohull: A boat with one hull. The classic sailor’s yacht

Mooring: The second mode of ‘parking’- A buoy firmly anchored to the bottom, to which you are able to secure your yacht and prevents your yacht from floating away


Nautical Mile: A measure of distance on the water, equal to 1852 meters

Navigation: The art of working out (and occasionally planning) where you are and where you’re going


Ocean: very large body of water


Port: The left hand side of the boat when you face the front (bow). Not a fortified Portuguese wine

Prow: A poetical alternative term for bows


Quay: A stone or metal platform lying alongside or projecting into the water for parking, loading and unloading yachts and ships


Reefing: The primary and preferred method of reducing sail area, to de-power the yacht so that it is easier to control. Especially useful in higher winds and choppy conditions. 

Rip rap: A man-made pile of rocks and rubble. Used to form a breakwater, often surrounding an off-shore lighthouse or vulnerable harbour. Not a musical genre


Sails: The main driver of the yacht; an eco-friendly engine that converts wind power in boat speed by catching the breeze. Sailors constantly speak of trimming the sails to be as efficient as possible

Saloon: The living area, usually down below. Not a wild west bar

Skipper: The captain of your yacht

Starboard: The right-hand side of the yacht when you face the front (bow). Opposite of port

Stern: The rear of the yacht. Also, the skipper’s tone when your yacht floats away


Tacking: Zig-zagging so as to sail directly towards the wind (and for some yachts, also away from it)

Trampoline: You can try and bounce, but you probably won’t get very high. This is the netting at the front of the Catamaran that you can lie on and sun yourself

Trim: Adjustments made to sails to maximise their efficiency. Also refers to the position of hull relative to the waterline

True wind direction: Where the wind is actually coming from


Water: The wet, blue bit your yacht floats on

Waterline: The line where ship meets the sea

Winch: A rotating, horizontal drum, powered either by an electric motor or human cranking

Winch handle: The instrument used to crank a winch. Not a Two Ronnies sketch


Yacht: Boat, ship, sailboat; the wooden, aluminium, fibreglass or carbon fibre thing that floats and is largely powered by the wind, which it catches in its sails

Now you’ve learned or refreshed your nautical lingo, why not delve into the mysterious world of meteorology, with our guide to the clouds you’ll see at sea.

If this article is useful to you and you want to continue improving your sailing knowledge, then check out our range of sailing schools and courses in the US and overseas.


Ian Pedersen

Plan Your Dream Vacation