Sailing Terms You Need To Know


Asked to recall your first time on a sailboat, many will tell you that it felt a lot like being a tourist in a foreign country.


Sailing terms in and off themselves is like learning a new language.


So in order to truly know your way around a boat, race-course or if you just want  to show off your high level of seamanship at the bar in the local sailing club, it is vital that you familiarize yourself with the most used sailing terms. 


 If you prefer video format, this should help:


Sailing Terminology

 So let’s get into it. Below is a list of the most common sailing terms:


·        Starboard: The right side of the ship when someone is facing forward.


·        Port: This is the left-hand side.


·        Windward: This is the side of the boat that is closest to the wind direction.


·        Leeward: The side furthest away from the wind direction.


·        Bow: The front of the boat is in sailing language referred to as the bow.


·        Stern: The back of the boat.


·        Bear away: If you find yourself in a close encounter with a bear you may try to scare it by yelling for it to go away. It probably will notwork.

Here's a chart : 

nautical terms
courtesy of Wikipedia


Okay, joking aside, bear away has nothing to do with the animal. Instead,to bear away means that you are turning your boat away from the direction of the wind.


Another popular term for this is “falling off”. So if you are ever instructed to “fall off” by one of your crew members, please think twice before you leap off the boat into the sea.



·        Heading up: The opposite of bearing away. This will turn the boat toward the wind direction. 


·        Tiller: This is what’s most commonly known as the rudder. However, a sailor will insist that the rudder will be under the water but that you fortunately have a wooden stick in your cockpit to control that rudder.


That wooden stick is called a tiller. And sometimes that tiller will be extended by another stick. That stick will be called a tiller-extension.Finally something that makes sense!



·        Points of Sail: This is the direction you are going relatively to the direction from where the wind is coming.


In total there are five points of sail. 


If you are steering your boat directly up against the wind, you are “In Irons” or more commonly said “Head-to-wind”. Oftentimes, that is something to be avoided. 


If you are sailing as close to the wind direction as it is efficiently possible, you are sailing “Close-hauled”,referring to how closely you have hauled the sails toward the midline of the boat.


Close-hauled” will likely bring you around 40-45 degrees away from “Head-to-wind”. 


As you increase this angle towards 90 degrees you will enter what is known as Beam Reach.


Beam Reach will be significantly faster than Close-hauled but it will not bring you closer upwind. 


Pointing even more away from Head-to-wind you will move into a Broad Reach. For most boats, this will be the fastest point-of sail. Finally, as you point your bow directly away from the wind direction you are said to be Running.


·        Tack: If you are already confused, I will firmly advise you to lay down and take a break before you continue reading this section.


For some reason a tack is not just something you can do, it is also something you can be. Kind of like the word “work” - and your spouse will probably think that you are...


Anyway, your tack refers to the side of your boat that is facing to windward. So if the starboard side of your boat is to windward, you will find yourself on starboard tack and vice versa if you are on port tack. And now to the tricky part.


Moving from one tack to another tack by passing your bow through head-to-wind is named. Yes you guessed it. A tack!! 


·         Jibe (Usa) or Gybe (British): In case you decide to change tack by turning your bow away from the wind direction is not a tack. That is a gybe, Obviously! And please be aware that when someone is counting down to a gybe you better channel your inner schoolkid trying to avoid being asked a question in class. Duck down and keep your head low. The boom may pass through the cockpit with quite some force.


·      Boom: Perhaps the term that makes the most sense in the world of sailing. The boom is a horizontal pole fitted to the mast with the purpose of keeping the mainsail in place. And it is called a boom because of the sound it will make if you don't duck your head down in the aforementioned gybe.


·        Sheets: Lines of rope controlling how closely hauled the sails are. There will be sheets for each sail that is worn - and sometimes one sheet for each tack.


·        Halyards: Lines of rope that pulls the sails to the top of the mast. There will likely be 1 halyard for each sail.


·        Sails: There is many, many, many different sails available for different types of sailboats.


Most of them, however, are outfitted with three. A mainsail, a jib and spinnaker.


The mainsail is counter-intuitively not the biggest sail on a boat. That is the spinnaker but it is the sail that you will use for most of the time when sailing as it is worn during upwind as well as downwind.


It is fitted to the mast and the boom and controlled by the main sheet.


The jib is fitted to therefore and will be positioned between the bow and the mast.


It will be controlled by the jib-sheets. One sheet for starboard tack and one for port tack.

The spinnaker is by far the most advanced sail to use. It is used only for downwind sailing and will require the use of spinnaker-poles, halyards,pole-controls and spinnaker-sheets. For now, let’s stay clear of the details though!


·        Buoy: If you are not a native English speaker this will surely be the hardest word you have ever tried to pronounce. Heck even if you're fluent English, it's a tough one!  It is a mark that is placed in the sea to aid navigation. For racing, its used to set the race course and for recreational sailing it is used to mark of areas to avoid (among a few other purposes).


Thus, when you’re crew informs you that there is a “b(u)oy” in the water, please be aware that this piece of information may not prompt an instant 911 call.


·       Capsize: When a boat heels over so far that the keel is lifted out of the water. This happens when too much wind is being caught by the sails. The consequences of this may vary. Small dinghies may turn all the way upside-down, while regular keel boats will turn head-to-wind and righten by itself. 


·        Reefing: In order to avoid the risk of capsizing, an effective approach is to reef the sails if the wind gets too breezy. Reefing means that the area of the mainsail is reduced by pulling it down a few meters leaving less sailcloth to catch the wind. 

sailing terms


·        Catamaran/Trimaran: This category of boats is called multi-hulls.Mostly sailboats are mono-hulls, referring to the fact that they have just one-hull. Catamarans, instead have two hulls while trimarans have three. 



·        The Cunningham: This is a classic trim-line that will really set you apart from all the sailing-noobs out there. The Cunningham is a control line which controls the part of the mainsail closest to the mast. If you are able to successfully apply this term in your sailing vocabulary all the gritty veterans of sailing will pay a lot more attention to your stories in the bar.


On the other hand, if you do not completely understand its purpose, its very easily misplaced in conversation. Use with caution.


 We hope you enjoyed learning about some very common sailing terms. You’re on the right path to learning all there is to know about sailing.Don’t be too hard on yourself when starting out, there’s a lot to take in and you won’t learn all these sailing terms in one go.


We all have to start somewhere. It takes time! You can check out our how to sail guide or how to sail against the wind to improve your sailing knowledge.


Happy Sailing