Sailor’s Slang and other Nautical Terms

Do you know your mainsail form your spinnaker? Port from starboard?

On a sailing and diving holiday, you might be feeling footloose and fancy free, but do you know what that actually means?

Knowing the right sailing terms to use on board a boat is helpful in communicating while you’re on a sailing holiday. Terms used by sailors for hundreds of years are still used today. They are scattered throughout the English language, some dating back to the16th and 17th century.

Here are some basic nautical terms that every sailor should know as well as some fun sayings that have crept into everyday language, but have their origin in the great sailing tradition.

Let’s start with Sailor’s Slang

Many words and expressions originate from our relationship with the sea. Commonly used words and phrases such as ‘overwhelm’ (from the Middle English word meaning “to capsize”) and “Please stand by” (an expression derived from the command for sailors to be ready). By no means a comprehensive list, here are some of the best:

  • Don’t rock the boat – Keep things the way they are.
  • Batten Down the Hatches – Prepare for trouble, take precautionary measures. Coming from the need to close all the hatches when passing through a storm or rough seas – doesn’t happen often when sailing in Greece, but still.
  • Above board – meaning honest. Pirates would often hide much of the crew below the deck. The ships that showed their crew on the deck were thought to be honest merchant ships known as “above board”.
  • Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – Caught between significant difficulties.
  • All hands on deck – everyone help out. A term used to command all seamen to their stations and prepare for action.
  • High and Dry – Stranded without any hope of recovering with no solution in sight. Highly unlikely under the watch of our Captain and crew.
  • Bale out – getting out of a situation. To bale out originally meant to remove water from a vessel.
  • Three Sheets to the Wind – very, very drunk.
  • Binge – immoderately indulgence. A nautical term for cleaning out something, such as a cask of rum. A sailor who had cleaned out such a rum cask was known to ‘have a binge’.
  • Carry on – to continue onward or go on with a task. In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a constant eye on the change in the wind so that the sails could be adjusted to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to “carry on” would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry.

Parts of the boat and useful sailing terms

  • Port – Port is always the left-hand side of the boat when you are facing the bow.
  • Aft or Stern – The back part of a ship.
  • Bow – The front of the ship is called the bow.
  • Starboard – Starboard is always the right-hand side of the boat when you are facing the bow.
  • Deck  – the top of the boat which covers the hull.
  • Boom – The boom is the horizontal pole extending from the bottom of the mast. Adjusting the boom towards the direction of the wind is how the sailboat is able to harness wind power in order to move forward or backwards.
  • Rudder – a flat piece of wood, fiberglass or metal located beneath the boat, the rudder is used to steer the ship. Bigger sailboats control the rudder via a wheel, while smaller sailboats have a steering mechanism directly aft.
  • Mainsail – the sail aft of the mast attached to the mast and the boom
  • Headsail/Jib – the sail between the forestay and the mast
  • Spinnaker – a large balloon like sail attached to the mast at the front of the boat . Used for sailing downwind.
  • Halyard – a line used to raise a sail
  • Sheet – a line used to adjust a sail
  • Winch – device used to tighten a line
  • Cleat – a device used to secure a line
  • Leeward – Also known as lee, leeward is the direction opposite to the way the wind is currently blowing (windward).
  • Windward – The direction in which the wind is currently blowing. Windward is the opposite of leeward (the opposite direction of the wind). Sailboats tend to move with the wind, making the windward direction an important sailing term to know.
  • Tacking – this is a basic sailing maneuver and refers to turning the bow of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side. The boom of a boat will always move from one side to the other when performing a tack.
  • Jibing – The opposite of, and a less common technique than tacking, this basic sailing maneuver refers to turning the stern of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side.
  • Ease – to let out the sails
  • Trim– to pull in the sails for maximum efficiency
  • Bowline – one of the most useful knots that everyone should know – we can teach you on our SailnDive Trips
Now that you can talk the talk, come sail the sail with us!

Beginners welcome.

Do you have any terms to add? Let us know in the comments

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