Sailing Jargon – a glossary

When you start to sail you quickly realise that there is a technical term for everything. Ropes are “sheets", and every sheet has another smaller rope to help it. Left and right become “port” and “starboard”. Each part of the sail has a name and every wind direction requires a different approach. It can be over-whelming. So here is a quick introduction to some of the main terms you'll come across. You’ll pick up the rest as you go!

Parts of a boat

Bow: The front of the boat (also known as ‘fore’).

Stern: The back of the boat (also known as ‘aft’).

Hull: The body of the boat, which is sealed to prevent water from getting in. A hull can be open where you sit in it, as in the case of a dinghy, or a deck may cover it, as on a yacht.

Keel: The keel is a long, heavy fin on the bottom of the boat that sticks down into the water. It acts as a counter-weight to the mast, keeping the vessel stable and preventing it from being overturned into water.

Helm: this is where you steer the boat.

Rudder: A hinged blade-like rectangle fixed to the hull below the waterline at the back of the boat that allows for steering.

Tiller: how you steer the boat. A tiller is a pole that connects directly to the rudder and allows you to change the rudder’s angle directly. A (steering) wheel may also be connected to the rudder, but is a little more sophisticated.

Mast: This is the large pole that comes out of the middle of the boat and holds the main sail up.

Boom: This is a pole that is attached at a 90 degree angle to the mast. It holds down the bottom of the mainsail.

Deck: The horizontal surfaces or areas on the outside of a boat—like floors.

Port: Facing forward, this is anything to the left of the boat.

Starboard: Facing forward, this is anything to the right of the boat.

Ropes are VERY important in sailing and to confuse matters completely they are not called ropes – some are called sheets and some are called lines. Knowing what each rope is, is vital if you want to hold on to your various limbs while sailing.

Sheet: A rope attached to a sail which controls the sail’s angle to the wind.

Line: Any rope that’s not a sheet or doesn’t have its own special name.

Mainsheet. The rope that’s attached to the end of the boom, and which controls the mainsail’s angle to the boat and wind.

Main Halyard. A halyard is a rope that attaches to the top of sail. The main halyard is important because it allows you to reduce your sail power, acting like the “Off” button on an engine. The word ‘halyard’ comes from old English sailors who used to “haul yards”.

Sails are the engine of a sailboat—they turn wind into movement. Most sailboats—including dinghies—have two principal sails—the mainsail and the headsail.

Point of sail: the term used to describe the angle of the sail in relation to the wind direction.

Mainsail: This is the large sail that’s the main power of the boat—it's attached to the mast and the boom and is raised in the middle of the boat.

Headsail. This sail is at the front of the boat. There are several types, all with their own name, including the Jib, the Genoa and the Gennaker.

‘Reef the mainsail’. A reef is a mechanism that reduces the surface area of a sail in order to decrease its power. Reefing in high winds is a necessary safety precaution.

No Go Zone. Sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind, and there is 30- to 50-degree area that’s off limits.

Beating into the wind. A way to get around the no go zone by zigzagging the boat in the direction of the wind, staying outside the no go zone but tacking as needed.

Sailing upwind: This means sailing as close as possible to the direction that the wind is coming from.

Running downwind. The opposite of sailing upwind, the wind is coming from behind the boat if you’re sailing "on a run” or running downwind.

Tack: tacking means changing the direction of the boat as well as moving the sail from port to starboard or vice versa, when the wind is in front of you. Tack, the noun, means a specific direction and sail angle—so ‘staying on tack’ means to stay as you are.

Come about: Turning the bow of the boat through the wind to change direction.

Gybe. Gybing is similar to tacking, but the wind is behind you. This means the sail switches from port to starboard (or vice versa) really fast, and is much more difficult to control than tacking.

Ready about? This is a signal that the boat is about to tack or jibe.

Helm to Lee / Lee Ho. This means you’re turning the boat, and it’s going to tack or jibe. When you push the “helm” to the “leeward” (non-windy) side of the boat, the boat will tack or jibe.

Trim the sails! An order to adjust the sails to increase the speed of the boat.

Luff. If a sail isn’t trimmed properly, it will have areas of fabric that flap, and this is called luffing.

In irons: when a boat is trapped in the no go zone and unable change directions because it has lost speed.

Heeling. This is when the wind is very strong, causing the boat to lean so that the mast is no longer perpendicular to the water.

Rules of the Road / Priority.  In general, the boat that is most easy to manoeuvre gives way to a vessel that’s harder to manoeuvre.

Give way. Yield to another boat.

Mooring balls. Mooring means tying your boat to a rope or chain with a floating ball that is secured to a concrete block at the bottom of the bay or harbour.

Berth. A place to sleep, either for you or the boat! The beds in a boat’s cabin are called berths, and just to confuse you, so are the slips in a marina where boats can spend the night.

Class: class is the word that describes the type of boat you are sailing. There are many, many classes of boat. For example the “1720” is a type of sailboat named after the founding date of the Royal Cork Yacht Club which is one of the oldest yacht clubs in the world.

Handicap: Handicap in sailing is a system to allow different types of sailboats and crews to compete on an equal basis. It is measured in seconds per mile.