Learning and using proper nautical terms in an emergency can save time and lives. Following are some common nautical terms. Knowing these will help boaters communicate with others aboard the boat as well as with fellow mariners.
In the middle portion of a vssel, along the line of the keel.
When the anchor is lifted from the bottom it is said to be “Aweigh.”
Dipping or scooping water out of the boat.
The width of a vessel at the widest point, or a point alongside the ship at the mid-point of its length.
The lowest compartment on a vessel where the two sides meet.
Boats are smaller than Ships. As defined by the Navigation Rules, the dividing point between a boat and a ship is 20 meters (65.6 feet).
A pole with a hook on the end, used to reach into the water to catch buoys or other floating objects.
The front end of a vessel is the bow. When moving toward the bow, the proper term is “going forward.”
An upright wall within the hull of a vessel. Particularly a watertight, load-bearing wall.
Occurs when a line or other part of a vessel rubs against a rough surface and causes wear.
Located in the bow. Used to store anchor chain and/or line.
A magnetic “Compass” points to magnetic north and is used to navigate the vessel. A magnetic compass requires no electrical power and is an essential safety part of any vessel to avoid getting lost.
Deckhouse, Cabin and Cuddy
Boats may be open, or may have a “Deckhouse,” “Cabin,” or “Cuddy” to shelter against the elements. A deckhouse or cabin is an enclosed area. A cuddy is a relatively open shelter.
The portion of the vessel attached to the hull on which the cabin or superstructure sits.
A small boat carried on, or towed behind, a larger vessel. Can serve as a lifesaver if abandoning ship becomes necessary.
The vertical measurement from the waterline to the lowest part of the boat bottom, usually the keel or propeller.
Constructed from soft rubber or plastic and used between boats and other objects such as pilings, piers, and docks to protect the boat from damage.
Floating debri from a wrecked vessel.
The compartment in the bow where the chain locker is located.
Distance from the waterline to the deck.
Climbing the rigging or masts.
Moving from an upper deck to a lower deck or cabin.
Moving from a lower deck to an upper deck or cabin.
Placed on deck, below deck and the overhead for personal safety when moving about the vessel.
When the vessel touches the bottom as a result of being in water not of adequate depth. It is said to be aground when it is stuck in the bottom.
Gunwale (pronounced, "gun'll")
Upper edge of the hull.
To call another vessel to establish communications.
Fully or completely, as in hard to starboard, meaning to turn fully to the right.
Vessel motion in a forward direction.
On a sailboat the force of the wind on the sails which causes the boat to move forward also causes it to lean away from the wind and is referred to as heeling, or to “Heel”.
The area where the wheel or tiller is located. The person at the helm is called the helmsman regardless if they are male or female.
The bottom portion of the vessel that sits in the water and extends upwards to the deck.
Floating material that has been deliberately thrown overboard.
The backbone of the boat. Runs along the bottom center bottom the boat. The hull is built on the keel.
Compartments on the aft deck used for general storage.
The drift of a vessel to leeward of the course being steered.
Length Overall (LOA)
Distance along the centerline from the bow to the stern excluding any appendages such as pulpits.
Length at the Waterline (LWL)
Distance along the centerline at the waterline under a normal load.
Made of wire or chain. Installed above the toe rail connected between stanchions (posts used to support the lifeline). If they are made of a solid material they are called liferails. They are used to help keep people from falling overboard.
Also known as a Personal Floatation Device. (PFD) Provides buoyancy to keep a person afloat while in the water. They can be in the form of vests, belts, jackets, cushions and life rings. Be sure to use only Coast Guard approved PFDs!
A rope used on a boat. The term rope is not used in the nautical world. Lines used to secure the boat to a structure are referred to as mooring or dock lines. A painter is a line from the bow of a dinghy used for towing or securing it to a dock.
A distress call made when life or property are in grave and imminent danger and require immediate assistance.
From the Latin words “navis” meaning ship, and “agree” meaning to drive. To drive or steer a vessel on an intended course.
Oars and Paddles
“Oars” and “Paddles” are long shafts used to propel the boat through the water. Paddles can be used on small boats in an emergency if the engine fails.
If an object falls over the side into the water it is said to be “Overboard”. Man Overboard is the phrase yelled when a person unintentionally falls from a vessel.
The "ceiling," or, essentially, the bottom of the deck above you.
Port and Starboard
When looking toward the bow of the boat, the entire right side of the boat is the “Starboard” side. The entire left side is the “Port” side. One way to remember this: The word right has more letters than the word left. The word starboard has more letters than the word port. The left front side of the boat is the port bow and the right front side is the starboard bow. The left center side of the boat is the port beam and the right center side is the starboard beam.
Attached to the engine by a through-the-hull shaft. Provides propulsion for the vessel. A stuffing box is used to seal the hole where the shaft traverses the hull.
A waist high extension of railing made of rigid tubing. An important safety feature. The lifelines attach to the pulpits therefore pulpit require solid mounts. If the pulpit is on the bow, it is a bow rail or pulpit. If it is on the stern, it is referred to as a stern pulpit or push-pit.
The rear quadrant from the beam to the stern. The left rear of the boat is the port quarter and the right rear is the starboard quarter.
Protrusions on the sides of the hull to protect the vessel from docks, pilings and other boats when coming alongside of them.
A flat surface near the rear of the boat connected to the wheel or tiller used to steer the boat.
Ships are larger than boats. As defined by the Navigation Rules, the dividing point between a boat and a ship is 20 meters (65.6 feet).
The structural support in front of the rudder post that protects the rudder.
The rear of a boat is the “Stern.” When moving toward the stern, the proper term is “going aft”.
Swim Step or Swim Platform
“Swim Platforms” are attached or built into the transom while “Swim Steps” are ladders or steps that hang down into the water, both aid in boarding from swimming or dinghy use. “Swim Platforms” are very helpful in man-overboard (MOB) recovery because they are at water level and allow people easier access to the water. Always be sure to shut off the engines when people are in the water near the boat. Putting the engine in neutral is not safe because the propeller can continue to turn enough to do bodily injury and there is the possibility that someone may inadvertently lean on the gear selector, putting the boat into motion.
When a vessel is moving fast enough to have the ability to steer it is said to have “Steerageway”.
Backward movement of a vessel.
When something is put in its proper place it is stowed.
A lever attached directly to the top of the rudderpost.
A narrow strip on the outboard edge of the deck designed to prevent slipping off the deck.
The flat side of the hull at the stern of the vessel. If the stern is pointed like the bow, then it has no transom, and is referred to as a "double-ender" or "canoe stern."
Under way vs Adrift
When a boat is moving, either by power or sail, it is “under way.” A boat moving forward is moving ahead. When the boat moves backwards, it is going astern. A vessel is “adrift” when it is moving solely due to the wind or current.
A broad term used to describe all waterborne vehicles.
A vessel used for pleasure as opposed to one used for work. There are no formally established size limits, but the term yacht is usually reserved for vessels 40 feet and over. The term, “Mega Yacht,” generally refers to vessels 80 feet and over. “Super Yacht” is the term for vessels longer than 150 feet.
The vee shaped waves trailing a moving boat.
Turbulence caused by a spinning propeller.
Waterline and Boot-Top
Refers to the point at the water surface as the vessel floats in the water. A “Boot-top” is the stripe of contrasting paint imediately above the waterline.
Attached to the rudder via mechanical or hydraulic means. Turns the rudder which changes the vessel's course.
Windward and Leeward
“Windward” is the direction from which the wind is blowing at the time in question. “Leeward” is the direction downwind from the point of reference.
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