Basic nautical terms pleasure boaters should know
Here’s how you can sound like a seasoned mariner the next time you head out
Humans have taken to the seas for the entirety of our history, and the language used out on the water has also trickled into common usage. Words like underway and ahead originated from the sea, but today we use them in everyday conversation. However, some words are unique to boating, and for those new to the sea, knowing these terms will help you get your sea legs quicker.
We’ll start with the basics
Direction at sea is always relative to the craft, and to eliminate confusion, mariners don’t use left, right, and so on.
Bow. This is the front end of the boat.
Stern. This is the rear end of the boat.
Port. Looking directly at the bow from the stern, the port is the entire left side of the boat. If you want the boat to go in this direction, we usually say “head to port”.
Starboard. If the observer is looking at the bow, the starboard is the right side of the boat.
Ahead. This means the boat is going forward.
Astern. This means the boat is going backwards. Fun fact: it is widely believed that our Malaysian term ‘gostan’ comes from the word ‘go astern’ or ‘go stern’.
Here’s a few that are more complicated
Helm. It’s the steering wheel of a boat or ship. In very basic crafts, it may even be long bit of wood, known as a tiller, that is attached to the rudder of the craft.
Rudder. While we’re at it, rudders are a flat piece of metal, wood, or fibreglass that controls the direction of travel. In fact, rudder tuning is akin to wheel alignment on cars, and they play a huge role in the driving experience of a boat.
Windward. This is the direction in which the wind is currently blowing, and is especially important to know when sailing.
Leeward. Also known as lee, leeward is the direction opposite to the way the wind is blowing.
Fathom. While landlubbers know it as something akin to understand, fathom is actually a unit of measurement at sea. 1 fathom = 6 feet.
Batten down. During storms, small openings or hatches that are used to ventilate a yacht are covered with tarpaulin and wooden poles called battens are used to weigh it down, to prevent water from coming into the ship. Nowadays, the term is generally used in preparation for difficulty.
Feeling blue. Back in the day, crew members will fly a blue flag and paint a line of blue along a ship’s hull when the captain died. It is now a common metaphor for sadness.
Sea legs. This is a person’s ability to keep their balance at sea and also not feel seasick, but it has also passed into common usage that can mean getting accustomed to a situation.
Avast! This means stop what you’re doing, and we often hear it parodied in movies.
There are more comprehensive lists out there, but these are the words and terms that we believe are most important to learn, and others, like avast, can’t really be said with a straight face but is fun to know. What other words do you think we should have included?