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15 Nautical Terms

You Need to Know When Learning to Sail

If you are brand new to sailing you might be a bit fazed by the terminology.  Sailing uses words we don’t use in everyday life, or if we do, it’s with a different meaning.  It can be a daunting and put people off. But there really is no need. Learn a few basic terms and the rest will follow quickly. Below are 10 nautical terms to learn before you learn to sail:

Port – Port is the left-hand side of a boat as you are facing forward. If sailing at night it is denoted with a red light. It’s easy to remember by thinking of the drink of port being red, and traditionally one should pass the port to the left…

Starboard – So Starboard is the right-hand side of the boat when facing forward and is denoted by a green light at night.

Bow/Aft – the bow is the front of the boat (the pointy bit) and the aft is the back. To confuse you even more the aft (or back of the boat) is sometimes called the stern!

Helm – this is what you use to steer a boat.  It can be a wheel or a tiller (a tiller is a long bit of wood attached to the rudder (the rudder is a long flat piece of wood/fiberglass under the boat))

Tack – to tack means to move the bow of the boat through the wind so that the wind moves from one side of the boat to the other. You do this when you want to change direction. This should be done in a controlled manner as the boom will move across from one side to the other. You really don’t want your head near that!  

Jibe/gybe – to jibe means to move the stern of the boat through the wind to change direction. Again, it must be done in a controlled manner as a “crash jibe” (one that is not controlled, or accidental) can damage the boat and your head!

Windward – the side of the boat closest to the wind. When heeling (boat tipping over) this will be the high side, the side not tipping over.

Leeward – the side of the boat furthest from the wind. When heeling it will be the side that is tipping over and closest to the sea.

Boom – the boom is the horizontal pole stick out of the mast and on which the mainsail (more on that later) is attached. Adjusting the boom is how you get the boat to go faster.  

Mainsail – the triangular piece of cloth attached to the boom and mast. It is the “main” sail, the most important one  

Jib – this is the sail at the front (bow) of the boat.  It is connected to the mast at the top but does not have a boom.


Point of sail this means the direction the boat is sailing in, in relation to the wind. There are 8 commonly used points of sail including broad reach (when the wind is blowing between the beam (the widest bit of the boat) and the stern, beam reach (when the wind is blowing on the beam, at 90 degrees to the boat) and close hauled (sailing as close to the wind as the boat will allow you to)

Bear away – To bear away is to sail the boat away from the wind.

Sheets – ropes on boats are rarely called ropes, and sheets refers to ropes that are attached to sails that you use to control them. So, if asked to release the mainsheet, you would let out some of the rope attached to the mainsail.

Heading – your heading is the direction, or bearing (referencing the point on the compass you are sailing to) that you are sailing.

Reef – to reef when sailing means to reduce the amount of sail you have out.  This is usually done when there is a lot of wind, when reducing the sail area makes the boat sail better.

That’s it for now, don’t get me started on the terminology for inside the boat! Why are toilets called heads BTW?

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