Basic Sailing Terms – Our Top 20 List

There is something enticingly adventurous about the lingo of seafarers. When you hear a sturdy sea dog barking commands whilst out in his element, there is certainly much to fall in love with! That said, for newcomers entering the world of sailing, a veritable bevy of new vocabulary needs to be mastered.

Not knowing your port from your starboard can not only create an awkward barrier, but such crossed wires might even leave you and your crew mates in peril. With that in mind, we have compiled our top 20 list of basic sailing terms to help you set sail with confidence. While not an exhaustive list, these handy yachting terms will certainly help you to leave your land legs behind!

Iain Sailing in his dinghy

When getting to know your yacht, it makes sense that the place to begin is with basic boat anatomy. These terms will guide you as you navigate a new waterborne environment:


The word stern describes the back of the boat. Anything towards the back of the boat may be described as “aft” or “astern”, so it is best to commit all three to memory!


The front of the boat is known as the bow. Anything positioned towards the front of the boat is simply described as “forward”, so that one is a little easier to nail.


As you look towards the front of the boat, the port side is to your left. You will never hear a hardened seafarer say “left” or “right” when out on the water!


The right side of the boat, as you see it when turned to face the bow, is always referred to as starboard. While you may not have any directional reference points in the middle of the ocean, your craft will always be familiar.


The mast is the tall vertical pole that supports the sail. Smaller yachts will have one, while larger crafts might have two or three.


When we talk about rigging there are two things to consider. The boat's rig, or standing rigging, encompasses all elements that hold the mast upright, while the running rigging is comprised of all the elements that control the sails.


The mainsail is the largest and most important sail on any yacht – on smaller crafts it may be the only sail. This sail will extend aft of the mast.


The jib is the second most common sail that you might encounter. It will not have a boom and, while the mainsail extends aft of the mast, the jib can be spotted extending forward.


The boom is the horizontal pole which extends from the bottom of the mast and moves with the mainsail. You will become very well acquainted with monitoring where the boom is and making sure it doesn't swing towards you unexpectedly!


Sailors don't tend to use the word “ropes” but say lines instead. Some lines have their own names too, such as the sheets that pull the sail from one side of the boat to the other, or the halyards that hoist and lower the sail.


Whether your boat has a tiller or wheel, the spot in which steering takes place is described as the helm.


When you steer a boat, the tiller or wheel will alter the direction that the rudder faces, down in the water. As this flat board of metal, wood, or fibreglass turns, so too will the boat.


Keeping the rudder company underneath any yacht is the keel. The longer and larger profile acts just like the fin of a fish , stabilising the boat so it remains upright in the water.

Sue Green Sailing off Gibraltar in 2019

Are you ready for action?

Once aboard, you will feel the part if you can describe and understand what is going on in the heat of the moment. Getting to grips with these terms will leave you ready to make sail:

Point of Sail

The point of sail describes the boats direction relative to the direction of the wind. Since the wind is your primary means of propulsion, you will discover there are many ways to describe the boat's interaction with it. All in all, there are eight points of sail, so look these up to impress!


The term to windward in sailing means upwind and describes the direction from which the wind is blowing.


The opposite of windward is leeward and the meaning has several variations. To leeward can mean downwind from your vantage point, or the direction in which the wind is blowing. It also denotes the side or face of the yacht which is sheltered from the wind


Tacking describes turning the bow of the boat through the wind. This manoeuvre marks the moment in which you should watch out for the swinging boom!


While a less common manoeuvrer than tacking, jibing describes the opposite action performed for the same purpose. Namely, the stern of the boat is turned through the wind – with the boom making its swing once again.


Note that alongside its verb cousin, you will also hear tack used as a noun to describe direction. For example, you might sail on a starboard tack or a port tack.


As a yacht picks up speed its crew can enjoy the exhilarating experience of the boat leaning across the water, which is an action known as heeling. In moments like these, we find the fulfilment and freedom that only sailing can provide and remember why we took the time to learn so many new words in the first place!

Whether you are a newcomer to sailing or have years of experience, Jimmy Green Marine have every sailing accessory, tool, and resource that you might need to facilitate your passion. Don't forget to explore our site for not only the latest products, but also a spectrum of handy information for seafarers of any skill level.


Published: Apr 16, 2021