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A Jargon Busting Guide To Sailing

Do you know your pushpit from your pulpit and your aft from your auxiliary? If you don’t want to be left high and dry, it’s important to know all of the sailing terms before you set sail on the open seas.

Sailing jargon, which is packed with technical terms, can seem intimidating at the start. But don’t let this put you off a sport which is one of the most thrilling and fun out there. In the modern world, there really is nothing that compares to the freedom and adventure of sailing around some of the world’s most beautiful coastlines.

Once you learn the lingo, you’ll be able to use it to manoeuvre your boat safely and with ease, in any sailing scenario.

In this article, we’ll explain the most common sailing jargon and take a closer look at essential signage and to how to use your radio, making your transition from land to sea plain sailing.

Man on a boat out at sea

The lingo

Aft: The rear half of your boat.

Apparent wind: Apparent wind is the real wind direction together with the headwind which is created by your yacht moving forward.

Auxiliary: Your sailboat’s engine by another name.

Baggywrinkle: Baggywrinkle is the soft padding that surrounds your boat’s rigging in order to stop chafing of the sails. (This has to be one of our favorite sailing terms.)

Bow: In sailing, the bow is the front of your yacht.

Dunsel: The part of a boat which is useless or unnecessary. A name which you definitely want to avoid being called!

Gybe: This is a verb which means to change course by moving your sail across the following wind.

Heads: You want to keep what happens in the heads as far away from your head as possible, as it’s a boat’s toilet. Why such a seemingly bizarre name? Heads get their name from the fact that the head or the bow of the boat was always downwind and the toilets were placed here so that the odor would be carried away from the boat.

Helm: This is where the skipper will steer your boat.

Sailor at the helm

Keel: This is the large fin under the bottom of your boat. Hopefully, you won’t see it when you’re sailing.

Lines: Your yacht’s ropes are known as ‘lines’. There are loads of them, so be careful when you’re walking around the deck!

Mainsail: This one’s pretty obvious but is worth mentioning as it’s the most important (and biggest) sail on your boat. It’s weighed down by a large pole at the base known as a ‘boom’. Don’t let the boom hit your head, as it can do some serious (even fatal) damage.

Mooring: If you want to spend a little time on dry land, you’re going to have to moor – or ‘park’ – your boat. You moor a boat when you attach it by a rope to the shore or when you attach it to an anchor. If you hear people talking of ‘med mooring’, this is when you park your boat in a small space, with the back (the stern) to the quay. The name comes from the fact that boats are parked like this on harbors along the Mediterranean.

Port and Starboard: Port is to the left of your yacht (when you face the front), starboard is to the right.

Pulpit: A pulpit is the steel platform at the front of a boat.

Pushpit: The pushpit is a raised safety rail at the back of a boat.

Reef: A reef is a strip across a sail. Reefs can be rolled up in order to reduce the area of the sail exposed to the wind. Therefore, the verb ‘to reef’ means to decrease the sail area. For example, it’s a good idea to reef the mainsail in strong winds.

Tacking: When you’re tacking your boat, you’re changing its course by turning the front of it into the wind.

Sailing signage made simple

buoy out at sea

Before you set sail, it’s vital to know about the different regulatory marks. When you see a regulatory mark (a white “can” buoy), you’ll be able to see what it is telling you by the orange shape displayed on it.

  • An open diamond – This shape means danger. The nature of the danger will normally be written inside the diamond. It could be anything from rocks to a dam.
  • A diamond with a cross – This is a boating ‘do not enter’ sign. It could be that you are next to a zone which is set aside for swimming or there could a dam ahead.
  • A square – This will give you information about everything from distances to directions.
  • A circle – Restrictions are ahead. For example, this could be a speed limit.

For more information on boat signage, head to the Boat US Foundation website.

Using your radio

man next to boat radio

It’s one of the most important pieces of safety equipment on your boat, so take the time to learn how to use your radio properly.

First and foremost, ensure that you know the channels and their purpose. For example, channel 16 is used for safety and distress calls, so you don’t want to start using this channel for normal conversations.

If you do find yourself in trouble, tune your radio to channel 16, with the power set to high and say “Mayday” three times. If you’re in trouble but your situation isn’t life-threatening at that moment, “pan-pan” three times is more appropriate.

You’ll then need to tell the Coast Guard your boat’s name, description and your location (latitude and longitude) and what kind of emergency situation is underway. Be prepared to answer further questions.

Sailing terms needn’t leave you all at sea…

Learning the theory now will mean you can take to the seas a confident sea dog, rather than a landlubber. We hope we’ve helped you to get started. Happy sailing!


We hope you found this article helpful. If you are interested in learning more about marine life, why not take a look at one of our other posts?

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