Basic Sailboat Terms

Essential Words You Need to Know

Two men and a woman race each other in small sailing dinghys in windy conditions.
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The following are terms related to sailboats and their equipment. Learn the parts of a sailboat and how to communicate them whether you are learning how to sail or enhance discourse. Go here for terms related to the act of sailing. Below is a list in alphabetical order of all things nautical, from 'auxiliary' to 'yawl.'

A to E

  • Auxiliary - A sailboat's engine, or a sailboat with an engine
  • Backstay - The (usually wire) cable from the stern to the masthead, helping support the mast
  • Ballast - The weight in a sailboat's keel (sometimes in a centerboard) that helps keep the boat from heeling too much
  • Batten - A (usually plastic) slat placed in a pocket in the mainsail to help it maintain good shape
  • Beam - The width of the boat at its widest point
  • Bitter end - The free end of a line
  • Block - A pulley-like device used on a boat, with a sheave around which a line runs; see photo here of mainsheet block and tackle on a small boat
  • Boom - The (usually horizontal) spar back from the mast to which the foot of a sail is attached; see photo here
  • Boom vang - A device that prevents the boom from rising (and in some types, from lowering); see How to Use a Boom Vang
  • Bow - The front section of the boat
  • Cat rig - A sailboat designed for using a mainsail only, with the mast usually located more forward than in a sloop; see photo here
  • Centerboard - A thin keel-like structure that can be raised (usually rotated on a hinge up into a centerboard trunk in the hull); present on many sailboats without a fixed keel to prevent the boat from being blown sideways; see photo here of the top of a small boat centerboard
  • Chock - A type of fairlead fitting through which an anchor rode or dock line passes, to reduce chafing
  • Cleat - A fitting around which a line is secured; see How to Tie a Cleat Hitch
  • Companionway - The entrance area and steps from the cockpit into a sailboat's cabin
  • Clew - The lower rear corner of a sail
  • Daggerboard - Like a centerboard, but raised and lowered vertically instead of rotating on a hinge
  • Daysailer - A (usually) small sailboat without a cabin larger enough for comfortable overnight cruising
  • Dinghy - A type of small sailboat; a small row or powered craft typically taken along when cruising in a larger sailboat
  • Displacement - The weight of a boat (equal to the weight of water the boat displaces)
  • Dodger - A spray shield (often of fabric, foldable or removable) at the front of the cockpit
  • Draft - The distance from a boat's waterline to the lowest part of its keel

F to J

  • Fender - A (usually rubber) bumper hung alongside to prevent the hull from rubbing against a dock or other structure
  • Foot - The bottom edge of a sail (compare to leach and luff)
  • Forestay - The (usually wire) cable from the bow to the masthead, helping support the mast; see photo here
  • Forward - Toward the bow
  • Freeboard - The height of the deck above the water (the topsides section of the hull)
  • Gate - An opening in the lifelines for boarding the boat; also called gangway
  • Genoa - A large jib sail (the clew extends aft of the mast)
  • Gooseneck - The fitting that attaches the boom to the mast; see photo here of a small sailboat's gooseneck
  • Ground tackle - Collective term for a boat's anchor and anchor rode
  • Gunwale (sometimes gunnel) - the outer edge of the boat's deck and cockpit; also called the rail
  • Halyard - Line or wire used to hoist a sail; see photo here
  • Hank on - To attach a jib sail to the forestay with small snap hooks (called hanks)
  • Head - The bathroom of a boat; also the top corner of a sail
  • Helm - The means by which the sailboat is steered: the tiller or wheel
  • Jackline - A line, strap, or wire secured over the deck as an attachment point for the tether of a safety harness
  • Jib - The triangular sail attached to the forestay; see also How to Trim the Jib

K to O

  • Keel - The (usually permanent) lower section of a sailboat's hull that counteracts sideways movement and typically contains ballast; see also Sailboat Keel Shapes
  • Ketch - A type of sailboat with two masts; see photo here
  • Lanyard - A short cord or line, often used to secure a piece of gear (knife, whistle, etc.) that might be dropped
  • Leech - The back edge of a jib or mainsail (compare to luff and foot)
  • Lifeline - A line or wire (often vinyl coated) all around the boat, held up with stanchions, to prevent falling overboard
  • Line - Any piece of rope used on a boat
  • Luff - The leading edge of a jib or mainsail (compare to leach and foot)
  • Mainmast - The mast, or the tallest mast of a sailboat with multiple masts
  • Mainsail - The sail affixed to and behind the mainmast
  • Mast - A tall vertical pole on a sailboat to support sails and rigging; see photo here
  • Mast step - The support structure for the bottom of the mast; see photo here of a deck-stepped mast
  • Mizzen - The smaller aft mast on a ketch or yawl; the mizzensail is affixed to and behind the mizzenmast
  • Multihull - A catamaran (two hulls) or trimaran (three hulls)
  • Outhaul - A fitting to adjust the tension of the foot of the mainsail on the boom

P to T

  • Padeye - A (usually metal) fitting with a loop or hoop to which other gear is attached
  • Pendant (sometimes pennant) - A short line attaching the bow of a boat to a mooring, or a short wire attached to a sail or halyard as an extension
  • PFD - Personal flotation device (such as a lifejacket or inflatable PFD)
  • Port - The left side of the boat (when facing forward); opposite of starboard
  • Preventer - A Line or other device used to prevent the boom from accidentally gybing from one side to the other; see How to Rig a Preventer Line
  • Pulpit - A (usually stainless steel) rail around the bow or stern typically at the height of the lifelines
  • Rail - the outer edge of the boat's deck and cockpit; also called the gunwale
  • Rig (or rigging) - The mast, boom, and associated equipment including stays, shrouds, sheets, and halyards
  • Rode - The line or chain between an anchor and the boat
  • Roller furler - A device by which a sail is rolled up, such as the jib rolling around a rotating forestay fitting; see photo here
  • Rudder - An appendage below or on the boat's stern that is rotated (by moving the tiller or wheel) to steer the boat; see photo here of a small boat rudder
  • Safety harness - Personal gear (a separate harness or may be built into a PFD) that attaches to a tether to keep the person on board; see Tether
  • Sail ties - Short straps or pieces of line used to tie a lowered mainsail to the boom or secure a sail on deck
  • Schooner - A type of sailboat with two or more masts, the forward one being shorter than the main mast; see photo here
  • Seacock - A valve fitting for closing an opening through the boat's hull (drains, water pipes, etc.)
  • Shackle - A (usually metal) fitting that secures two things together, such as a halyard shackle connecting to a sail
  • Sheet - The line used to let out or trim in a sail; on a sloop, a mainsheet and two jibsheets
  • Shroud - Wire or line stay from the deck or hull supporting the mast on each side; see photo here
  • Sloop - A type of sailboat with one mast and two triangular sails (main and jib); see photo here
  • Sole - The floor of the cockpit or cabin
  • Spinnaker - A lightweight sail used downwind, often ballooning in front of the boat
  • Spreaders - Metal struts on the mast that hold the shrouds out from the mast for a better support angle
  • Stanchions - Short metal poles around the boat's perimeter that support the lifelines
  • Starboard - The right side of the boat (when facing forward); opposite of port
  • Stay - Wire or line from the deck or hull to support the mast; stays include the forestay, backstay, and shrouds (on the sides)
  • Tack - The bottom front corner of a sail
  • Telltales - Pieces of yarn or ribbons on the luff of a sail to help with trimming, or fastened to shrouds to show the wind direction
  • Tether - A short line or strap that runs between a safety harness and a point of attachment on the boat, to prevent going overboard; see photo here
  • Tiller - A long handle connected to the rudder or rudder post on many sailboats for steering; see photo here of one type of tiller
  • Topping lift - A wire or line from the masthead that holds up the boom when the sail is lowered; see How to Use a Topping Lift
  • Topsides - The area of outer hull above the waterline
  • Traveler - A fitting allowing the mainsheet attachment to the boat to be adjusted side to side; see How to Use a Mainsheet Traveler

U to Z

  • Vang - See Boom vang
  • Whisker pole - A pole used to hold out the jib when sailing off the wind
  • Winch - A drum-like device used to pull in lines under strain (halyards, sheets)
  • Windless - A heavy winch used with the anchor rode
  • Yawl - A type of sailboat with two masts, the aft one (mizzen) being behind the rudder post; see photo here