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Language of the Sea

The proper use of nautical terms provides clarity for the crew.

Despite the ribbing and head-scratching reactions that it inspires from our land-bound friends, nautical vernacular is as essential today as ever. Nomenclature can seem awfully esoteric, especially if knowing the difference between a bowsprit and a boomkin is of little use in your life on board. Yet, there are common everyday terms we all share. Knowing these terms is part of the art of seamanship.

Photo of Pat Mundus

Pat Mundus

Whether you learn the lingo from family and shipmates, or you glean it from reading materials and watching videos, once mastered, it creates a shared mother tongue for mariners. Objects and places, procedures, conditions, and levels of intensity all have specific words to describe them. Nothing sets a seaman’s teeth on edge faster than hearing someone call for “putting out the bumpers” instead of “rigging the fenders.” The correct usage is not about the captain’s need to show off, but instead is about providing clarity—and indicating our respect for the subject matter.

The right nautical language has a purely functional purpose, too. At a minimum, every seaman should learn the common names to describe a vessel’s landscape. This includes, but is not limited to, the transom, topsides, sheer, deck and deckhouse, boot top, chine, cockpit, flybridge, Bimini top, bulkhead, coamings, rail caps, bilges, lockers and sole. Fluency in the names of various deck fittings, docking equipment and anchoring gear is essential, too. For communication and teamwork to be possible, everyone needs to know the difference between open and closed chocks, a scupper and a hawse, bitts and cleats, and docking breast lines and spring lines. Passengers should also be familiar with the correct names of all the parts and pieces that make up the ground tackle system. Using the right words can avoid stressful misunderstandings or, worse yet, arguments among the crew.

We know all too well that directions sometimes get communicated in a hurry. The right words make a world of difference. “Fend off the bow pulpit” is a specific, emphatic directive that takes only seconds to articulate. Compare that to, “push away and keep the anchor and the bow safety-protection from hitting that dock structure.” Fend off, surge, hold, haul away, make fast, stand by, belay that (there’s an old-school phrase), let go, ease, stop off, take the strain off and flake out are all succinct yet highly effective directives.

The gooseneck connects
 a boom to the mast.

The gooseneck connects a boom to the mast.

Accurate nomenclature also describes places and locations on board, which are often relative. Without the right words, confusion would ensue while maneuvering oneself around a moving vessel. The starboard and port sides of a vessel are always the right and left sides of the boat, no matter which way the seaman faces. This specificity is also true for forward, aft, amidships, athwartship, aloft, down below, inboard, outboard, leeward, windward, abaft, abeam and dead ahead. Convenient and succinct, right?

Correct words also describe types of conditions and levels of intensity. A vessel doesn’t just move in a seaway. It rolls, pitches and yaws—three distinct types of motion. The balance between the forces of gravity and buoyancy make a vessel stiff or tender. When a vessel is struggling, it is laboring. Weak gear may carry away. Lines that are slack or lazy are in a relaxed state. A vessel that is hogged or sagged is awash. Weather and current can be elegantly described in one beautifully articulate word: fair or foul.

A sailor’s vocabulary changes over time, as some names and descriptions are invented or others fall out of common usage. Old-timers might still use the nautical term gilhickey to describe a makeshift or rare unnamed gadget. Modern racing sailors have a whole slew of names for gear. For the truly curious, there are as many nautical dictionaries, manuals, glossaries and etymology collections as there are words they attempt to describe. Opening to a random page in any of them is apt to make one feel humble. And yes, there’s an app for that, too.

Nautical language can be amusing. As a teenager, I sailed with a captain who came up with games to combat boredom when the wind dropped out. He once challenged the crew to come up with nautical words and phrases named after living things. Monkey fist, lizard band, cat’s paw, pelican hook, hatch turtle, dolphin striker, worm gear, mare’s tales, crow’s nest, deck horse, donkey engine, dog the hatch and mouse a hook are just a few.

Who among us doesn’t find satisfaction in knowing the most articulate words to describe a situation on board? It’s a beautiful thing. My favorite nautical word is the verb soogie, which is pretty much only used by old-timers these days: “Today, we’ll soogie the bulkheads and overhead.” Don’t know the meaning? Look it up.


Here are a few nautical terms you may or may not know.

Abreast: side by side, indicating the orientation of a vessel’s beam in regard to another object

Barber hauler: a rig used to control leech tension and clew position on a jibsail

Dorade box: fresh air ventilator that prevents spray or seawater from going below

Forefoot: intersection of the stem and keel

Gypsy: the wheel on a windlass that engages chain, also known as a “wildcat”

High: sailing too much in the direction from which the wind is blowing, or too close to the wind

Irish pennant: loose, untidy ends of lines

Kink: twist in a line that prevents it from running freely through a block, fairlead or chock

Limber hole: a drain hole through a frame or structural member that allows water to drain along the keel to the deepest part of the bilge

Overhang: the amount a vessel’s stern and bow extend beyond the waterline

Mast partners: reinforcements around the mast where it passes through the deck

Quarantine: time period when a vessel is detained in isolation when entering a foreign country

Rhumb line: a vessel’s course when it steers a straight line and constant compass heading

Seacock: a valve near or below the waterline that controls the flow of water in and out of the hull

Thwart: a crosswise strut or seat

Underway: when a vessel is not docked, anchored or aground

Veer: to gently let out a length of chain or line; a veering wind shift moves clockwise

Warp: move a vessel with lines from one place to another without engine power

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.



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