Set Sail With These Nautical Terms

2 min read

Land ho, sailors! Whether you’re heading out in a fishing dinghy, a motorboat for a tubing adventure, or commuting by ferry, knowing a few simple sailing terms can be a useful skill when speaking to other seafarers. Here are a few nautical terms that will ensure you have a bon voyage.

Port and Starboard

The high seas demand their own lingo for describing directions and sides. When you're facing the front, the port side of a boat refers to the left side, while the starboard side is the right. (Want an easy way to remember the distinction? "Port" has four letters, just like "left.") The names derive from the historical construction of a boat. Before ships had rudders, a steering oar at the rear of the ship would often be located to the right-hand side, as most people were right handed. This oar was called the steorbord in Old German. Because of this rudder, the left side was tied up to the dock or port, with an opening to offload goods and passengers.

Bow and Stern

Not only are right and left different when you set sail, but so are front and back. The bow of a ship is the most forward part, while the stern is the part at the back. "Bow" comes from the Old German word boguz, which essentially means arm, while "stern" relates to the Old German verb for "stare." "Aft" is somewhat synonymous with "stern," but it typically refers to a direction (toward the back), while "stern" is a noun for the physical back of a ship.

Leeward and Windward

Sailing is all about opposites. As you might have guessed, "windward" refers to traveling in the same direction the wind is blowing, while "leeward" refers to the opposite direction. "Lee" has been used to describe a protected cove or harbor, and "wind" refers to the weather itself. The suffix "-ward" is used for any directional combination words.

Tack and Jibe

If you’re tacking or jibing, you’re essentially doing the same thing: moving the boat so the wind is blowing directly at another area of it. The dual terms refer to doing this on opposite sides of the ship. "Tacking" refers to turning the bow of the boat through the wind, while "jibing" means turning the stern of the boat. In general, tacking is much more common, as jibing involves going directly through the wind.


If you want to get somewhere, you’ll need to use the rudder of a ship to control your direction. You can do so by using a wheel or steering mechanism to move the rudder and change course. As with many other sailing terms, "rudder" derives from Old German — specifically, rōther, meaning "paddle or oar."


If your boat is larger than a canoe, there's likely more than one level. If you’re heading from a lower level to an upper deck, you’re going topside. Another definition for "topside" is the portion of the outer surface of a ship above the waterline.

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