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

Port and Starboard

The high seas demand their own unique lingo for describing directions and sides. 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 literal descriptions of a boat’s makeup historically. 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 consistently tied up to the dock or port, with an opening to offload goods or passengers.

Bow and Stern

Not only are right and left different when you set sail, so are front and back. The bow of a ship is the most forward part, while the stern is the opposite, referring to the entire back. Bow comes from the proto-Germanic boguz, which essentially means arm, while stern relates to a West Germanic verb for stare — which makes sense, given the stern would be the last thing you see as it sails away. For the record, aft is somewhat synonymous with stern, although 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, and as you might have guessed, windward refers to traveling in the same direction the wind is blowing, while leeward refers to the opposite direction. The origins are self explanatory too; lee has been used to describe a protected cove or harbor, and wind, naturally, 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 terms just 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. Made from wood, fiberglass, or metal, you’ll use a wheel or steering mechanism to move the rudder and change course. As with many other sailing terms, rudder derives from Old German, rōther, meaning paddle or oar.


Most boats have multiple levels. If you’re heading from a lower level to an upper deck, you’d be going topside. Another similar definition for topside is the top portion of the outer surface of a ship above the waterline.