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Boating Safety


What are things on boats named? Knowing the proper names can be a great help especially when talking to other boat owners.  he quickest way to show that you are a novice is to not use the right terminology.

Some basic terms:

Operating a boat: Boats are operated, sailed, or handled. They are not driven. If you say I drove the boat or I drive the boat you are immediately telling everyone you are a novice. So when you ask an instructor or other boat owner to teach you, say I want to learn to operate a boat, or in the case of sailboats how to sail.

Vessel: any means of transportation on the water.

Boat: generally used to describe a vessel that is under 65 feet but may be applied to some vessels up to 100 feet.  The term Boat used to be defined as any vessel that could be hauled aboard a larger vessel, but this is no longer in general use.  Anything larger is a ship.  Exceptions: Ferry Boat, a submarine, a tug boat, a tow boat, and a few others that may be reffered to as a boat. Never refer to a large ship as a boat especially military ships (unless it's a submarine). Exception: Most Coast Guard ships over 100 feet are referred to as Cutters, except some may be designated as Patrol Boats.

Bow:  The front end of a boat, usually the pointy end. But on some boats the front can be square, and on others such as canoes and kayaks both ends are pointy.  Sometimes large boats with two pointy ends are called double enders.

Stern:  The back end of the boat. Sometimes the stern is a transom, which is a flat rear end, and sometimes it comes to a point, as in, a canoe stern.

  The language of Boating
The stern is always the back end of a boat.

Forward:  Towards the front end of the boat

Aft:  Towards the back end

Amidships:  Towards the middle of the boat. It can be from end to end or side to side.

Port:  The left side.  How to remember this? The word right is longer than left, and Starboard is longer than Port.  Or Left has four letters and so does Port. Right has more letters than port, and starboard has more letters that port.

Starboard:  The right side of the boat.  See the word port.

Rope: Rope is usually hemp, sisal, nylon, polyethylene, polypropylene or dacron.  In today's use most rope is made of synthetic materials.

Line:  Once rope has been cut to the right length and placed in use on a boat, it is called a line, as in bow line, dock line, anchor line, and so on.  The are a few exceptions. There are other names for line. Halyards are lines for hauling sails up a mast. Sheets are lines that control sails.  Anchor rodes are lines attached to an anchor (also called anchor line).  Bow lines from a dinghy are sometimes called a painter.  Lines used for towing are usually called a tow rope.  So study the nautical dictionaries if you hear a name you don't understand.

Cleat: a device for securing a line, that is, you tie a line to the cleat.  

Knot: a knot is something you tie in a line to secure it to something else.   Knots have differnet names that described the type of knot, such as bends, hitches,  bight. 

Knot: a measure of speed, approximately 1 1/8 mile per hour.  But you don't say knots per hour, you simply say knots, as in the boat is making 15 knots.  it comes from the number of knots in a line that was trailed over the stern of the boat and used to  measure the boat's speed.

Nautical miles:  about 2000 yards or about 6076 feet or 1.1508 miles, or 1.858 Kilometers. A measure based on the number of degrees of latitude you pass through in an hour.  1 minute of arc is 1 nautical mile, 60 minutes is one degree which is 60 nautical miles.

Beam:  the width measured at the widest part of the boat.

Draft: the depth of the boat in the water, measured from the waterline to the lowest part of the hull. It also can be expressed as how much water does she draw? "What is her draft?" means how far down in the water does the boat extend. This is important to know if operating in shallow water or docking in an area where the tides may leave your boat sitting on the bottom. 

Helm: the steering position.  Sometimes a wheel, but it can be a tiller (as on a sailboat or a small outboard).

Tiller: a stick or arm connected to a rudder or outboard engine, used to steer the boat.

Rudder: a vertical piece of wood, metal or fiberglass projecting down into the water that actually steers the boat.

Length over all: The full length of a boat measured including all parts of the boat.

Length on the water line:  The length measured at the water.

Deck: a horizontal surface covering the interior of the boat.

Sole:  the part of a boat, inside, that you stand on, in an open boat, or inside a cabin.  This is not a floor. Landlubbers will often call it a floor, but it is not.  It is a sole.  (A floor is the vertical support under the sole.)

Ladder: A set of steps leading from a lower place to a higher place or vice versa.  These are not stairs.  Some large vessels may have stairs but generally smaller vessels do not. They have ladders.  Large ships and yachts also have ladders from one deck to another.

Yacht: actually any vessel used strictly for pleasure or private use can be called a yacht.  However in current use it usually means larger or more expensive private pleasure boats.

Underway: (or Under Weigh) when a boat is no longer tied to the dock or shore, and not anchored.  A boat does not have to be under power or sail to be underway. Even if it is drifting, it is underway. The term comes from pulling in the anchor, or "weighing" the anchor. 

Personal Flotation Device (PFD): A Lifejacket or life vest.A device used to keep you afloat should you fall into the water, or your boat capsize, swamp or sink.  There are different types of PFDs. There are life vest, lifejackets, buoyant cushions, life rings, and so on.  There are different types of wearable life jackets, such as types 1, 2, 3 , 4 and 5.  See Safety Page 1 for more information.  However the term PFD is going out of use and the general terms, life jacket, or life vest are coming back into general use.

Flame Arrestor: Or it can be spelled Flame Arrester. Both are correct. A device fitted to the engine of your boat, that prevents a backfire from igniting any fuel vapors that may be present, thus preventing an explosion. These are required by law. Do Not Remove.  There are also flame arrestors on other things. There may be one on the fuel tank vent, one on some electrical equipment such as starter motors or distributors. Flame screens or arrestors work by cooling the flame front preventing it from igniting fuel vapors.

Navigation Lights:  Often called running lights.  Lights on a vessel that indicate to other vessels where you are and where you are headed.  Different configurations of lights indicate the size and type of boat, such as a power boat, or a sailboat, a towing vessel or a fishing vessel. See Navigation Lights on

Navigation Lights:  More commonly referred to as Aids To Navigation, lights on buoys, daymarks, light houses, bridges, and so on.  Be sure to clarify what you are talking about when using the term navigation lights.

Sail Boat Terms:  Sail boats have a whole dictionary of terms.

Mast:  A vertical stick of wood, metal, carbon fiber, or fiberglass that is used to hoist the sail.

Boom:  a horizontal stick used to fasten the bottom (or foot) of the sail.

Guys, stays:  and shrouds:  A line made of wire or cable used to hold up the mast. Shrouds run from the upper part of mast down to the side of the boat. Guys or stays run fore and aft, from the upper part of the mast to the bow or stern of the boat. 

Keel:  a vertical fin that extends downward from the bottom of a sailboat that contains a large amount of weight to stabilize the boat and keep it upright. Also the backbone of any boat to which the ribs, frames, and other interior structure is attached. Some powerboats may have a keel.  But most have a skeg, a narrow vertical board or fin on the bottom of the hull that serves to help the boat run in a straight line and protect the bottom for damage.

Centerboard: usually found on small sailboats, but some very large sailboats that operate in shallow water may have centerboards. These are boards that extend down from the boat that help to prevent the boat from sliding sideways. These either slide up and down in a trunk, or rotate upwards into the boat when not needed. If the board pivots on a point up into the boat it is usually called a centerboard. However it it just slides vertically up and down it is called a dagger board.

Sheets: Lines that control the sails. 

Halyards: This may be line or wire cable used to raise and lower sails.

Fenders: Usually a closed plastic tube hung over the side of a boat to prevent damage to the boat. However fenders can often be old tires on large work boats, or made from rope or other materials. Novices often call these bumpers.

There are hundreds of other terms for both sail and power boats. 

References:  There are many nautical dictionaries: I recommend Chapmans Piloting and Seamanship:

References On-line:

Wikipedia Glossary of Nautical terms:

Sea Talk Nautical Dictionary

Endeavour Sailing Glossary


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