Boating Jargon Cheat Sheet

August, 2019


The language of boating jargon has a logical purpose—shorten phrases into single words of uniformity that can be clearly communicated—and understood—by anyone involved in the navigation or tending to of the vessel.

Here’s an example: Which of these nautical phrases is easiest to understand? Telling someone to put the boat on plane? Or instructing them to push the throttle just fast enough to raise the bow so the hull glides across the water?

The first choice is the correct answer. Memorizing the entire Webster’s Dictionary is unnecessary for daily life, and the same goes for the dictionary of nautical terms. Many are centuries old and apply to sailing and piloting ocean-going ships. There are basic terms, e.g., port and starboard, that are worth learning for both safety and clarity.

Before you are taken aback by all the jargon (careful, “taken aback” means halted by a sudden shift of wind), learn the basics with these terms that can be used in everyday boating.

Aft
The direction of movement within a boat that is toward the rear. Sometimes confused with stern, which is a noun describing the rear of the boat. “Keep watch aft for approaching storm clouds.”

Amidships
The centermost section of a boat. “Stand amidships to cleat the boat.”

Astern
The direction toward or beyond the stern of the boat. “The buoy is 30 yards astern of the boat.”

Athwart
Being across the ship from side to side. “Stand athwartships to take the dock line.”

Aweigh
An anchor that is off the bottom. “The anchor is aweigh.”

Beam
Measurement of a boat at the widest point, typically at the stern of most recreational boats. “This boat has a wide beam of 8’ 6”.”

Bow
Forward portion of a boat. “He is standing on the bow.”

Breakwater
A structure built on a shoreline to protect against waves and erosion. “The marina is behind the breakwater.”

Buoy
An anchored floating object that serves as a navigation aid. Also used to mark a mooring spot. “Attach the hook to the anchor buoy,” or “Steer port of the can buoy.”

Capsize
An overturned boat. “There are three victims near the capsized boat.”

Cast off
To unfasten all lines in preparation for departure. “We are ready to cast off.”

Cockpit
Deck space for the crew of a boat, typically recessed. “Everyone take a seat in the cockpit.”

Current
Moving water. “Be careful in that current.”

Deck
The floor of a boat. “Store that gear on the deck.”

Downstream
Direction in which the current or an object is moving away from the boat. “The logjam is downstream of the boat.”

Fender
A cylindrical or round cushion used to protect the hull sides of a boat when moored at a dock. “Set out the fenders at port and starboard on the bow and stern.”

Fore
The direction of movement aboard a boat that is toward the front. “Keep watch fore in search of storm clouds.”

Gunwale/gunnel
The top or upper edge of the sides of the boat. “Tie the line to the aft cleat on the gunwale.”

Heading
The direction a boat is pointed. “We are on a westerly heading.”

Helm
Area of a boat where operational controls are located. “Take the helm.”

Idle speed
The slowest speed at which steering is possible for a boat. “This is a no wake zone, maintain idle speed.”

Knot
A knot is a speed measurement for a nautical mile, rather than a statute one. One knot is equal to 1.15 miles per hour. “Our speed is 5 knots.”

Leeward
Direction toward which the wind is blowing, i.e., downwind. A leeward vessel is downwind of the other. “The leeward side of the island receives more rain than the windward side.”

Mooring
Permanent ground structure fixed to a buoy for tying a boat. “We need to find mooring for the night.”

Plot
To plan a navigation course using a chart. “We must plot a course to the next marina.”

Port
The left-hand side of the boat. Hint: Port is a four-letter word, just like left. “The buoy is on the port side.”

Position
Geographical measurement based on the boat’s intersection of latitudinal and longitudinal lines. Used by emergency responders to find the boat via coordinates on a chart.

Quartering
Direction of waves in relation to the boat's heading. Refers to waves coming at an acute angle (between 0 and 90 degrees) to the boat's centerline. The act of running with the waves at an off-angle to lessen the blow when head-on seas are too rough. “We need to quarter the waves.”

Starboard
The right-hand side of the boat. “Steer to starboard.”

Stern
Rear portion of a boat. “The mooring line is at the stern.”

Underway
A boat in motion. “Everyone secure their life jackets while we are underway.”

Upstream
Direction in which the current or an object is moving toward the boat. “The logjam is upstream of the boat.”

Wake
Waves created by a moving boat. “Watch out for the barge wake.”

Windward
Direction from which the wind is blowing, i.e., upwind. Windward vessel refers to the boat that is upwind of the other. 

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