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Top 10 Sailing Terms

Written by: Editorial Staff

April 24, 2011
Filed Under Sports 


One of the top ten sailing termsContributed by Suzanne Baldwin, Top 10 Guru

Sailing jargon is almost a language unto itself. Derived from centuries of nautical phrasing and shorthand, it’s a daunting prospect to understand certain terms, much less learn how to them.

Still, it’s possible to learn basic words and phrases so you won’t be staring blankly at the crew on your next sailing trip. Whether you’re going for a trip on a rented yacht or brushing up on your lingo for Talk Like a Pirate Day, here are the top ten sailing terms you need to know.

10. Port/Starboard and Bow/Stern

One of the top ten sailing terms

No matter what kind of ship you’re sailing on, you need to know the basic directions. “Port” is sailspeak for “left,” and you say “starboard” instead of “right.” The bow is the front of the ship, and the stern is the rear.

9. Knot

One of the top ten sailing terms

Knots serve a dual purpose on a ship. A knot holds the rigging together, and it is also a measurement of speed – a nautical mile. A knot is roughly equal to 1.151 miles. Giant sailing ships might make 11 to 14 knots, and the big steamships of the early twentieth century could reach 25.

8. Deep Six

One of the top ten sailing terms

Deep six is sailing term for “six fathoms,” or 36 feet – the maximum depth an object could be recovered from, when the term was coined. If an item fell overboard in six fathoms of water, it was a lost cause. If your captain starts talking about deep sixing troublesome crew members, make sure you aren’t in his line of sight.

7. Head

One of the top ten sailing terms

“Head” is the ship’s term for “toilet.” In old sailing ships, the toilet was located at the front of the ship, or the head, and was often completely exposed. Toilets on modern ships are safer, if somewhat cramped. If an entire crew has food poisoning, there’s going to be a line to use the head.

6. Scuttlebutt

One of the top ten sailing terms

A scuttlebutt is a rumor. It’s named for the cask of water the crew gathered around for idle chit-chat; this cask had a hole drilled in the center, called a “scuttle.” Yes, it’s the sailing version of the water cooler gossip. If the first mate asks you what the scuttlebutt is, it’s best to smile and shrug blankly.

5. Tack; Tacking

One of the top ten sailing terms

“Tacking” means turning a ship by moving the sails around. Sailing ships and sailboats don’t just turn back and forth; they must zig-zag with and against the wind to change their position. If you see a pirate ship coming at you, it’s best to change your tack.

4. Bilge

One of the top ten sailing terms

The bilge is the bottom of a ship’s hull, usually accessible via some sort of hatch in the lowermost deck. The bilge collects water from various locations, including leaks and runoff from the top deck. All kinds of undesirable sludge builds up in the bilge, no matter what kind of ship you’re on. If the captain asks you to clean the bilge…run.

3. Poop deck

One of the top ten sailing terms

Surprisingly, this isn’t the location of the ship’s toilet. It’s usually a raised deck on the stern of a ship, and is derived from the French “poupe,” for stern. This is where the helmsman steers the ship, generally under the watchful eye of captain and officers.

2. Three sheets to the wind

One of the top ten sailing terms

Sails are controlled by lines called “sheets,” and drunken sailors couldn’t handle sheets properly, leading to the sails flapping around uselessly. “Sheets to the wind” indicates various levels of drunkenness. Two sheets to the wind might mean a general buzz, while three sheets generally means the drunken sailor in question wouldn’t be allowed aloft to work with the sails. Five sheets to the wind means you should probably quit before your liver does.

1. Keelhauled

One of the top ten sailing terms

Keelhauling was a particularly nasty form of punishment in the age of sail. A sailor would be tied to a long rope and thrown off the bow, then allowed to bump along underneath the ship’s bottom, or keel. If he survived the trip, he was undoubtedly bruised and bloodied, and might be thrown over for a second round. Understandably, this practice does not work particularly well with propeller-driven ships.


One Response to “Top 10 Sailing Terms”

  1. Bev Maser on December 28th, 2011 11:33 am

    Very nice! thank you