Sailing Terms

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When on a boat it is helpful to know a few basic sailing terms.

Knowing the right sailing terms to use on board a boat is not just about showing off to your friends. It’s actually very useful, and sometimes crucial in communicating while you’re sailing.

Some of the words used on boats can sound very old, which they are! Sailors still use terms that have been around for hundreds of years.

Here are the key sailing words you’ll want to know as you begin learning to sail!

  • Port: Facing forward, this is anything to the left of the boat. When you’re onboard, you can use this term pretty much any time you would normally say “left.”
  • Starboard: Facing forward, this is anything to the right of the boat. Same deal as “port”–only the opposite.
  • Bow/Stern: The bow is the front of the boat, the stern is the back. Anything near the front of the boat is said to be “forward,” and anything toward the back is “aft” or “astern.”
  • Point of Sail: The boat’s direction relative to the wind. You cannot sail directly into the wind.
  • Helm: Where you steer the boat. Usually this is a big wheel, but on smaller boats it can be a tiller, which is basically a long wooden stick. Either of these can be used to control the boat’s rudder.
  • Helmsman: The man or woman steering the boat.
  • Keel: The keel is a long, heavy fin on the bottom of the boat that sticks down into the water. It makes the boat more stable and is the reason why modern sailboats are really hard to capsize.
  • Heeling: This is the term for when a sailboat leans over in the water, pushed by the wind.
  • Tack: This term has two meanings, both of them important. To tack is to change direction by turning the bow of the boat through the wind. Your tack is also the course you are on relative to the wind. For example, if the wind is blowing over the port side, you are on a port tack. If it’s blowing over the starboard side, you’re on a…you guessed it…starboard tack.
  • Jibe: A jibe is another way of changing direction, in which you bring the stern of the boat through the wind. Whether you choose to tack or jibe depends on what’s around you, and the direction of the wind.
  • Windward: The side of the boat closest to the wind. When heeling over, this will always be the high side.
  • Leeward: The side of the boat furthest from the wind. When heeling over, this will always be the low side.
  • Lines: On board a boat, this is what you say instead of “ropes.”
  • Mainsail: The big triangular sail which is the boat’s largest and most important sail. Running along its bottom edge, the mainsail has a thick pole called the boom.
  • Jib: The next most common sail on any boat. The jib can always be found forward of the mast, and unlike the mainsail, does not have a boom.
  • Rigging: Rigging is the name for the system of wire cables and ropes that both support the sails and allow them to be controlled. 

Getting to know these sailing terms will help you to make the most of your time onboard a boat. During this field trip you will also learn some other sailing terms which will help you to sail the Spirit of New Zealand.

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Learning to Sail

The Spirit of Adventure


When you are learning to sail it is helpful to know a few basic sailing terms. Image: Spirit of Adventure Trust.

Different types of sailing vessels have different names and different features. Image: Spirit of Adventure Trust.

Knowing a few basic sailing terms will help you to follow instructions from the crew and make the most of your sailing adventure. Image: LEARNZ.

Different sailing terms are used to describe direction and parts of the boat.