Ahoy! Impress your friends with correct nautical terminology. LA is home to countless sailors, making it the perfect place to practice.

More Than “Ahoy!” : Talking Like a Sailor

Surprising but true: talking like a sailor isn’t the same thing as talking like a pirate.

There’s a notion that pirates speak in unsophisticated, profane ways — and maybe that’s true? But I’m here to tell you that if you want to be “in” with the sailing or boating communities you need to learn lingo. So I will teach you smart words that will demonstrate that you know your sailing basics. When you learn to sail, there are many special words to learn and use to describe everything that’s going on. Luckily for you, we’ll break it down so you can talk like a true sailor of the seas!

Boat Directions: As you can imagine, knowing how to indicate directions when you’re in the middle of the ocean is quite important! Since your sailboat is on the sea, most directions are given in reference to where the ocean’s at. For example:

  • Port: When you’re facing the front tip of the ship, this is your left side
  • Starboard: When you’re facing the front tip of the ship, this is the right side
  • Bow / Forward: These terms both refer to the front of the boat. The bow is what the front of the ship is technically called, and forward is how you describe something in the front of the ship (ex: “the apples are on the forward bench”).
  • Stern / Aft: These two words apply to the back of the boat. Stern is the location, and aft is the descriptive term ( ex: “look at the views aft!”).

Where the wind is: With a sailboat, wind is also very important to be able to describe, since that’s the direction you’re probably going to end up going! There are special nautical words for this as well:

  • Tack: This word’s a tricky one! It has two meanings depending on what it’s used as. as a verb, tacking is to turn the boat through the wind so wind blows on the other side. As a noun, tack is how you describe your path in reference to the wind (ex: “port tack” means wind on the port side of the ship).
  • Point of Sail: A general umbrella term that describes how your boat is going in comparison to the wind. For example, “in irons” means you’re headed into the wind, which is not usually good!
  • Leeward: The direction the wind isn’t blowing. Phew!
  • Windward: Take a wild guess on this one — it’s the direction that the wind is blowing (and your sailboat will soon be going!).

Steering and moving: Finally, here are some words about your lovely boat!

  • Keel: The large fin at the center bottom of each sailboat that helps keep it stable in the water. Do not confuse this with rudder, which is a steering attachment that is closer to the back of the boat.
  • Mainsail: The biggest sail of the boat — and the one that catches the most wind.

These basic words will help you describe your boat and the ocean the way that sailors do. To remember them better and learn more words, consider looking into the history of sailing! One explanation the Naval History and Heritage Command gave that helps me remember boat left and boat right goes as follows: starboard is the right side because it was the side used to steer most old ships (since most people are right handed); port means left because the opposite side of the ship was where the cargo hold opened. These terms are pretty interesting, just as sailing is too 🙂