What is Some Common Nautical Terminology?

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  • Written By: KD Morgan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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The list for common nautical terminology is long and some dates back many centuries. Until the late 1700’s, vessels were strictly sailing boats and ships. The first steamboat sailed up the Delaware River in 1787, followed by the first commercial steam boat in 1807. It did not take long for fuel-powered boats to follow. Finally, in the mid 1950’s, the first nuclear ship was put to sea.

With all the changes that have taken place in water transportation, the common nautical terminology has maintained its continuity. Some nautical terms have been redefined but the “old salts” prefer the original usage. For example, the difference between “boat” and “ship” used to be that a ship had three or more masts. In modern times, “ship” describes any vessel that is “big,” and yet “boat” is used interchangeably. "Larboard" was a termed used for “port.” "Heeling" refers to leaning the boat with the wind. In the old days, it also meant to lean a boat on its side in order to clean it.

Most common nautical terminology uses the language of sailing ships, as they were the only means of transportation for many centuries. Modern sailors continue to respect the ancient mariners and use their nautical terms. A few examples are:


  • fore = towards the bow of the ship
  • aft = towards the rear
  • bow = the front of the ship
  • stern = back
  • port = left side of the ship from the perspective of being in the boat, looking forward
  • starboard = right side of the ship from the perspective of being in the boat, looking forward
  • boom = horizontal pole the sail goes on
  • mast = vertical pole that may have a sail or rigging for sailboats and lights or antennas for power boats
  • keel = center of hull. Lowest in water where weight is mostly carried
  • reefing = reduce sail area due to too much wind
  • lee = side of boat sheltered from wind
  • windward = side of boat wind is coming from
  • tacking = to get to destination that is upwind so that the bow of boat passes through the wind to the other side
  • heel = leaning over
  • trade winds = regular and constant winds
  • luff = bring the front of the boat towards the wind so that the sails flop and the boat reduces speed. Also refers to the leading edge of the sail.
  • nautical mile = one minute of arc on the earth’s surface. There are 360 degrees on the earth’s sphere. Each degree is divided into 60 minutes. One of those minutes is equal to a nautical mile. It works out to 1.2 land miles (1.93121 kilometers)
  • celestial navigation = navigating by using the sun, stars and planets for direction

Common nautical terminology that was used before the 1600’s was:

  • fetch = to arrive at a place
  • hawser = large rope
  • league = 3 miles
  • meridian = used to mean relating to noon. It is also a line of longitude
  • road = sheltered water that is good for anchorage
  • strike = lower or bring down
  • yard = horizon spar (boom) from which sails are set

Nautical terminology has retained its value and integrity more than any other mode of transportation. Progress continues to integrate many of the nautical terms into new and futuristic modes of transportation, such as air and space travel.


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