12 Boating Terms and Nautical Vocabulary You Should Know

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boating terms

Spending a day on the open water? Boating is a wonderful recreational activity, but before you go, it’s important to learn some basic terminology. It will help keep you safe in case of an emergency. With a little preparation, you’ll feel more comfortable on your excursion. Here are twelve useful boating terms for beginners and nautical vocabulary that you should know. 

1. Starboard

You’ve probably heard the term, “starboard side”, but what does it mean? If you are standing at the front of the boat, the starboard is on the right side. Fun fact: at night, there are green lights on the starboard side, and red lights on the port side to let other boats know which direction you are facing. 

2. Port

This is another front-of-boat term. When facing forward, port means the left side of the boat. When two boats are about to meet on the water, they should pass each other “port side to port side” since it is a maritime boating rule

3. Bow and Stern

Speaking of the front of the boat, that’s called the bow. The back of the boat is the stern. When you move towards the bow, it’s called “forward” and when you go towards the stern, it’s called “aft”. 

4. Helm

The helm is where you steer the boat. It could have a big classic steering wheel, or something called a tiller. A tiller is a long, stick-like apparatus that connects to the rudder and helps control direction. 

5. Boom

This is the large horizontal pole attached to the bottom part of the mainsail. It helps improve control of the sail. Always use caution around a boom, because it is heavy and can knock you into the water if you aren’t paying attention. 

6. Tack

In nautical language, tack actually has two meanings. When used as a verb, it means that you are changing direction by turning the bow of the boat through the wind. When tack is used as a noun, it describes the course that you are taking, relative to the wind. 

7. Jibing

Now that you’ve learned about how to tack, the opposite is called jibing. Instead of turning the bow of the boat, you are turning the stern through the wind. Always pay attention to the boom when tacking or jibing, because it will shift from one side of the boat to the other–and you don’t want to be in its way! 

8. Rudder

A rudder is a blade positioned underwater at the stern side of a boat. It is responsible for aiding in the steering of the craft. This apparatus is controlled at the helm. 

9. Mayday

This is an important one since it is an international distress call. Should an emergency arise, get on the radio and use this term if it is a life-threatening situation. 

10. Abandon Ship

When the boat is in imminent danger, this term will be used. In the event that you must abandon ship, make sure that you are wearing your Personal Flotation Device (PFD) or life jacket before leaving the vessel. 

11. Wake

When in motion, the boat disturbs the surface of the water a creates a column behind it. This is called the wake. Wake from a large boat can create rough conditions for a smaller boat that crosses that path. 

12. Capsize

When a boat capsizes, it means that it flips over. This can be caused by turning too sharply or being upset by a wave. If your boat capsizes, don’t panic and try to swim to shore. Stay with the boat, unless otherwise directed–many boats will right themselves on their own.

Other Fun Phrases

Did you know that many expressions that we use in everyday life actually have nautical origins? By learning a few of these bonus phrases, it can help you with your boating knowledge, too. 

High and Dry

If you’ve accidentally “beached” your boat, or run it on the ground then you are “high and dry”. Many folks use this expression casually to mean that they are stuck in a bad situation. 

Under the Weather

In everyday life is used to indicate that you are feeling poorly. But in boating, it refers to going below deck to escape storms. Rather than being outside in the elements, you’d go “under the weather” where it was nice and dry. 

Three Sheets To the Wind

Nope, contrary to popular belief, this does not refer to drunken sailors. It actually means that all three sheets (or sails) have lost hold of their lines. That means a loss of control, and the ability to steer the vessel. 

Batten Down the Hatches

In a storm, sailors would call out “batten down the hatches” to have the hatchways covered so that the elements would not get in. Nowadays, it’s used when preparations for something need to be made or secured, or trouble is on the horizon. 

Try a Different Tack

Remember when you learned about tacking? Well, if you aren’t having any success with the direction you are tacking in, then you’d “try a different tack”. When it’s said on land, it means you should try a different approach.  

Use Your Boating Terms at a Boat Club

If you’ve enjoyed learning about boat vocabulary, why not go beyond the boating experience? Joining a boat club is a wonderful way to get more practice and use your new nautical language skills. There are so many benefits that include not just boat rentals, so it’s worth checking out. 

Ready To Go Boating?

Now that you’ve done your homework, you can feel confident about going on a boat. These boating terms will help make for an enjoyable and safe outing. Don’t be afraid to ask about any new ones that come up while you are on the boat, too. 

And this could be just the start of your nautical journey. If you would like to join us at the Gulfstream Boat Club contact us here


GBC has the fastest-growing fleet of cruising and fishing boats in South Florida. our reputation for excellent service and safety is second to none. Wheter you are planning a sunset cruise, ocean fishing, or a family water skiing trip on the intracoastal, GBC makes it simple and easy.

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