The Nautical Terms Guidebook for the Sailing-Curious

, Staff Editor
Updated June 17, 2022
man working on sailboat
    man on sailboat nautical and sailing terms
    Gary John Norman / The Image Bank / Getty
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For centuries, humans have explored the vast oceans of the world and discovered faraway lands and mysterious sea creatures (probably whales covered in kelp). Even if you don’t plan to hoist sails or batten down hatches any time soon, it doesn’t hurt to learn some commonly used nautical terms, acronyms, and abbreviations to impress your friends and maybe even glide those glassy seas yourself.

Terms for the Parts of a Ship

A ship can be as complicated as (and sometimes more complicated than) any other vehicle of the land or air, so knowing all the parts and pieces of your seafaring vessel is essential for any aspiring sailor.

  • Aft - The back half of the vessel
  • Anchor - A heavy object attached to a vessel which is thrown overboard to prevent drift
  • Backstays - The lines or cables used to support the mast
  • Berth - A sleeping area on a vessel
  • Bilge - The compartment at the bottom of a ship’s hull
  • Bow - The front of a vessel
  • Bridge - The command center of the ship
  • Cleat - A stationary device on a vessel where you secure a rope
  • Fender - A bumper filled with foam or air that keeps boats from bumping into others or docks
  • Foot - The bottom of a sail
  • Galley - The kitchen of a ship
  • Mast - A vertical pole that supports rigging or sails
  • Poop deck - The high deck on aft of a ship
  • Rigging - A system of lines and masts on vessels
  • Stern - The back of the vessel
  • Yard - The beams on the mast that the sails attach to
  • Yardarm - The very end of a yard

Directional Nautical Terms

Forget your left and right. When sailing the high seas, you’re not always facing the bow of your ship, nor are you always above deck. Directional nautical words keep you and your vessel from getting all turned around.

  • Aboard - On or in a vessel
  • Above board - On or above the deck
  • Adrift - Vessel is not attached to the shore or seabed
  • Astern - Boat moving in reverse
  • Bearing - Horizontal visual line between two objects
  • Careening - Making the ship tilt on its side
  • Forward - Moving toward the front end of a boat
  • Port - The left side when you’re looking toward the bow of a ship
  • Starboard - The right side when you’re looking toward the bow of a ship
  • Upbound - Vessel traveling upstream

Nautical Weather Terms

Weather plays an important role in sailing on any body of water. It can pose a danger, but weather is also the means of navigating and propelling certain vessels. That naturally comes with a little slang, too.

  • Brass monkeys - Very cold weather
  • Gale - Sustained high winds of around 35-45 knots
  • Gust - Rapidly fluctuating wind speed
  • Leeward - Downwind
  • Ox-eye - Cloud or other indicator of a coming storm
  • Swell - Waves generated by wind that have moved away from where they started
  • Waterspout - Rotating column of air that forms over water and reaches its surface
  • Windward - Upwind

Sailing Measurement and Tool Terms

Measuring distances is an essential component of navigating on the seas. Remember, there aren’t any roads or mile markers on the ocean. You thankfully have plenty of tools at your disposal to measure those distances and maintain safety.

  • Azimuth compass - Used for finding the position of the sun relative to magnetic north
  • Binnacle - Housing for the ship’s compass
  • Fathom - Measurement of depth equalling 6 feet
  • Flank - Maximum speed of a ship
  • Knot - Measurement of speed, about 1.1508 miles per hour
  • League - Measurement of depth, equal to 3 nautical miles
  • Nautical mile - Measurement of length, approximately 6,076 feet
  • Scuttlebutt - Barrel that holds drinking water

Nautical Phrases and Slang

From pirate sailing terms to modern sailing slang, you need to know at least some good slang to make your way around a ship and sound like a real sailor.

  • Ahoy - A cry for attention
  • Abandon ship - A directive to leave the ship immediately
  • All hands - Everyone who works on the ship
  • Anchors aweigh - The anchor has cleared the sea bottom so the ship is ready to set sail
  • As the crow flies - In a straight line
  • Davy Jones’s locker - The bottom of the sea (a euphemism for death)
  • Flog - To beat or punish
  • Hand over fist - To climb steadily upward

Terms for Nautical Roles

Not all people and passengers on a ship have the same role. Aside from creating a natural hierarchy for responsibility, knowing who does what ensures that you’re actually talking to the right person and not mistaking a stowaway for a captain.

  • Bar pilot - Person who guides a vessel over dangerous waters
  • Bosun - Ship’s officer who takes care of equipment
  • Captain - Person in charge of the ship
  • Helmsman - Person who steers the ship
  • Maritime - Anything nautical or related to the sea
  • Pirate - Person who robs and attacks ships at sea
  • Skipper - Person in charge of a small boat
  • Stowaway - Person on a vessel without permission

Old Nautical Terms

While many nautical terms have endured the tests of time, others have fallen to the wayside or become obsolete. Still, if you want to be a true sailor, it doesn’t hurt to keep some of that older salty language in mind.

  • Baggywrinkle - A covering on ropes and cables to prevent sail chafe
  • Bombay Runner - A large cockroach
  • Cat-head - A large beam that assists in raising and lowering anchor
  • Charlie/Charley Noble - The stovepipe chimney above galley or cook shack
  • Futtock - The curved timber that forms the interior ribs of ship hulls
  • Escutcheon - The area where the ship’s name is written
  • Picaroon - A pirate
  • Xebec - A type of Mediterranean sailing ship used in trade and war
  • Worm, parcel, and serve - Process of applying protection to rigging to prevent chafing and deterioration

Nautical Organization Acronyms and Abbreviations

The ocean is one of the busiest causeways in the world, responsible for shipments of food, toys, and expensive sports cars. To ensure safety and limit any funny business, all that maritime travel is regulated by various international groups and organizations.

  • ABS - American Bureau of Shipping
  • AMNI - Associate Member of The Nautical Institute
  • BIMCO - Baltic and International Maritime Council
  • BOSVA - British Offshore Support Vessel Owners Association
  • CCS - China Classification Society
  • CEN - European Committee for Standardization
  • EC - European Community or European Commission
  • FNI - Fellow of the Nautical Institute
  • IACS - International Association of Classification Societies
  • IBIA - International Bunker Industry Association Ltd
  • IFTPA - International Forest Products Transport Association
  • IFSMA - International Federation of Shipmasters' Associations
  • IGO - Intergovernmental Organization
  • ISMA - International Ship Managers' Association
  • ISO - International Organization for Standardization
  • MCA - Maritime and Coastguard Agency
  • MEPC - Marine Environment Protection Committee
  • NI - Nautical Institute
  • NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Opec - Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
  • P and I (P&I) - Protection and Indemnity Club
  • PRS - Polish Register of Shipping
  • RMT - National Union of Rail, Maritime And Transport Workers
  • UN - United Nations
  • Unclos - United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
  • USCG - United States Coast Guard
  • WHO - World Health Organization
  • WMO - World Meteorological Organization
  • WMU - World Maritime University

Acronyms and Abbreviations for Nautical Tools, Systems, and Acts

Ships and maritime technology have come a long way since the days of scurvy and buried treasure. From advanced navigational systems to safety features, knowing the abbreviations of these nautical tools is essential to surviving the seas.

  • AIS - Automatic Identification System
  • AMVER - Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue
  • BDI - Baltic Dry Index
  • BFI - Baltic Freight Index
  • DGPS - Differential Global Positioning System
  • D’lat - Difference in latitude
  • D’long - Difference in longitude
  • DNC - Digital Nautical Chart
  • DOC - Document of Compliance
  • DSV - Diving Support Vessel
  • DWT or Dwt - Deadweight Tonnage
  • DX.90 - Format for digital cartographic data
  • ECDIS - Electronic Chart Display and Information System
  • ECS - Electronic Chart System
  • EEZ - Exclusive Economic Zone
  • EN - European Standard
  • ENC - Electronic Nautical Charts
  • EPIRB - Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon
  • FBX - Freightos Baltic Index
  • FO - Fuel oil
  • FPSO - Floating Production, Storage, and Offloading System
  • FSA - Formal Safety Assessment
  • FTZ - Foreign-Trade Zone
  • UKHO - U.K. Hydrographic Office
  • HFO - Heavy Fuel Oil
  • HSC Code - International Code of Safety for High-Speed Craft
  • HSWA - Health and Safety at Work Act
  • IBS - Integrated Bridge System
  • IGS - Inert Gas System
  • IICL - Institute of International Container Lessors
  • ISM - International Safety Management Code
  • ISSN - International Standard Serial Number
  • IT - Information Technology
  • LAN - Local Apparent Noon
  • LASH - Lighter Aboard Ship
  • LEO - Low Earth Orbit
  • LOF -  Lloyd's Standard Form of Salvage Agreement
  • LPG - Liquefied Petroleum Gas
  • LR - Lloyd's Register (classification society)
  • LSA - Life Saving Appliances
  • LST - Local Standard Time
  • LW - Low Water
  • MAIIF - Marine Accident Investigators' International Forum
  • Marisat - Maritime Satellite System
  • MDO - Marine Diesel Oil
  • MEO - Medium Earth Orbit
  • MERSAR - Merchant Ship Search and Rescue Manual
  • NDT - Non-destructive Testing
  • NOR - Notice of Readiness
  • OMBO - One Man Bridge Operation
  • OOD - Officer of the Deck, Officer of the Day
  • OOW - Officer of the Watch
  • OPA 90 - Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (U.S.A)
  • OPRC - Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response, and Co-operation
  • PSC - Port State Control
  • PV - Pressure/Vacuum, Prime Vertical
  • QA - Quality Assurance
  • RCC - Rescue Coordination Center
  • RCDS - Raster Chart Display System
  • RNC - Raster Navigational Chart
  • SCOPIC - Special Compensation P&I Club Clause
  • SCR - Special Casualty Representative
  • SMC - Safety Management Certificate
  • SPI - Ship-Port Interface
  • SPM - Single Point Mooring
  • STCW - International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping
  • TPI - Tons Per Inch Immersion
  • UFL - Upper Flammable Limit
  • UPS - Uninterruptible Power Supply
  • UTC - Coordinated Universal Time
  • VDR - Voyage Data Recorder
  • VDU - Visual Display Unit
  • WL - Water Line
  • WT - Watertight
  • ZD - Zone Description