Basic Sailing Terms


Following are terms related to the act of sailing. Go here for terms related to sailboats and their equipment.

Apparent wind - The wind felt on a boat (the result of true wind and wind produced by the boat's own motion)

Bearing - A compass direction to a point (such as a waypoint ahead)

Beat - To sail close to the wind (as noun: point of sail close to the wind)

Bend on - To attach a sail to the boom or forestay

Beam reach - The point of sail with the wind coming straight across the beam (from the side)

Broad reach - The point of sail mostly downwind (but not entirely downwind on a run)

Chart - A nautical map showing depths and underwater characteristics

Course - The compass direction in which the boat is being steered (race course: the series of buoys to be rounded in order)

Close-hauled - The point of sail as close to the wind as possible;

Dead reckoning - Navigation and determination of the boat's position based on its direction, speed, and time

Ease - To let out a mainsheet or jibsheet (such as when adjusting a sail)

Ebb tide - The outgoing or falling tide (opposite of Flood tide)

Fix - The boat's position on a chart determined by taking bearings to two or more fixed objects (or as determined by a GPS unit)

Flood tide - The incoming or rising tide (opposite of Ebb tide)

Give way - A vessel that must avoid another vessel that has right of way, under the rules of the road

Gybe (or jibe) - To turn the boat downwind across the wind, with the sails moving from one side to the other

Head off - To turn farther away from the wind

Head up - To turn closer to the wind

Heading - The compass course being steered

Heave-to - To position the boat moving only slowly with the jib backwinded

Heel - The sideways tipping of the boat due to the wind's effect

Hike - To lean far out from the cockpit to help minimize heeling and balance the boat with one's own weight

Holding ground - The bottom under the water in reference to anchoring; for example, "poor holding ground" means the anchor may drag

Hull speed - The theoretical fastest speed of a keelboat that must push water aside rather than plane on top of the water

Jibe - Another spelling for gybe: to turn the boat downwind across the wind, with the sails moving from one side to the other

Jury rig - To fix damaged boat equipment in an improvised way with materials at hand

Knot - A unit of speed (for the boat or the wind) equal to one nautical mile per hour; a nautical mile is 1.15 miles

Lee (or leeward) - A directional term referring to downwind, such as the lee side of the boat or a shore downwind of the boat

Leg - A (usually straight) section of a boat's overall course (in a race or when sailing to a particular destination)

Luffing - A shaking or flapping of the front edge of a sail (the luff) when the sail is let out too far for the course being steered

Make fast - To secure (such as tying off a line)

Nautical mile - see Knot

Offshore - Direction of wind from land toward the water

Onshore - Direction of wind from the water toward the land

Pinching - Sailing too close to the wind when close-hauled; see Points of Sail and Sail Trim

Pitchpole - A type of capsizing when the boat's bow digs into a wave and the boat is flipped forward and over by the next wave

Plane - The boat lifts and sails fast over the surface of the water

Plot - On a nautical (paper or electronic) chart, to draw in the boat's position and course

Point of sail - The direction the boat is pointing relative to wind direction; see diagram here

Reach - A course sailed across the wind, such as a beam reach; see Points of sail

Right of way - According to the rules of the road (navigation laws), the vessel with right of way maintains its present course to avoid collision with another vessel (the give-way vessel)

Route - A term used in chartplotters designating a planned course through a series of waypoints

Rules of the road - Navigation laws specifying which boat must give way to another boat to prevent collision; see Rules of the Road for Sailboats

Run - The point of sail directly downwind; see Points of Sail and Sail Trim

Scope - The ratio of the length of anchor rode that is let out to the water depth; see How to Anchor a Sailboat

Shoal - Shallow

Tack - To turn the boat upwind and across the wind, with the sails moving from one side to the other; see How to Tack a Sailboat

Tail - When using a winch for a halyard or sheet, to tail is to pull on the line behind the winch to maintain pressure on the winch drum

Tender - A boat characteristic of heeling easily; also used to refer to a dinghy used with a larger boat

Trim - In general, to adjust the angle of a sail for greatest efficiency; more specifically, to pull in on the sheet (trim in vs. let out); see How to Trim the Jib

True - With directions, true north is straight up on the chart, as opposed to magnetic north

True wind - The direction the wind comes from not relative to the boat's motion; see Apparent wind

Waypoint - A point marked on a nautical chart (paper or electronic) to assist with navigation (such as to plot a route through a number of waypoints)

Weather helm - The tendency of a sailboat to head up toward the wind when not counteracted by the rudder

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