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Encyclopedia > Nautical term

A list of nautical terms; some remain current, many date from the 17th-19th century.



  • Above board - on or above the deck, in plain view.
  • Act of Pardon / Act of Grace - A letter from a state or power authorising action by a privateer.
  • Abaft - towards the stern ("to go abaft")
  • Abaft the beam - that half of the ship between the amidship section and the taffrail.
  • Abeam - 'On the beam', at right angles to the ship's keel.
  • Abel Brown - a vulgar sea song.
  • Advance note - a note for one month's wages issued to sailors on their signing a ship's articles.
  • Aft - towards the stern
  • Ahoy - a cry to draw attention.
  • Avast - Stop!
  • Azimuth-Compass - an instrument employed for ascertaining the sun's magnetical azimuth.
  • Back and fill - to use the advantage of the tide being with you when the wind is not.
  • Backstays - long lines or cables, reaching from the rear of the vessel to the mast heads, to support the mast.
  • Bars - large masses of sand or earth, formed by the surge of the sea; they are mostly found at the entrances of great rivers or havens, and often render navigation extremely dangerous.
  • Bear down - sail rapidly downwind.
  • Before the mast - literally, the area of a ship before the foremast (the forecastle). Most often used to describe men whose living quarters are located here, officers being housed behind the mast and enlisted men before the mast.
  • Belaying-pins - Bars of iron or hard wood to which running rigging may be secured, or belayed.
  • Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - see Devil seam.
  • Bilged on her anchor - a ship that has run upon her own anchor.
  • Binacle - the stand on which the ship's compass is mounted.
  • Binnacle List - a ship's sick list. The list of men unable to report for duty was given to the officer or mate of the watch by the ship's surgeon. The list was kept at the binacle.
  • Bitt - posts mounted on the ship's bow for fastening ropes or cables.
  • Bitter end - the anchor cable is tied to the bitts, when the cable is fully paid out, the bitter end has been reached. The last part of a rope or cable.
  • Bloody - an intensive derivedfrom the substantive 'blood', a name applied to the Bucks, Scrowers, and Mohocks of the seventeenth centuries.
  • Blue Peter - a blue and white flag hoisted at the foretrucks of ships about to sail.
  • Boatswain or bosun - a non-commissioned officer responsible for the sails, ropes and boats on a ship who issues "piped" commands to seamen.
  • Bollard - from 'bol' or 'bole', the round trunk of a tree. A substantial vertical pillar to which lines may be made fast. Generally on the quayside rather than the ship.
  • Bonded Jacky - a type of tobacco or sweet cake.
  • Booby hatch - a sliding hatch or cover.
  • Boom - a spar used to extend the foot of a sail.
  • Booms - masts or yards, lying on board in reserve.
  • Bow - the front of a ship.
  • Bowline - a type of knot, producing a strong loop of a fixed size. Also a rope attached to the side of a sail to pull it towards the bow (for keeping the windward edge of the sail steady).
  • Bowse - to pull or hoist.
  • Bowspirit - spirit projecting from the bow.
  • Braile - to furl a sail by pulling it in towards the mast.
  • Brails - ropes used to truss up a sail to a mast or yard.
  • Brake - the handle of the pump, by which it is worked.
  • Bring to - cause a ship to be stationary by arranging the sails.
  • Broaching-to - a sudden movement in navigation, when the ship, while scudding before the wind, accidentally turns her side to windward.
  • Buffer - Chief Bosun's Mate (responsible for discipline).
  • Bull of Barney a beast mentioned in an obscene sea-proverb.
  • Bumboat - a private boat selling goods.
  • Bumpkin - An iron bar (projecting out-board from a ship's side) to which the lower and topsail brace blocks are sometimes hooked).
  • Buntline - one of the lines tied to the bottom of a square sail and used to haul it up to the yard when furling.
  • Buoyed Up - lifted by a buoy, especially a cable that has been lifted to prevent it from trailing on the bottom.
  • By and Large - By means into the wind, while large means with the wind. By and large is used to indicate all possible situations "the ship handles well both by and large".
  • By the board - anything that has gone overboard.
  • Cable - a large rope. Also a measure of length or distance - (UK) 1/10 nautical mile, approx. 600 feet; (USA) 120 fathoms, 720 feet; Other countries use different values.
  • Cape Horn fever - the illness proper to malingerers.
  • Capstan - a rotating wheel mounted vertically, used to wind in anchors or other heavy objects.
  • Careen - cause the ship to tilt on its side, usually to clean or repair the hull below the water line.
  • Catted - said of an anchor when weighed and secured to the cat head.
  • Cat o' nine tails - the Bosuns' Mate kept this nine tailed whip used for flogging.
  • Chain shot - cannon balls linked with chain - used to damage rigging and masts.
  • Chase guns - cannons mounted on the bow.
  • Chock-a-block - rigging blocks that are so tight against one another that they cannot be further tightened.
  • Clean bill of health - a certificate issued by a port indicating that the ship carries no infectious diseases.
  • Clean Slate - at the helm, the watch keeper would record details of speed, distances, headings etc on a slate. At the beginning of a new watch the slate would be wiped clean.
  • Clew-lines - used to truss up the clews, the lower corners of square sails.
  • Coaming - the raised edge of a hatchway.
  • Courses - the mainsail, foresail, and the mizzen.
  • Coxswain or cockswain - the helmsman or crew member in command of a boat.
  • As the crow flies - a navigational technique in coastal water was to release a caged crow, which would tend to fly towards the nearest land.
  • Crow's nest - the highest lookout point.
  • Cut and run - When wanting to make a quick escape, a ship might cut lashings to sails or cables for anchors, causing damage to the rigging, or loosing an anchor, but giving extra speed.
  • Cut of His Jib - The "cut" of a sail refers to its shape. Since this would vary between ships, it could be used both to identify a familiar vessel at a distance and to judge the possible sailing qualities of an unknown one..
  • Devil seam - curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship, next to the scuppers. A sailor slipping on the deck would be "between the Devil and the deep blue sea".
  • Devil to pay - paying the Devil is sealing the devil seam. It is a difficult and unpleasant job because of the shape of the seam.
  • Dogwatch - a short watch period, generally half the usual time (eg a two hour watch between two four hour ones). Such a watch might be included in order to slowly rotate the system over several days for fairness, or to allow both watches to eat their meals at approximately normal times.
  • Draft - the minimum depth of water needed to float the ship.
  • Dressing down - treating old sails with oil or wax to renew them, or a verbal reprimand.
  • Driver - large sail flown from the mizzen gaff.


  • Earrings - small lines, by which the uppermost corners of the largest sails are secured to the yard-arms.
  • Fathom - six feet (once defined by parliament as "the length of a man's arms around the object of his affections."
  • Fireship - a sacrificial ship loaded with flammable materials and explosives, sent into an enemy port or fleet and then blown up.
  • First rate - the classification for the largest sailing warships of the 17th through 19th centuries. They had 3 masts, 850+ crew and 100+ guns.
  • Fluke - large part of an anchor that digs into the bottom (a lucky occasion when this happens on the first try).
  • Fly by night - a large sail used only for sailing downwind, requiring little attention.
  • Foot - the bottom of a sail.
  • Footloose - If the foot of a sail is not secured properly, it is footloose, blowing around in the wind.
  • Foremast Jack - an enlisted sailor, one who is housed before the foremast.
  • Furl roll or wrap a sail around the mast or spar to which it is attached.
  • Gaff - spar that holds the upper edge of a sail.
  • Garbled - garbling was the (illegal) practice of mixing cargo with garbage.
  • Grapeshot - small balls of lead fired from a cannon. Used to hurt people.
  • Grog - watered rum. From the British Admiral Vernon who, 1740 the ordered the men's ration of rum to be watered down. He was called "Old Grogram" because he often wore a grogram coat), and the watered rum came to be called 'grog'.
  • Groggy - having consumed a lot of grog.
  • Gunwhale - upper edge of the hull.
  • Halliards - ropes used for hoisting a spar with a sail attached.
  • Haul wind - point the ship so as to be heading in the same direction, to maximise speed.
  • Heave to - To stop a sailing vessel by lashing the helm in opposition to the sails. The vessel will gradually drift to leeward, the speed of the drift depending on the vessel's design.
  • Heave down - turn a ship on its side (for cleaning).
  • Holystone - sandstone used to scrub the decks (the name comes from the kneeling position sailors adopt to scrub the deck, and the stone itself, which resembled a Bible in shape and size).


  • In the offing - some considerable distance from the shore.
  • Jack - either a flag, or a sailor. Typically the flag was talked about as if it were a member of the crew.
  • Job - type of triangular sail.
  • Killick - anchor.
  • Know the ropes - a sailor who 'knows the ropes' is familiar with the miles of cordage and ropes involved in running a ship.
  • Lanyard - a rope that ties something off.
  • Larboard - the left side of the ship - compare Starboard.
  • Large - see By and large.
  • League - three miles.
  • Lee side - the side of a ship sheltered from the wind (cf Weather side).
  • Lee shore - a shore downwind of a ship. A ship which cannot sail well to windward risks being blown onto a lee shore and grounded.
  • Let go and haul - an order indicating that the ship is in line with the wind.
  • Let the cat out of the bag - to break bad news (the "cat'o'nine tails" being taken out of the bag by the Bosun was bad news). cf Cat'o'nine tails.
  • Leeway - the amount that a ship is blown off course by the wind when it is not sailing exactly before the wind.
  • Leeward - in the direction that the wind is going to
  • List - the ship tilts to one side.
  • Loaded to the gunwhales - literally, loaded as high as the ships rail, also means extremely drunk.
  • Loggerhead - an iron ball attached to a long handle, used for caulking, and occasionally for fighting.


  • Mainmast - the largest, and main, mast.
  • Master - either the commander of commercial vessel, or a senior officer of a naval sailing ship in charge of routine seamanship and navigation but not in command during combat.
  • Master-at-Arms - a non-commissioned officer responsible for discipline on a naval ship.
  • Midshipman - a non-commissioned officer below the rank of Lieutenant. Usually regarded as being "in training" to some degree.
  • Mizzen mast - the rear most mast.
  • Mizzen Staysail - Sail on a ketch or yawl, usually lightweight, set from, and forward of, the mizzen mast while reaching in light to moderate air.
  • Nipper short rope used to bind a cable to the "messenger" (a moving line propelled by the capstan) so that the cable is dragged along too. (Used because the cable is too large to be wrapped round the capstan itself.)
  • No Room to Swing a Cat - the entire ship's company was expected to witness floggings, assembled on deck. If it was very crowded, the Bosun might not have room to swing the whip.
  • Overbear - to sail downwind directly at another ship, stealing the wind from its sails.
  • Overhaul - hauling the buntline ropes over the sails to prevent them from chaffing.
  • Overreach - when tacking, to hold a course too long.
  • Over the barrel - Adult sailors were flogged tied to a grating, but boys were beaten instead with a cane, while tied down over the barrel of a gun.
  • Overwhelm - capsized or foundered.
  • Ox-Eye - so called by seamen, a remarkable appearance in the heavens, resembling a small lurid speck, and always preceding two particular storms, known only between the tropics.
  • Parrel - a movable band-rope, used to fasten the yard to its respective mast.
  • Pipe down - a signal on the Bosun's pipe to signal the end of the day, requiring lights to be extinguished and silence from the crew.
  • Poop deck - the stern section of a ship.
  • Pooped - swamped by a high, following sea. Exhausted.
  • Port (nautical)
  • Press gang - the navy was authorised to 'press' civilians into service. Gangs of sailors would carry out this duty.
  • Privateer - a privately owned ship authorised by a national power to conduct hostilities against an enemy (also called a Letter of Marque or a Private man of war).
  • Reach - Point of sail - actually several points of sail - from about 60 to about 160 off the wind. Reaching consists of Close Reaching (about 60 to 80), Beam Reaching (about 90) and Broad Reaching (about 120 to 160)
  • Reef - to temporarily reduce the size of a sail, usually because of strong wind. This can be accomplished in various ways.
  • Reef points - small lengths of cord attached to a sail, used to secure the excess fabric after reefing.
  • Reef-bands - long pieces of rough canvass sewed across the sails to give them additional strength.
  • Reef-tackles - ropes employed in the operation of reefing. &c.
  • Rolling-tackle - a number of pulleys, engaged to confine the yard to the weather side of the mast; this tackle is much used in a rough sea.
  • Rummage sale - a sale of damaged cargo (from French arrimage).


  • Sail-plan.
  • Scud - a name given by sailors to the lowest clouds; which are mostly observed in squally weather.
  • Scudding - a term applied to a vessel when carried furiously along by a tempest.
  • Scuttle to cut a hole in, or sink something.
  • Scuttlebutt - a barrel with a hole in used to hold water that sailors would drink from. Also: gossip.
  • Shakes - pieces of barrels or casks broken down to save space. They are worth very little, leading to the phrase "no great shakes".
  • Sheer - the upward curve of a vessel's longidudinal lines as viewed from the side.
  • Sheet - a rope used to control the tension on the downwind side of a square sail, or to adjust the angle of a fore-and-aft one.
  • Skysail - A sail set very high, above the royals. Only carried by a few ships.
  • Skyscraper - a small, triangular sail, above the skysail. Used in light winds on a few ships.
  • Slush - substance obtained by boiling or scraping the fat from empty salted meat storage barrels.
  • Slush fund - the money obtained by the cook selling slush ashore. Used for the benefit of the crew.
  • Son of a gun - between the guns was used as a place for trysts with prostitutes and wives.
  • Starboard
  • Square meal - a meal served on a square wooden plate in good weather.
  • Staysail.
  • Steering oar or steering board - a long and flat board or oar that went from the stern to well underwater, used to control the vessel in the absence of a rudder.
  • Stern - the rear part of a ship, technically defined as the area built up over the sternpost, extending upwards from the counter to the taffrail.
  • Studding-Sails - long and narrow, used only in fine weather, on the outside of the large square sails.
  • Swinging the compass - measuring the inaccuracy in a ship's magnetic compass so its readings can be adjusted.
  • Taken aback - an inattentive helmsmen might allow the dangerous situation to arise where the wind is blowing into the sails 'backwards', causing a sudden (and possibly dangerous) shift in the position of the sails.
  • Taking the wind out of his sails - to sail in a way that steals the wind from another ship cf. overbear.
  • Tally - the operation of hauling aft the sheets, or drawing them in the direction of the ship's stern.
  • Three sheets to the wind - on a three masted ship, having the sheets of the three lower courses loose will result in the ship meandering aimlessly downwind. To be drunk, and meandering aimlessly.
  • Timoneer - from the French timonnier, is a name given, on particular occasions, to the steersman of a ship.
  • Toe the line / Toe the mark - at parade, sailors and soldiers were required to stand in line, their toes in line with a seam of the deck.
  • Topsails - The second sail (counting from the bottom) up a mast. These may be either square sails or fore-and-aft ones, in which case they often "fill in" between the mast and the gaff of the sail below.
  • Touch and go - the bottom of the ship touching the bottom, but not grounding.
  • Towing - the operation of drawing a vessel forward by means of long lines, &c.
  • Travellers - small fittings that slide on a rod or line. The most common use is for the inboard end of the mainsheet; a more esoteric form of traveller consists of "slight iron rings, encircling the backstays, which are used for hoisting the top-gallant yards, and confining them to the backstays".
  • Trick - A period of time spent at the wheel ("my trick's over").
  • Under the weather - serving a watch on the weather side of the ship, exposed to wind and spray.
  • Wales - a number of strong and thick planks, covering the lower part of the ship's side.
  • Weather side - the weather side of a ship is the side exposed to the wind.
  • Wells - places in the ship's hold for the pumps, &c.
  • Wide berth - to leave room between two ships moored (berthed) to allow space for maneuver.
  • Windage - wind resistance of the boat
  • Windbound - means when the ship is detained in one particular station by contrary winds.
  • Windward - in the direction that the wind is coming from.
  • Yardarm - The horizontal spar from which a square sail is suspended.

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