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Sailing Terminology

June 2, 2014

Even living on land, we can't seem to escape boats, boat building and sailing. The log cabin we are renting is on property that has been in the current family since the four-lane road out front was a single set of wagon wheel ruts in the dirt. In one of the barns sit two wooden boats built in the 1920's by brothers no longer with us. The construction is sound, the wood is neither rotten nor worm-eaten and my boat-builder husband was naturally intrigued to find two row boats in the former chicken barn. Even the book that was used to build them is still in the old house: Boat-Building and Boating by Daniel Beard. As I flipped through the 103-year old book I realized that boat building, sailing terminology, and sound advice never change.

Since the book was written for boys and beginning sailors, it is loaded with sailing terms simply defined, as well as ditties to use as memory aids for navigation.

After dark a red light is carried on the port side and a green light on the starboard side of all vessels in motion. If you can remember that port wine is red, and that the port light is of the same color, you will always be able to tell in which direction an approaching craft is pointing by the relative location of the lights.

"When both lights you see ahead,
Port your helm and show your red!
Green to green and red to red,
You're all right, and go ahead!"

For those new to boating, or unfamiliar with the terminology used for less popular rigs (such as gaffs) these definitions are perfect.


Sailing dinghies are great learning tools.

The rudder is the movable piece of board at the stern of the boat by means of which the craft is guided. The rudder is moved by a lever, ropes, or a wheel.
The tiller is the lever for moving the rudder, or the ropes used for the same purpose.
The wheel is the wheel whose spokes end in handles on the outer edge of the rim, or felly, and it is used for moving the rudder.
The helm is that particular part of the steering apparatus that you put your hands on when steering.
The deck is the roof of the hull.
The centreboard is an adjustable keel that can be raised or lowered at pleasure. It is an American invention. The centreboard, as a rule, is only used on comparatively small vessels.
The inventor of the centreboard is Mr. Salem Wines, who kept a shop on Water Street, near Market Slip, and, when alive, was a well-known New York boat-builder. His body now lies in Greenwood Cemetery, and upon the headstone of his grave is the inscription, "The Inventor of the Centreboard."

For sailing, the boat, or hull, is rigged with masts and spars for spreading the sails to catch the wind.
The masts are the upright poles, or sticks, that hold the sails.
The yards are the poles, or sticks, at right angles with the masts that spread the sails.
The boom is the movable spar at the bottom of the sail.
The gaff is the pole, or spar, for spreading the top, or head, of the sail.
The sail is a big canvas kite, of which the boom, gaff, and masts are the kite-sticks. You must not understand by this that the sail goes soaring up in the air, for the weight of the hull prevents that; but if you make fast a large kite to the mast of a boat it would be a sail, and if you had a line long and strong enough, and should fasten any spread sail to it, there can be no doubt that the sail would fly.
The spars are the masts, bowsprit, yards, and gaffs.
The bowsprit is the stick, or sprit, projecting from the bow of the boat.
The foremast is the mast next to the bow--the forward mast.
The mainmast is the second mast-- the mast next to the foremast.
Mizzen-mast is the mast next to and back of the mainmast.
The rigging of a boat consists of the ropes, or lines, attached to its masts and sails, but a boat's rig refers to the number of masts as well as to the shape of its sails.
Stays are strong ropes supporting the masts, fore and aft.
Shrouds are strong ropes reaching from the mastheads to the sides of the vessel; supports for masts, starboard and port.
Ratlines are the little ropes that form the steps, or foot ropes, that run crosswise between the shrouds.
The painter is the rope at the bow of a small boat, used for the same purpose as is a hitching-strap on a horse.
The standing rigging consists of the stays and shrouds.
The running rigging consists of all the ropes used in handling yards and sails.
The sheets are the ropes, or lines, attached to the corners of sails, by which they are governed.
The main sheet is the rope that governs the mainsail.
The jib-sheet is the rope that governs the jib-sail.
The gaskets are the ropes used in lashing the sails when furled.
The braces are the ropes used in swinging the yards around.
The jib-stay is the stay that runs from the foremast to the bowsprit.
The bob-stay is practically an extension of the jib-stay and the chief support of the spars. It connects the bow of the boat with the bowsprit and prevents the latter from bobbing up and down.


Even a canoe can teach you seamanship.

Besides the port and starboard sides of a boat there are the windward and leeward sides. Do not understand by this that the boat has four sides, like a square. Windward may be the port or the starboard side, according to the direction the wind blows; because

Windward means the side of the boat against which the wind blows--the side where the wind climbs aboard; or it may mean the direction from which the wind comes. The opposite side is called
Leeward--that is, the side of the boat opposite to that against which the wind blows, where the wind tumbles overboard, or the side opposite to windward. When you are sailing you may be near a
Lee Shore--that is, the shore on your lee side against which the wind blows; or a
Windward Shore--that is, the land on your windward side from which the wind blows.
All seamen dread a lee shore, as it is a most dangerous shore to approach, from the fact that the wind is doing its best to blow you on the rocks or beach. But the windward shore can be approached with safety, because the wind will keep you off the rocks, and if it is blowing hard, the land will break the force of the wind.

In a canoe or shell the boatman sits either directly on the bottom, or, as in the shell, very close to it, and the weight of his body serves to keep the boat steady, but larger crafts seldom rely upon live weights to steady them. They use

Ballast--that is, weights of stone, lead, iron, or sand-bags, used to balance the boat and make her steady.

As has been said before in this chapter, the sail is a big canvas kite made fast to the boat and called a sail, but the ordinary kite has its covering stretched permanently on rigid sticks. The sail, however, can be stretched to its full extent or only partially, or it may be rolled up, exposing nothing but the masts to the force of the wind. To accomplish all this there are various ropes and attachments, all of which are named.

It is quite important that the beginner should know the names of all the

Parts of a Sail

Luff.--That part of the sail adjoining the mast--the front of the sail.
Leach.--That part of the sail stretched between the outer or after end of the boom and the outer end of the gaff--the back part of the sail.
Head.--That part of the sail adjoining the gaff--the top of the sail.
Foot.--That part of the sail adjoining the boom--the bottom of the sail.
Clews.--A general name for the four corners of the sail.
Clew.--The particular corner at the foot of the sail where the leach and boom meet.
Tack.--The corner of the sail where boom and mast meet
Throat, or Nock.--The corner of the sail where gaff and mast meet
Peak.--Corner of the sail where the leach and gaff meet

MONDAY we'll share our favorite part of the book. The advice given to young boys just starting out in boating over 100 years ago should also be foremost in cruisers' minds today, rather than where the nearest bar and fuel dock are.

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