Common Nautical Terms

If you are already familiar with this subject feel free to skim or skip. This is simply a light orientation and not required reading.

Parts of the Ship

As with any technical trade the maritime industry is rife with jargon. While this may be bewildering to the newcomer this specialized nomenclature allows for quick and precise understanding where more general words might fail. While we cannot cover with any degree of exhaustiveness the full extend of nautical terminology, such a description would quickly devolve into a tome of glossary, we can cover some of the most common terms and usage to help the new practitioner not feel too much the landlubber.

Let us begin with “port” and “starboard.” Port is the left side of the vessel and starboard is the right side. The directions never change and are always from the ship’s perspective, never your own. This enables sailors on different sides of the vessel to reference the same area without having to interpret the location or positioning of their shipmates. Throughout the whole process of memorizing information you will find mnemonics to be useful, or the practice of remembering things using related mental imagery. For example, you can easily remember port as being the left because both “port” and “left” have four letters ending in t; starboard may be recalled using this process of elimination.

The bow is the pointy end at the front. Traditionally this would be referenced in plural and referred to as “the bows.” Why? Because there’s a port bow and a starboard bow, so logically there must be two bows for every ship. The more people thought about it the more confusing it became and this practice has been subsequently abandoned.

Opposite the bow is the stern. It could be said the stern is the after end of the vessel and the word aft is a contraction of this to reference anything towards the stern. The bow is therefore the forward end of the vessel, and fore is the term used to reference anything in front of anything else relative to the ship.

Anything up is aloft, anything down is below. Walls are referred to as bulkheads. The thing you used to call a ceiling in a house is now called the overhead, because it’s over your head. Fairly reductive reasoning. A ceiling is now a false wall, coming from the old Saxon word “celan” meaning screening or lining.

We’re just getting started.

Passageways are referred to as companionways. Stairways are referred to as ladders (unless it’s an honest-to-goodness set of stairs). The outer side of the hull, between the water and the deck, are the topsides of a vessel. Windows are either portholes or ports, if they open, or dead lights, if they don’t. The thing you walk on is the deck, when outside the cabin, and the sole, when in the cabin (provided it’s a yacht, otherwise, it’s still a deck, so even amongst the various maritime industries there are differences of nomenclature).

Instead of reporting for work, you “turn to,” and instead of waiting, you “stand by.” There is a lot of turning to and standing by at sea. The rest will come with practice. It gets a little tricky but your shipmates will bear with you as you muddle along, and we will explain anything that absolutely has to be explained. Have fun, take notes.

What is a Ship?

Nothing will place you in ill standing more quickly than telling an overly proud yacht owner that you like his boat. Part of the reason why this is such a difficult topic is that the definition of ship is incredibly subjective, or changes from one industry to another. For example, from a naval architecture standpoint, a ship is any vessel with at least one continuous internal deck running the length of the vessel. Another popular, albeit less formal, viewpoint is that a ship can carry a boat but a boat can’t carry a ship, and this is why submarines, originally carried and launched from ships, are now and always referred to as boats even though some are larger than some surface ships.

Another interesting definition is that a boat leans to the right when turning right and a ship leans to the left when turning right. This is due to various aspects of vessel stability from a design standpoint and is another attempt at differentiating small (boats) from large (ships) without actually specifying a size.

There is really only one correct definition: a sailing vessel with three masts and square sails rigged upon each mast. This is a ship-rig and is properly referred to as a “ship.”

More than likely you will be at the mercy of some veteran’s sharp sense of humor before the issue is settled. Remember also that the New World was discovered by a 75-foot-long Santa Maria.