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Terminology of a Sail-boat

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

By Tabac Iberez

Image made by Andy Cooke from original images by Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA and User Alex756 on en.wikipedia.

So, you’re reading one of Tom’s naval articles, and it’s good. It’s history, and you’re solid on history. This is a piece of cake-


And then you’re knocked on your backside as you’re trying to figure out what on God’s Blue Earth that word is. It doesn’t make sense, it has no context, and for all you know it’s not even English. Does it thwart ships? Is it a ship that’s been thwarted? Is this possibly even one of those words that has morphed into another word through the strains of time like egg?

Well, no. It’s a bulkhead- that is, a wall- that goes across a ship from one side to the other. Fact is, though, if you go into Hornblower unprepared these days you’re going to be reading an alternate history of a different type than you expected: because sailing uses alternate terminology to landlubbers. To help with that, though, this is going to be a short article on what’s what with sailboats. We’ll be covering newer stuff later on with the aid of James Rodgers, a naval architect par excellence, in a later article. Most of the items in this list will have the factual explanation on them, and possibly a short anecdote from my time racing sunfish and other light boats. This list will not, however, be in alphabetical order, simply because I’ll be covering riggings and decks which require diagrams that necessitate clumping.

That all out of the way, let’s begin.

Port: (1) A place where you leave the ship. (2) The side of the ship that faces the pier when you dock the ship. (3) The left side of the ship as you face the bow. (4) The side with the green lantern on it. Also known as: larboard, the place we left the boat, your other starboard.

Starboard: (1) The side of the ship that is not port. (2) The side of the ship with the red lamp. (3) The right side of the ship, as when facing the bow. Also known as: the rudder side, your other port.

Windward: (1) To be towards the wind. (2) to be in front of something relative to the wind. (3) To be in a position to steal someone else’s wind. Example: We were windward of the D’arby’s clowns, so they couldn’t pass safely.

Leeward: (1) To be away from the wind. (2) to be behind something relative to the wind. (3) Your location relative to someone who just stole your wind. Alt: In the lee off X. Example: We were leeward of the cape so the storm wouldn’t batter us.

Horsed: To be riding a current instead of the wind. See: Horse latitudes

Bow: (1) Something polite to do in a pinch. (2) The front of the ship.

Tacking; To bring the ship through the direction of the wind bow-first so as to go the other way as part of a way to head upwind. Mildly risky, and chances going into irons (see below) or damaging the mast if square-rigged.

Wearing: To bring the ship around and change direction stern-first. Much like tacking, except done backwards to preserve the masts for a majority-square rigged ship.

Bo’: (1) To be permanently on the front of the ship. (2) To be in charge. See: Bowspirt, Bo’sun.

Bo’sun: (1) Deck boss. (2) The meanest son of a gun onboard due to (1)

Bowspit/Bowsprit: (1) The figurehead at the front of the ship. Example: Not all bowsprits are naked women, dear.

Fast: (1) To make tight and secure. (2) What you hope the boat is.

Belay: To stop or to make certain something doesn’t come free.

In Irons: (1) To be without wind, see Horsed. (2) To have maneuvered yourself into a position where the wind doesn’t work with your sails. Also known as ‘we’re stuck’, dead stop,

Hull: (1) The body of the ship. (2) The exterior layer of the ship.

Bulkhead: A wall in a ship.

Compartment: A watertight compartment in a ship.

Athwartships: Something that goes across the ship from one side to the other. Also may refer to a bulkhead that goes from one side to the ship to the other.

Head: Bathroom

Ship: (1) A sea-going vessel too large to be put on another type of sea-going vessel. (2) A type of rigging. Example: Submarines aren’t ships, Carl. They’re boats.

Boat: (1) A sea-going vessel that can go on another sea-going vessel. (2) Something you put in the water and carries someone while floating on purpose. Example: Even though they travelled great distances, the Polynesian boats were not ships.

Sail Plan: How you rig the sails on a ship

Mast: The pole that holds the sails up in the air.

Boom: The pole that spreads the sails out so they get to work.

Sheet: (1) A rope used to move sails, also known as running rigging. (2) Something you put on the bed.

Shroud/Stay: A rope that helps hold the mast vertical.

Boom Vang: A rope used to control booms.

Kicking Strap: See Boom Vang, but British.

Belaying Pin: A structural member of the running rig where a sheet is tied to.

Square Sail: The traditional big sail that goes in front of the mast. (There will be so many variations on this later- T.)

Lanteen Sail: A sail with a single boom across the top. Easy to set, somewhat easy to control, and catches the wind transversely. Note that the sail is both fore and aft of the mast; which separates it from a lot of other sails.

Crabclaw Sail: A lanteen sail with a boom across the bottom as well.

Gaff Sail: A fore-and-aft rigged sail behind the mast with a main boom at the bottom and a top boom as well. Sail size is controlled by moving the top boom.

Bermuda/Bermuda Sail/Sloop Sail: A fore-and-aft rigged sail behind the mast with a bottom boom and a sliding anchor point on the mast for sail size control.

Course of Sail: A layer on the mast on which a sail may be mounted. They are listed below.

  • Mainsail: The main sail, and the lowest in terms of altitude on the mast.

  • Topsail: The sail immediately over the mainsail

  • Gallant/Gallant Sail: The sail over the topsail, third from bottom on a mast. Most ships stop here, on grounds of mast height.

  • Topgallant/T’gallant: The sail over a gallant, fourth from bottom.

  • Royal: The sail over the topgallant, fifth from bottom. Apocryphically, named because only the Royal Navy sailed with these due to the cost of the high masts and the stupidity of attempting to keep them balanced in a sail plan.

  • Skysail: The sixth from bottom sail. Often seen on ships such as windjammers, which had electric winches for the sails and steel masts.

  • Raker/Moonraker: The seventh and absolutely highest sail possible to go.

Jib: A sail that goes fore of the mizzen or mainmast to connect to the deck or bowsprit.

Genoa/Genoa Jib: A jib that extends behind the mast its top is affixed to.

Lug Sail: A sail hoisted between masts fore and aft, but shaped square and not held by booms.

Mainmast: The main mast, which hoists the mainsail.

Foremast: A forward mast to help get more thrust and haul the front of the ship up from lift in the sails.

Mizzenmast: A reward mast to help get more thrust and increase aft-weight to keep the rudder engaged.

(It is at this point I’d like to mention that the names of rigs are synthetic: that is, the name is pieced together from the components. Someone could say, for example, “A cat lugger” or a “lanteen schooner” or “bermuda yawl” and these would all be combinations of a mast arrangement and sail plan and be perfectly correct. I’ll try and name the common ones, but some clever fellow will always put a spinnaker in there and ruin the naming scheme.)

  • Cat Rig: A single-mast single-sail rig of any variation. Often aprended to other types of rig; ex Cat Gaff or Cat Square.

  • Bermuda/Sloop Rig: A single masted rig with one sail in Bermuda set. Light, easy to control, and handles well.

  • Gaff Rig: Like a Bermuda rig, but using a gaff sail and frequently a jib or genoa. More complicated, but also more controllable.

  • Dhow: A single lanteen sail on an unstayed mast.

  • Cutter Rig: A single mast with a gaff-rig mainsail, square-rig topsail, and several jibs.

Yawl: A fore-and-aft rigged boat with a mainmast and a very tiny mizzenmast.

Ketch: A fore-and-aft rigged ship with a main and mizzenmast, but the mizzenmast is actually big enough to produce thrust. Basically a bigger yawl.

Schooner: A fore-and-aft rigged ship with a foremast and mainmast, often gaff rigged.

Note that if a ship is purely fore-and-aft rigged, she’s still a schooner even if she has more masts than two.

Topsail Schooner: As above, with a square rigged topsail over the gaff rigged sails. This was an adaptation to help catch the consistent winds in parts of the Atlantic, since the schooner-rig was designed to deal with more chaotic winds and less well-set courses.

Brig: Two masts, both of which are square rigged and the aft of which also carries a gaff-rig mainsail in rear.

Schooner Brig/Hermaphrodite Brig: Two masts, the fore of which is entirely square-rigged and the aft of which is entirely gaff rigged.

Brigandine: Two masts, the fore of which is still a pure square rig while the aft removes the square mainsail and topsail for a much fuller gaff rig sail. Originally designed to help with Carribean conditions where tacking was common, requiring more tacking than a mostly-square rigged ship was comfortable.

Barque: Three masts, the fore and mainmast of which are square rigged, while the mizzen has a fore-and-aft rig. More masts may be added at owner’s discretion.

Barquentine: The Barque, but with the mainmast also sporting fore-and-aft rigging.

Polacre: An odd duck and rather old by sail plan standards, this design is a square-rigged mainmast fully forward and two lanteen rigged mizzenmasts behind it. Originally designed for the Mediterranean, and named after the Poles for some reason.

Ship-rigged/Fully Rigged Ship: Three or more masts, mounting square sails and spankers between the masts. A gaff sail could be added on the mizenmost mast, but a square rig would need to then be above this to keep it a full rigged ship instead of a barquentine. These were generally kept to military ships due to their high cost of operation due to spreading the sail area over more courses. This let them be quite fast over most points of sail, but did cause some problems moving into the wind if the sailing masters weren’t careful.

This article is a little unique in terms of Sea Lion Press articles in that it’s meant to be less a standalone, and more a reference for the next time you crack open some crusty (actual or imitation crust- it doesn’t really matter) old sea story, and need a helping hand.


Tabac Iberez is the author of A Century Turns and Night Over The Bosporus, by SLP


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