Boating Terminology for First-Time Cruisers

Post by - Published on 02/16/22 5:00 AM

Whether you're hopping aboard for your first cruise or want to brush up on your boat terminology (LOA, anyone?), this cheat sheet will help you to decipher some on-the-water lingo. Read on to familiarize yourself with some of the more frequently used words and phrases translated into everyday English. (Not your first rodeo? Please share this with someone who might need a leg up for their first outing)

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Marina Terminology

If you're more of a stowaway than a skipper, finding ways to make yourself useful can go a long way. Researching and securing dockage or helping keep watch while underway is a great place to start. Some terms to know as you help float plan: 

What is a float plan? 

A float plan is a document detailing the intended agenda for the boat, including vessel, crew, and equipment information, date of departure, date(s) of arrival, fuel stops, overnights, and dockage/anchorage reservations.

What's the difference between a slip and a dock? 

A slip is a dock section in which captains park their boats. The dock can refer to the general area of the marina where the boats tie up ("Let's head down to the dock") as well the actual flat floating structure itself ("This dock is badly damaged"). A marina's docks can encompass its slips, linear dockage, fuel dock, dinghy dock, and sometimes the ship's store or office. You may find cleats (ideally), electrical hookups, or water hookups near your slip. In addition, you may find a dock cart for toting gear or provisions, an ice machine, and bathrooms down the dock. 

What is linear dockage?

As opposed to a slip a boat pulls into, linear dockage is a marina configuration that docks boats by lining them up end to end along the dock, one boat's bow to another boat's stern. 

What is a mooring ball?

Also casually referred to as "a mooring," a mooring ball floats on the water's surface and is secured to the harbor bottom typically via a large, heavy, and permanently-installed anchor, cement block, or another immovable weight. Attached to a mooring ball generally, is a pennant, which is a length of rope with a loop at the end – the loop not only helps you grab the mooring ball's pennant using the boat's boat hook, it also is the loop through which a line will run to secure the boat to the mooring. Different harbors label their mooring balls in different ways, and they vary by the size of vessel they can accommodate. 

What is a dock piling? 

A piling is a heavy post, like a telephone pole embedded into the seafloor and used to secure docks in place or to which boats can be tied.

What does VHF stand for?

VHF stands for "very high frequency." On boats, the VHF is the onboard radio transmitter. Marinas (and other boaters, harbor patrols, and the Coast Guard) monitor specific VHF channels. Once you've reserved your dockage, a captain will put out a radio call on the marina monitors channel to let them know he is approaching, request a slip assignment if not provided via the app's Chat function, or ask for assistance. 


Boat Measurement Terminology

What is LOA (Length Overall)? 

This definition is somewhat controversial. For any captain who has made a marina manager's day more hectic because they fibbed or fudged the numbers, this one's for you:
When reserving dockage, if the marina asks for your vessel's Length Overall (LOA), they're asking for–wait for it–the overall length of the boat. The whole enchilada. No skimping, no "Oops, when did I get a swim platform?"
The boat's branding, marketing materials, or the boat documentation that was done pre-customization may no longer have any bearing on reality. However, in the context of reserving a dock space or mooring, the marina needs to know your boat's literal LOA as measured from its aft-most to forward-most appendages, from the tip of your bowsprit to the back of your swim platform. (Read more about why LOA matters.)

What is a boat's waterline length?

The length of a boat's hull where it intersects with the water.

What is a boat's draft?

A boat's draft is the vertical distance between the boat's waterline and the bottom of its keel. This measurement determines the minimum depth of water over which a ship can safely navigate. So when you hear "What does she draw?" the question at hand is, "What depth of water is required for the boat to float?" 

As a captain requests dockage from a marina, the marinas will likely ask for a boat's draft as they take the reservation details and often post Mean Low Water of its harbor and slips so that potential guests can make the call without an extra VHF or phone call. 

What is your boat's beam:

Your boat's beam is the vessel's width at its widest point. A marina needs to know this to determine the size of the slip they can offer based on the width of your beam. For example, if a marina has only single-vessel slips for boats up to a 16' beam, a large catamaran will not fit and will need to go on the linear dockage if available. In other contexts, you may hear beam: If a vessel or landmark is abeam, that means it is directly to port or starboard of your boat. If you are sailing on a beam reach, you are sailing a course 90° off the wind, with the wind abeam.

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Boating Terminology

What does MOB stand for?  

"Man Overboard!" (abbreviated as MOB) is the term to indicate to a boat's crew and passengers that someone has gone in the water. If you hear it and have not been assigned another job in the case of this happening, you can assist by simply finding the MOB and keeping a finger pointed at them at all times until rescued. You may be instructed to hit the Man Overboard button, sometimes labeled "MOB," on a boat's control panel. 

What is a lifering?

The lifering–also known as a ring buoy or lifebuoy – is orange, red, or white ring secured to the boat's stern and designed to be thrown to a person in the water to provide buoyancy and prevent drowning. Some modern liferings are outfitted with water-activated lights and tracking devices to aid rescue at night. Unlike throwable, liferings have a long line attached to them which connects to the boat so that once a MOB catches it, they can be pulled in with less exertion.

What is a throwable?

A throwable is a personal flotation device (PFD) that can be thrown at someone in the water to help prevent them from drowning. On recreational boats, they serve a second function as seat cushions. 

What is a Boat Boom?

The boom on a sailboat is a spar (pole) along the foot of the mainsail, which improves sail shape and serves as an attachment point for sail control lines. The boom is above the cockpit, which means it's above the crew in the cockpit. Therefore, when sailing, be mindful of where the boom is. If someone screams "BOOM!" or "DUCK!" don't look; duck immediately to avoid injury. 

What is a lifeline?

A lifeline is a wire or cable that runs outside the deck, supported by stanchions, to prevent crew or gear from falling overboard. Properly installed, you can dangle your body – and several others – over a lifeline (and thus, over the side of the boat) and feel confident you will not go in the water. 

What is a boat rail?

Many boats will have a toerail along the edge of a boat's deck. If when sailing someone asks you to get on the rail, they are likely asking you to hike out as far as you can over the toerail (or where a toerail would typically be) on the high side of the boat. 

What are knots in boating?

A measurement of speed in nautical miles per hour. 

What are RPMs?

The revolutions per minute on a boat's engine dictates how fast a vessel can accelerate and travel in various sea states.

What is planing in boating? 

Getting a boat to plane involves physics, which will be better explained by Wikipedia... In layman's terms, for a first-time cruiser, know that getting a boat to plane on a powerboat or dinghy may require bringing up the RPMs relatively quickly.

What is heeling?

Heeling is when a sailboat leans over in the water as the wind pushes its sails. When heeling, you will be safest and likely more helpful (even if it's just your weight helping to flatten the boat) on the windward side of the ship. 

What is the difference between a bow and stern?

Generally speaking, the bow is the front location of the boat, and the stern is the back. 

What is the difference between port and starboard?

The port is to your left when facing the boat's bow, and the starboard is to your right. You may hear phrases like, "There's a boat to port," "Leave the mark to starboard," or "The gallon of rum is in the starboard aft cabin."

What is the difference between windward & leeward?

Windward is the point upwind from the point of reference (i.e., you or the boat you're on). Leeward is the direction downwind from the point of contact. The side of a ship that is too leeward is the lee side. On a sailboat that is heeling, the windward side is always the high side, and the leeward side is the side of the boat closest to the water. When sailing (particularly racing), someone yelling, "Get to windward!" translates to "Please make your way to the high side of the boat immediately if not sooner."

What is a winch? 

Merriam-Webster defines a winch as "any of various machines or instruments for hauling or pulling; especially: a powerful machine with one or more drums on which to coil a rope, cable, or chain for hauling or hoisting." On a sailboat, the crew will use a winch to hoist or trim a sail by coiling the sail's sheet or halyard onto it for added leverage. Once pulled in by hand as far as possible, they'll use a winch handle to trim the sail in the rest of the way or to hoist the sail to its uppermost point.

What is a bilge in boating? 

The bilge is the lowest section of a boat where water typically collects. If someone tells you to "check the bilge," they ask you to verify (you may have to lift a floorboard in the main salon) that there is little or no water collected, which can weigh a boat down and thus increase drag. If the bilge has water, you can use a bilge pump to empty it. If ever you see water coming above the floorboards, let someone know immediately. 


Boating etiquette for new cruisers

  • If you are a smoker, go to the stern (or "go aft") to smoke. If you smoke anywhere forward of your fellow shipmates, the smoke will be blown on to them.  

  • On some boats, people will relieve themselves off the side of the boat so as to avoid going below, opening valves for the head, etc. Always go aft and to leeward to do this, and always keep one hand on the boat. 

  • If you feel seasick and believe you will be physically ill, make your way aft and leeward if it is safe to do so. As you do, let your captain know– if, on a sailboat that is heeled over, he may opt to right the boat (by turning into the wind, luffing the sails–which slows or stops the vessel). Or ask you to go below rather than put yourself in a potentially precarious position on your first outing. 

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Boating Navigation Terminology

What is a Nautical Chart?

A nautical chart represents a sea, lake, or river's area and nearby coastal regions. Depending on the chart's scale, it may show water depth, navigation aids, navigational hazards, and artificial structures such as harbors, locks, bridges, and buildings. Should the boat's navigation system fail, most boats keep paper chart books of the boat's most frequented region aboard. 

What is a Course in Boating?

Your boat's course is the direction the vessel is heading or steered; its movement through the water. 

What's the difference between heading and bearing?

Your heading is the compass direction in which a vessel is pointing. Your bearing is the compass reading taken off an object in relation to the observer.

What's a Compass?

A compass is a device that always points towards magnetic north, used for navigation

What is a mark in boating? 

A mark is a fixed buoyage indicator, such as a lighted buoy, a day beacon, can, or mile marker. Click here for the U.S. Coast Guard's excellent guide to navigation aids and right of way rules

What does ETA stand for? 

ETA is estimated time of arrival. An accurate ETA is like seeing a mermaid in boating: an impossibility that may result from delusion or hallucination but intriguing to ponder and share nonetheless.

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Boating Terms to know when docking or mooring

What does a dock hand do?

A dock hand is an employee of the marina or yacht club you're about to tie up to. Whenever possible, dock hands make themselves available to catch lines, assist a vessel in tying up or shoving off, answer questions about the marina and surrounding area to the best of their ability, and, if applicable, provide pumpout or fuel service. 

What is a hull? 

The hull is the watertight body, commonly made of wood, aluminum, or fiberglass. To reduce hull weakening due to water or ultraviolet light, manufacturers or boat owners will paint a fiberglass boat's hull with Gelcoat, which requires repair if damaged while underway or docking. 

What is a fender in boating? 

In boating, a fender – typically made out of rubber, foam elastomer, or plastic – is used to cushion the force of a boat as it approaches or remains secured to a dock, a wall, or another boat, to prevent damage to other vessels, or structures. A fender may be tied to rails, lifelines, or cleats aboard a vessel. A cleat is used to "hand-fend" as the boat approaches or departs a slip or raft-up. 

What is a cleat?

Merriam-Webster defines a cleat as "a wooden or metal fitting usually with two projecting horns around which a rope may be made fast." Cruising, you'll find cleats on board the boat as well as on the dock, and when docking, the bow line, stern line, and spring lines will secure the boat to the dock by making fast a cleat knot on each. 

What's the difference between lines and ropes? 

On a boat, the words rope and line are not interchangeable. It's just a rope when cordage wasn't assigned to a task. However, once it's prepped or in use for a specific job (such as securing an anchor to the bow, securing the boat to the dock, or hanging a fender off the rail), the rope is now in use as a line. A line is referred to by the job it performs: anchor line, dock line, fender line, etc.

What's the difference between sheets and halyards?

A sheet is a word for a line being used to trim a sail. A halyard is a term for a cable used to hoist a sail. Like the lines, these also get named: main sheet (the sheet controlling the mainsail), jib sheets (a pair of sheets that contain jib trim), spinnaker sheets, main halyard, jib halyard, spinnaker halyard, and so on. When under sail, whichever sheet is in use is a working sheet. The sheet not in use is the lazy sheet. 

What is leeway in boating? 

Leeway refers to the sideways drift to leeward of the desired course. If while docking, the helmsman (or anyone) asks you, "Do I have some leeway?" no matter which way the boat is moving, that person is asking for an estimate as to the boat's distance from the dock or any other fixed mark. 


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Parts of a boat to know when on deck 

What is a helm? 

The helm is technically the name of the location where the steering and engine controls are located, and can be used as a the interchangeably for the ship's wheel itself, e.g. "Take the helm." 

What is a cockpit in boating?

The cockpit is traditionally the open well in the boat's deck, typically toward the stern, which houses the helm. 

What is forward vs. aft?

Forward can be used in a few ways. When you're moving towards the bow, you're "going forward." Forward also refers to the general area of the boat that is towards the bow. When you are moving towards the boat's rear end, you are "going aft."

What is a boat's companionway? 

A boat's companionway is a raised hatch with a ladder leading below. You may find it hand-holds on the sides of the ladder or the sides of the steps turned up on both sides to help you step while the boat is heeled over. 

What is a boat's dodger? 

A dodger is a frame-supported canvas structure (usually with clear vinyl windows) that covers part of the cockpit and the entrance to the companionway, thus helping protect the sailboat's interior from weather and waves. A dodger can also help keep a boat's helmsman and crew dry.

What is a bimini top? 

A bimini top would likely be made of the same material as a dodger and stands aft of the cockpit, above the helmsman, but does not provide protection from forwarding waves.

What is a transom?

The transom is part of a vessel's stern where the port and starboard sides meet, and it's a critical part of the hull. As you advance from the transom, the two sides of a boat curve together to meet at the bow, forming the shape of a boat's hull.


Boating Terminology to know when below deck

What is a boat's galley?

The galley is the kitchen on a boat. 

What is a boat's cabin?

Any enclosed room on a boat. 

What is a boat's head? 

The head is the bathroom. You may hear someone say, "I'm going to hit the head," or "The head is broken," or "Tommy is no longer allowed to use the head." Alternatively, a sailor might say, "I'm gonna hit the head," and then make moves to the stern of the boat toward that purpose. 

What is a nav station in boating? 

Before the world of iPads and onboard wifi, many boats had a broad table below deck, at which a captain could plot a course on a large paper chart while still in sight of the helm. Also, on, near, or in the nav station, you'll likely find a VHF radio, the boat's control panel, and approximately 400 pairs of old beat-up sunglasses. 

What is a boat's stow?

When underway, heeling and waves can send gear sailing across salons and cabins. Stowing your gear–meaning putting it away in a cabinet, strapping it down with lines, or otherwise packing it securely–will keep electronics from breaking, prevent beer from exploding, help the crew negotiate piles of sails without worrying about bags. Overall will provide more peace of mind to anyone above not to hear pandemonium below every time the boat hits a wave. 

What is a tack vs a jibe in boating?

While tacking and jibing are sailing maneuvers, if you are below deck and hear either term yelled on deck or someone yells it down the companionway at you, take this as an indication that you should hold on to something. 

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