Sailboat Anguilla

Sailing Terms Everyone Should Know

Knowing the right sailing terms to use on board a boat is not JUST a way of sounding super cool and impressing your friends. (Though it works for that, too.) It’s actually very useful, and sometimes crucial in communicating while you’re sailing. Some of the vocabulary used on board boats can sound arcane, which it is! That’s part of what’s fun about it; we’re still using terms that have been used by sailors for hundreds of years. So when you know your terminology, you’re participating in the grand sailing tradition, and you don’t have to say, “Can you hand me that…thing?”

main sheet
photo by b. cohen

Here are the key sailing terms you’ll want to know as you begin learning to sail!

  • Port: Facing forward, this is anything to the left of the boat. When you’re onboard, you can use this term pretty much any time you would normally say “left.”

    Facing forward, this is anything to the right of the boat. Same deal as “port”–only the opposite.
  • Bow/Stern: The bow is the front of the boat, the stern is the back. Anything near the front of the boat is referred to as being “forward,” and anything toward the back is “aft” or “astern.”
  • Point of Sail: The boat’s direction relative to the wind. For example, if you’re going straight into the wind, your point of sail is called “in irons.” (Note: This isn’t a good place to be!) If the wind is blowing straight over the side of the boat, that’s called a “beam reach.” There are 8 commonly used points of sail, and it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them before going out.
  • Helm: Where you steer the boat. Usually this is a big wheel, but on smaller boats it can be a tiller, which is basically a long wooden stick. Either of these can be used to control the boat’s rudder.
  • Keel: The keel is a long, heavy fin on the bottom of the boat that sticks down into the water. It provides stability and is the reason why modern sailboats are nearly impossible to capsize.
  • Heeling: This is the term for when a sailboat leans over in the water, pushed by the wind. There’s nothing else like the thrill of heeling over as your sails fill and your speed picks up!
  • Tack: This term has two distinct meanings, both of them very important. As a verb, to tack is to change direction by turning the bow of the boat through the wind. As a noun, your tack is the course you are on relative to the wind. For example, if the wind is blowing over the port side, you are on a port tack. If it’s blowing over the starboard side, you’re on a…you guessed it…starboard tack.
  • Jibe: A jibe is another way of changing direction, in which you bring the stern of the boat through the wind. Whether you choose to tack or jibe entirely depends on the situation–what’s around you, and the direction of the wind.
  • Windward: The side of the boat closest to the wind. When heeling over, this will always be the high side.
  • Leeward:The side of the boat furthest from the wind. When heeling over, this will always be the low side.
  • Lines: On board a boat, this is what you say instead of “ropes.”
  • Mainsail: The big triangular sail just aft of the sailboat’s mast. As the name suggests, this is the boat’s largest and most important sail. Running along its bottom edge, the mainsail has a thick pole called the boom.
  • Jib: The next most common sail on any boat. The jib can always be found forward of the mast, and unlike the mainsail, does not have a boom.

Getting familiar with these sailing terms is an important step. Not only will you sound like you know what you’re doing, you’ll quickly begin to realize that with the right practice and training, you really DO know what you’re doing!

Try our online sailing term quizzes:
Sailing Terms 1 | Sailing Terms 2 | Sailing Terms 3 | Sailing Terms 4

Online Sailing Course
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Dorothy Belknap

Is the term “heading to weather” or “heading up to weather” ??

Thank you.


Hi Dorothy. I think people will understand what you mean using either of these terms. “Heading up” means turning the bow of the boat closer to the wind, and the “weather” direction is where the wind is coming from. So saying “heading up to weather” might be a little redundant, but you will certainly be making it clear what you’re doing!


Can you go into the difference bt a tack and a Jibe. Not sure of the difference.

Thanks for your question, Rodney! It’s easy to confuse the two, and often times it takes practice on the water to get them straight in your head. Both a tack and a jibe are ways of changing your angle to the wind. Often you can’t sail straight at your destination because of the way the wind is blowing. A sailboat cannot sail straight into the wind, and some sailboats are better than others for sailing with the wind at your back. So, often you have to work your way toward your destination by tacking back and forth, or jibing, depending… Read more »
Dick LaValley

Very useful terminology, well described.

Rick ;^)

The term tack is also used for attaching sheets. e.g. tack pin holds one end of the main sail foot – the other end is held by the outhaul.


Yes, that’s right! Thanks for pointing that out, Rick.


Is hiking another way of saying heeling?


Thanks for your question! Hiking is not the same as heeling, but it is related. Hiking usually occurs in racing, when boats are sailing at top speed and heeling way over. The sailors will “hike out,” which means lean off the high side of the boat to balance it. When you see pictures of high performance race boats with all the sailors sitting way out over the side, that’s hiking!

Kevin Casey

Hi Rick tack as a noun refers to the foreword bottom corner of the sail. Sheets are the ropes that control the sail. A tack pin is the pin that attaches the tack of the sail to the boat

Rodney Rickabaugh

Great post, i like it. Go on.


[…] Know some basic sailing terms before you go. (We’ve previously covered important sailing terms here.) Learning basic terms such as “tack” and “gybe,” the difference between […]



Steve Hanson

Tacking is the process of changing your point of sail so that the wind comes across from the opposite side from where it was previously, (starboard tack – wind from the starboard side, port tack – wind from the port side). So… you can tack to windward but you can also tack downwind as well. It is just that Jibing is what the process of changing your point of sail downwind is called. Once you have completed the jibe, you will either be on a starboard or a port tack.


Where did the term “Permission to come aboard”come from?


can you define (pointing) as in your boat points good !