Sailing Terms and Multiple Meanings

By: Books, Humor, Learn To Sail

Do you have those moments when you say one thing but those around you think you meant something else?

Well, welcome to life on a sailboat. Sailing vocabulary is riddled with plenty of words that you think you know the meaning of but they seem to mean something entirely different once you get out on the water.  In fact, quite a few words or sayings have multiple meanings on a sailboat.

Have no fear, your sailing education will give you the knowledge to decipher what the captain and crew are talking about even when the same word is used in multiple ways.

These are some of the new words you will learn in ASA 101 Basic Keelboat Sailing that have multiple meanings. You will hear them and use them as you move through your sailing education.

Words with Multiple Definitions On A Sailboat



Beam (1): The width of a boat at its widest point 

Beam (2): The region of the boat’s sides halfway between bow and stern

Not to be confused with:

Beam reach: The point of sail where the wind is abeam of the boat


Spelled the same but pronounced differently:

Bowline: A knot that forms a loop in the end of a line 

Bow line: A dock line tied between the bow of a boat and a dock

The space makes a big difference.



Confuse by a line? Or is it a rope?

Coil (1) To make up a line into tidy loops 

Coil (2) A line that has been coiled


Both are located in the same place?

Dock (1) A place where a vessel is berthed, but generally used to refer to the pier, quay, or pontoon to which it’s tied when in that berth 

Dock (2) To bring a boat to its dock.


This has nothing to do with wind.

Draft (1) The depth of a boat below the water 

Draft (2) The curvature of a sail 


Two words, same meaning

Fake, Flake:  To lay out a line in parallel lengths so it can run freely


These are not the same

Knot (1) A fastening made by entwining a rope, line, or cord with itself or with other ropes, lines, or cords 

Knot (2) Unit of speed: one nautical mile (6,076 feet) per hour


What side?

Lee: Sheltered area to leeward of something (boat, building, island) that’s protected from the wind 

Lee helm: The tendency of a sailboat when sailing to turn away from the wind 

Lee side: The side away from the wind, or downwind side

Leeward: The direction, or side of the boat, away from the wind


Enough Luff?

Luff (1): The forward edge of a sail 

Luff (2): The fluttering of a sail when the boat is too close to the wind for the sail’s trim 

Luff (3): To head up so that the sails luff.


Outboard (1): Away from the centerline of a boat; outside the gunwale 

Outboard (2): A portable motor that attaches (usually) to the stern of a boat.


Not Right.

Port (1): A harbor 

Port (2): The left-hand side of a boat when facing forward



Reef (1): An area of rock or coral, usually submerged, that presents a hazard to navigation 

Reef (2): To reduce the area of a sail that is exposed to the wind


To Secure?

Rig (1): To attach, as a sail 

Rig (2): The total assembly of sails, spars, and rigging aboard a sailboat


To Rig?

Secure (1): To make fast (as a line) 

Secure (2): To make safe


Is This Tacky?

Tack (1): The forward lower corner of a sail 

Tack (2): To change course by turning the bow of the boat through the wind 

Tack (3): A course designation according to which side of the boat (port or starboard) the wind is blowing onto


Don’t Wiggle It

Tail (1): The end of a working line (e.g. halyard, sheet) after the winch or snubber that is taking the load 

Tail (2): To pull on the tail of a line


No Cutting Involved

Trim (1): To adjust a sail by hauling in on the sheet 

Trim (2): The position a sail is set relative to the wind


Which Way?

Windward: Toward the wind 

Windward side: The side upon which the wind is blowing