Boat Lingo for Landlubbers

Penny McKenna had a steep learning curve when she morphed from prosecutor to yachtie. If you’re a landlubber (someone not used to being on boats) too, you don’t have to struggle - the definitions used in the books are all right here. One thing to note: there are several words that mean the same thing!

Which way do I go?

Amidships - the middle of the boat
Aft - the rear of the boat
Below - downstairs, or below the deck
Bow - also the front of the boat
Companionway - the ladder or stairs you use to get below
Fo’c’sle - short for forecastle and pronounced similar to popsicle, it’s the forward bunks where the crew usually sleeps
Fore - the front of the boat, also forward
Port - left
Starboard - right
Stern - also the rear of the boat
Transom - the surface that forms the rear end of the boat, in smaller boats where the outboard engine is mounted

Boat Motion

Drift - sideways motion due to strong current or wind
Roll - from side-to-side
Pitch - up and down from front to back, usually due to wave action
Yaw - more of a pivoting around the center point from port to starboard

Spaces and Places

Bilge -  the space between the floorboards and the bottom hull of the boat
Cabin - a bedroom
Galley - the kitchen. On Navy boats called the Mess
Gunnel - the upper edge of a boat's side. If water is up to the gunnel, it's time to abandon ship!
Head - the bathroom
Locker - a cupboard or cabinet
Nav - short for navigation, refers to the desk or station where the navigator (often the captain) charts the course
Salon - cabin used for entertaining inside a boat. In a house, this would be an open concept living/dining room.
Scuttle - noun: small shallow storage compartment in the cockpit of a boat. verb: to sink a boat purposefully
Wheelhouse - aka pilothouse, command central for navigating and driving the boat


Fender - soft rubber or plastic bumper used to keep boat from rubbing against the dock
Halyard - lines used to hoist or lower flags or sails
Line - ropes used to haul sails or tie up to the dock
PFD - Personal Floatation Device, or lifejacket
Poppet - a tripod-shaped stand on which a boat rests when on the hard (on land). Also: Jackstand
Sheet - on a sailboat, the ropes that pull a sail from side to side

Words & Phrases

Ahoy - basically hello, often used to get someone’s attention before asking permission to come aboard
Aye Aye - yes
Davy Jones Locker - bottom of the sea, where dead men go
Ditch Bag - a bag prepared for having to abandon ship in an emergency. Usually has everyone’s passport, boat papers, and scant provisions such as bottled water, etc.
Feed the fishes - get seasick over the rail
Irish Pennant - any loose or untidy end of a line, or loose threads hanging from a uniform
Lines off - cast lines off the dock and leave the harbor
On the hard - when a boat is stored on land
Red Right Return - navigation phrase meaning to keep the red buoys to your right when returning to port, or away from ocean waters.
Scuttlebutt - now used to refer to ship gossip, originally cask of fresh water for drinking
Sea legs - adapt to the motion of the boat
Son of a gun - term used to refer to children born alongside the guns of the broadsides in early sailing days when sailors were permitted to keep their wives on board. Firing the cannon shocked women struggling with labor into delivering
Weigh anchor - hoist the anchor off the bottom