#19 – Nautical Lingo

It’s hard to remember a time when starboard and port did not come instinctively, when I had to spin around and face forward and look at my right or left hand to know which term I wanted. These days fore and aft, bow and stern, topsides and below, hatch and companionway, galley and head, cabin and berth come more readily than their shore-side equivalents…often to the amusement of land-based family and friends!

Back in my charter days I was reminded on a weekly basis that simple terms like these remain arcane to landlubbers and neophytes. I would give a simple orientation to basic boat-speak the first afternoon, and, if my guests’ eyes glazed over, I could guess that the boat to them was going to be little more a floating hotel room. But, if their eyes lit up and they rolled the unfamiliar words on their tongue with a smile, then I was optimistic we might make some sailors that week.

No argument: nautical lingo can seem to the novice like an obscure and antiquated language perpetrated by old salts merely to be difficult, to set us late-starters apart from old hands, or to close the door on an exclusive (male?) club. I have actually met people on boats who stubbornly refuse to pick it up, not unlike people who spend time in a foreign county and make no effort to learn the simplest words in the local language

But as in any field of expertise, proper terminology allows precise communication and makes the job go smoother. “It is much easier to know what the mainsheet is when asked to ease it,” says Debbie of Illusions, “than to have to have it described to you as ‘that rope on your left (well, it was on your left until you turned around) that is wrapped around that round thingamajig and I need it looser.’” Such loose directions might serve in day-to-day pleasure sails, but cruising ups the ante. “Picture yourself on your boat in bad weather, an emergency or simply closing on a rocky shore where a brisk tack is needed. You can either be part of a problem situation, or you can be ready to help deal with it!”

How do you go about learning proper nautical terminology? Of all the things to learn about on a boat, nautical terminology is one of the ones most suited to learning from a book. One of the absolute best (and the one I learned from) is Chapman’s Piloting and Seamanship, by Elbert S. Maloney. Currently in its 65th edition, Chapman’s is still the text chosen for many of the leading boating courses. The importance of acquiring a nautical vocabulary is indicated by the subject’s position as the very first chapter. In other words, it is all but impossible to learn anything about seamanship, boat handling, line-handling or navigation (subjects of subsequent chapters) without the fundamental words in place. Chapman’s goes into comprehensive detail on the language of boating, covering the words you need to describe the kind of boat you have, all its parts and pieces, its construction, its equipment, and its operation for sailboats, powerboats as well small craft and dinghies, and, as unlikely as it may seem that you might ever use some of those esoteric-looking terms, most all of them are truly in regular use. Chapman’s is a terrific reference to have for many reasons. If you don’t have Chapman’s aboard your boat, it is easy to find used copies, but I will say that the newest edition, with its color photos and up-to-date chapters on the ever-changing subject of marine electronics, tempts me to get a new edition myself!

For a softer start, Suzanne Geisemann in her book It’s Your Boat Too looks at many of the same subjects as Chapman’s, but does so with a sisterly approach sympathetic to some women’s extreme sensitivity to looking “stupid, dumb, ignorant or silly.” Her chapter on nautical terminology includes examples of how you might use the words in conversation, even to the point of cluing you in to some pitfalls of pronunciation.

Yet another reference you might turn to is your favorite marine supply catalogue. “Doing most of the Port Supply ordering for our boats over the past twelve years has taught me a lot of the names of things that are found on boats,” says Ellen of Cayenne III. “As a writer and a wordsmith, I love knowing and using the correct words for even the most obscure boat parts.”

Cin Blond of Tashmoo, a 41 Bristol, concurs. “I found it important to learn the lingo, because it gave me more confidence in just about everything having to do with cruising. I can pick up any chart or cruising guide and understand what I’m reading about, and I’m never hesitant about ‘talking boats’ with supply facilities, marinas or other boaters.”

While we are speaking about references, cruisers venturing into foreign waters should consider that the nautical vocabulary of the English-speaking world will not help you much in French or Spanish-speaking islands. On my first voyage south from the Virgin Islands, we put into Guadeloupe after blowing out four sail slides on the luff of the main sail. Now here was a very specific part needed the word for which I can assure you was NOT in my French-English dictionary. Fortunately for today’s cruisers, our own Admiral Kathy Parsons has assembled indispensable compendiums of nautical lingo in both Spanish and French (Spanish for Cruisers and French for Cruisers),volumes that actually would make pretty fair primers of general nautical terminology in their own right!

If you find yourself having trouble remembering it all, consider making yourself some cheat sheets. Index cards with labeled sketches of your boat, cockpit, foredeck, engine, etc. with arrows can really help. You can study them like flash cards! Likewise, consider getting a label-maker and actually affixing the names of things right beside them.& This can be particularly helpful in sorting out various lines on the mast and boom or where they come into the cockpit through clutches.

“When I hear somebody using correct nautical terminology, my respect for that person increases,” says Ellen of Cayenne III. “I spend less time being distracted by trying to figure out what the proper term should have been and more time listening to the issue being discussed. That said, I am human and sometimes rather lazy, so I often do go downstairs (below) at 6PM (1800) to make dinner in the kitchen (galley) after washing up in the bathroom (head). And while my husband Tony can tell you the make and model of any boat he sees, names of boat parts escape his brain. Even on the race course, for him it’s often ‘pull on’ (trim) or ‘leggo’ (ease) the ‘como se llama’ (the whatchamacallit)! It’s better than calling a sheet a halyard, I guess. (In spite of that, he wins a lot!)”

In the end, what’s important is understanding and being understood. No one in the cruising world will judge you harshly if you mix up your terms now and then, but, understanding is facilitated when we all speak the same language. Nautical lingo is the product of a long and rich tradition, and, as in any culture, knowing the language interweaves you into that heritage. Just take care not to overdo it. Let it come naturally as your experience widens. As Chapman’s tersely concludes, “Strained efforts to affect a salty lingo are conspicuously inappropriate.”

Contributing Admirals: Debbie Leisure, Illusions; Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Cin Blond, Tashmoo; and others.

This article was published in the February 2008 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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