Salty Talk Nautical Terms Dictionary


This Salty Talk Nautical Terms Dictionary is handy for readers of Dave’s Age of Sail Books. It is also great for people who might want to talk like a pirate or just learn old nautical terms.



-Across or crosswise; also from side to side or transverse.  To lay athwart means to be across something.

Back Water

-To row a boat backwards, either to stop its forward motion or move it backwards.


-Of wind: the direction the wind is coming from shifted in a counterclockwise direction. Example, The wind backed from north to northwest.

-Of sails: turn a sail so that the wind is blowing on the side of the sail that is facing the forward end of the ship or boat. Example, The captain backed the foretopsail.

-Of water: to row a boat backwards. Example, The oarsmen backed water to stop the forward momentum of the boat.

Beam (abeam)

-The beam is simply the side, either port of starboard. “Abeam” means alongside or by the side of or toward the side. A “beam sea” is when the waves are coming from the side of a ship or boat. Therefore they vessel would be rolling from side to side. “On the beam” means out to the side of.


-Life at sea is divided into watches; and watches are regulated by bells. Nominally, a watch is four hours long, so there are six watches in a 24-hour day. Each watch is divided into eight bells, which are struck every half hour. During the age of sail, that was measured when the sand had run through the half-hour glass. Every half hour is struck with one more bell than the preceeding half hour. At the end of the four hour watch, eight bells are struck; then, one-half hour into the next watch one bell is struck. Then the cycle continues. Bells are struck in pairs, followed by the remaining single bell. For example: one o’clock sounds like “ding-ding”; and two-thirty sounds like “ding-ding, pause, ding-ding, pause. ding.”

Bosun (Boatswain)

– On sailing ships this is a warrant officer (below commissioned officer such as Lieutenant) responsible for the rigging, sails, anchor and similar equipment and their use. The bosun would be assisted by bosun’s mates who are seamen that have specialized in the maintenance, use, and repair of this equipment. Modern navy ships may also have a bosun, but this person is generally a commissioned officer of junior rank. Bosun’s Mate is an enlisted designation in the modern navy.


-The front or pointy end of the ship or boat. Sometimes called ‘bows’ refering to the starboard side of the bow and the port/larboard side of the bow.


 – A brace is a line (rope) on a square-rigged ship (ship with square sails). The brace is used to pull the yard arms (ends of the yard) forward or aft, allowing the sails to be trimmed to allow the ship to sail at different angles to the wind.


– Refers to the guns (cannons) on the side of a sailing ship that point outward, at right angles to the longitudinal centerline of the ship. To fire a broadside means to discharge all the guns on one side of a ship simultaneously. A rolling broadside begins at the forward end of the ship and fires all the guns on one side, one after the other, in quick succession toward the rear of the ship.

By (sailing by the wind)

-When a vessel is sailing by the wind, it is sailing with the wind forward of the beam, or in very simple terms, it is sailing into the wind. “Fore and aft” rigged vessels with triangular or trapezoidal sails along the centerline (like a modern sailboat) can sail closer to the wind (point more directly into the wind) than square rigged vessel with square sails on yards that are rigged perpendicular to the centerline.


This is a unit of measure, but it is based on the actual length of a cable, which was the very thick hemp line (See “Line”) that ran between the sailing ship and the anchor. This line was 1/10th of a nautical mile (See “Mile (Nautical)”). Hence the unit of length termed “cable” is 1/10th of a nautical mile, or 200 yards.


-As a noun, these are the lower corners of a square sail or the aft corner of a triangular sail. As a verb, such as ‘clew up’, it means to draw the clews up to the yard arm. This makes the sails ineffective for sailing but gets them out of the way quickly if the ship is going into action.


-Sailing close to the wind means to sail into the wind. The more directly a ship sails into the wind, the closer it is to the wind.


-The national flag of the country flown on a ship. Also, the lowest officer rank in the modern US Navy. In the eighteenth century it was the lowest rank in the British Army.

Fake (or Flake)

-Laying a line (rope) on the deck in a loose but organized manner, sometimes as a series of figure eights atop one another. This allows the line to run freely when necessary without fouling of hockling in a block or other constriction.


-This is a unit of measure equal to two yards, or six feet. The word itself comes from an ancient English word that means (very roughly) “a hug or outstretched arms.” This may seem a strange word to use unless you picture how it was used. It is traditionally used to describe the depth of water. If you measure the water using a small line (See “Line”) with a lead weight attached to the end, when you retrieve the line, as you bring it up you stretch your arms with a length of the line between your hands one “fathom” at a time. By counting the number of times that is done, the person making the measurements (the leadsman) can announce to the captain “four fathoms” or whatever the depth he counted was. Incidentally, the famous author and humorist, Mark Twain, was named for this term. On Mississippi riverboats, a leadsman was frequently used in this treacherous river. His lead line was marked with different materials to easily recognize the number of fathoms. If he called out to the captain “By the mark twain,” he was saying the depth of the muddy river was exactly two fathoms – by the mark.



-When a line (rope) is laid down on the deck in a tight, flat coil. It is a decorative way to store a line, but no practical because if needed the line may not run freely, and the tight coil may not allow the line to dry well if it has been wet.


-The thick, heavy, lines (ropes) wrapped around the bowsprit that secure it to the cutwater of a sailing ship.


-Glass is a very versatile word in the nautical language of past centuries. It generally means three different things that must be derived from the context. It can refer to the barometer in a phrase such as “the glass is falling.” This would mean that barometric pressure is going down and this generally portends a storm. If there is a phrase such as “turn the glass” then the reader would know the reference is to an hourglass and the sand has run out so it must be restarted. The third meaning is that of a telescope.



-The ship’s steering wheel. May also refer to the area around the wheel and the apparatus that holds the wheel.


-This is a twist or knob in the line that forms when the line is twisted in the opposite direction from the natural lay of the fibers.


-This is a measure of speed equal to one nautical mile (See “Mile (Nautical)”) per hour. The term derives from the method used to measure speed on a sailing ship before electronics. A crewmember stood near the stern (See “Stern”) of the ship and threw a line (See “Line”) over the side that had a drag attached to the end. The crewmember would then let the line run off a reel and count the number of knots that ran off the reel in a preset time. These knots were tied at calculated intervals to indicate the speed of the ship during the given time period. The crewmember would then announce to the captain the number of knots, indicating the speed of the ship.


Large (sailing large or going large)

-When a vessel is sailing large or going large, it is sailing with the wind abaft the beam, or in very simple terms, the wind is pushing the vessel.


-The left side of the ship when facing the bow (front). Sometime during the nineteenth century larboard was replaced by port.


-This is a unit of measure that originally meant “the distance a person could walk in one hour.” This was taken to be three miles. The term was used at sea to mean three nautical miles (See “Mile (Nautical)”).



-This is the naval term for what most people call a rope.


-The vertical spar that supports the booms and yards which hang the sails. The arrangement that most people refer to as a mast on a ship is usually a collections of masts, more or less fastened together vertically. In order, from the deck skyward, these are the lower mast, the top mast, the topgallant mast, and the main mast.

-The most common three-masted ship has, from forward to aft, the foremast, main mast, and mizzen mast.

Mile (Nautical)

-A nautical mile is exactly two thousand yards (a statutory, or land, mile is 5,280 feet, considerable less than the 6,000 feet in a nautical mile. You may be thinking that sailors coined this term just so their mile could be longer than the soldiers’ mile. Not so. If you dig deep enough, most nautical terms and traditions have very practical roots.There are ninety degrees of latitude from the equator to the north (or south) pole. Each degree is divided into sixty minutes. A nautical mile equals exactly one minute of latitude.Using this unit of measurement makes it very easy for navigators to measure distances on the most common type of nautical charts.



-The left side of the ship when facing the bow (front). Sometime during the nineteenth century port replaced the term larboard.


-A direction of the compass. In modern times the compass is divided into 360 degrees, with 000 or 360 being north, 090 being east, 180 being south, and 270 degrees being west.

-In former times the compass was divided into 32 points. So, one point was equal to 11.25 modern degrees. North, South, East, and West were the four cardinal points and each quadrant was further divided.  All 32 points listed in clockwise order with corresponding degrees are:

North – 0 deg – 0′

  North by East – 11 deg – 15′

  North Northeast – 22 deg – 30′

  Northeast by North – 33 deg – 45′

Northeast 45 deg – 0′

  Northeast by East 56 deg – 15′

  East Northeast 67 deg – 30′

  East by North 78 deg – 45′

East 90 deg – 0′

  East by South 101 deg – 15′

  East Southeast 112 deg – 30′

  Southeast by East 123 deg – 45′

Southeast 135 deg – 0′

  Southeast by South 146 deg – 15′

  South Southeast 157 deg – 30′

  South by East 168 deg – 45′

South 180 deg – 0′

  South by West 191 deg – 15′

  South Southwest 202 deg – 30′

  Southwest by South 213 deg – 45′

Southwest 225 deg – 0

  Southwest by West 236 deg – 15′

  West Southwest 247 deg – 30′

  West by South 258 deg – 45′

West 270 deg – 0

  West by North 281 deg – 15′

  West Northwest 292 deg – 30′

  Northwest by West 303 deg – 45′

Northwest – 315 deg – 0′

  Northwest by North – 326 deg – 15′

  North Northwest – 337 deg – 30′

  North by West – 348 deg – 45′

Poop Deck

-The poop deck is a raised, partial, weather deck. It is usually aft of (farther back) the main deck. On larger sailing ships it is the farthest aft deck, usually over the captain’s cabins.


-Ships have two quarters: the starboard quarter and port (or larboard) quarter. While there is no doubt and exact definition of the quarter, it is essentially one half of the rear part of the ship. If you drew a line down the centerline of the ship from the stern and stopped about a quarter of the way forward, to the right of that line is the starboard quarter and to the left is the port (or larboard) quarter.


-The line (rope) that controls the angle of the sail. On a square sail it is attached to the clew (lower corner) and generally led aft to hold the corner of the sail against the wind. In some cases it may be replaced by a tack which generally holds the clew straight down to the deck or bulwark. On a jib or staysail the sheet also attaches to the clew (the aft lower corner of the triangular sail) and holds it against the wind so the wind can fill the sail. On a triangular mainsail, with it’s foot attached to a lower boom, the sheet attaches to the boom and controls how far the boom/sail can swing out toward the side of the ship or boat.



-A mast. The arrangement that most people refer to as a mast on a ship is usually a collections of masts, more or less fastened together vertically. In order, from the deck skyward, these are the lower mast, the top mast, the topgallant mast, and the main mast.


-The right side of the ship when facing the bow (front).


-The back or rear of the ship or boat.


-Moving the ship or boat backwards. In the days of sail and oar it was accomplished by turning the ship into the wind so the wind would press on the front of the sail, moving the ship backwards. A boat without a sail could be rowed backwards, called backing water.


-An arrangement of lines (ropes) and blocks (pulleys), generally fasted between the sides of a gun (cannon) carriage and the side of the ship used for adjusting the train (side to side aim) of the gun or pulling it up tight to the bulwark or gun port.



-A flat metal cap on the top of a mast or spar. Also the wheel of a gun carriage.

Weather Deck

-A weather deck is a deck that is exposed to the weather. It is not covered by an enclosed structure or higher deck.


This is the spar (long cylindrical beam) hanging perpendicular to a mast on which the sails hang or are furled.