Sailing ship types: Glossary

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Sailing ship types: glossary

Applicable items in this glossary – and others as they are written – will appear below articles in this category. Hopefully it will end up being a useful ready-reference of nautical terms to do with the Age of Sail and other nautical articles.

Terms in bold will signify their inclusion as an item elsewhere in the glossary.

Abaft: behind, at the back of the ship compared to something else on the ship. Abaft the beam is any direction or bearing between the beam of the ship and its stern – the opposite to before the beam.

Abeam: at right angles to the stem to stern line of the ship.

Abreast: when a vessel is abeam another vessel or some other identified point it is said to be abreast of that object.”Line Abreast” refers to ships moving in a line beside each other.

Aft: nautical for after, towards the stern. At the back of the boat. If it is relative, it should be “abaft” as in “a yawl’s aft mast is abaft the tiller post.”

Astern: backwards or behind. It can mean either reverse movement or the direction straight behind the ship. “Line astern” refers to ships moving one after the other – a sort of nautical “Indian file.”.

Beak: the metal ram at the bow of a war galley. A construction of the same name and more or less the same shape was retained in sailing ships, partly as a brace for the bowsprit but also for other purposes. (See beakhead)

Beakhead: that part of the beak immediately before and below the forecastle. It was attached to the vessel from cathead to cathead and its wide portion was slung with rope netting or wooden grating and open to the sea. This space, usually washed clean in any sort of sea, was used as a lavatory by the crew; hence the modern term “head” meaning toilet.

Beam (1): the width of a ship. The measurement at its widest point.

(2) any of the timbers, parts of the transverse frame of the ship, to which the deck boards are fixed.
(3) to the side as in "ship approaching on the starboard beam, sir."

Bermudian (now usually referred to as "Bermuda”) refers to a triangular mainsail (rear sail) used on yachts and other craft since the early 20th century. It is more efficient, especially up-wind, than the gaff-sail, but requires a longer mast.

Boatswain (pronounced “bo’sun”) the person, usually a warrant officer, whose charge was the efficient running of the ship – the condition of sails and rigging, ropes and cables, storage and stock, etc., He was also the man between the officer of the deck and the crew working on the deck. Strangely, he had nothing to do with the ship’s boats.

Boom: normally the spar or pole attached at one end to the mast and to which the foot of a sail is attached. It is usually used in fore-and-aft rigging, although the long yards holding lateen sails can also be referred to as booms. It can also refer to a pole projecting out from the hull of a vessel such as the bowsprit.

Bow. The front of a boat. The “pointy end”.

Bow-chasers: cannon, usually a pair, mounted at the bow of a ship and positioned to fire straight ahead. They fired relatively small shot for the length of their barrels –9 lb usually - both for accuracy and range. They were permanent placements, unlike “chase-guns”, which were cannon brought to the bow from a main broadside battery when firepower was needed forward.

Bowsprit. The boom projecting from the bow of a sailing vessel to which can be attached the forestaysails, also known as headsails, the leading one of which is referred to as the jib. Sometimes, during the Age of Exploration and after, a square-rigged sail (a "spritsail") would be set from it, or even from a tiny mast on it.

Broadside was the simultaneous firing of all the cannon on one side of a ship of war.

Capstan: a vertical drum (as apart from a windlass that is set horizontally) used on board ships as a hoist, not only for the anchor(s) but for hoisting ("swaying") yards and for any other heavy lifting. In the Age of Sail it was a drum around which the rope or chain could be wound, above which was the drumhead with at least four “pidgeon holes” into which hardwood bars could be fitted for leverage. It was always situated on the main deck and on the centre-line of the ship.

Catheads were sturdy timbers, shaped to the bow of a ship, and projecting out from either side of the bow for holding the ship’s anchors.

A clew is a corner of a sail by which it is trimmed - that is the sheet is tautened or loosened so that the sail is set at the best angle to catch the wind. On a triangular sail the clew is at the bottom aft. On a square sail there are clews at the two bottom corners where one or other of the sheets can be shortened or loosened to alter the angle of the sail.

Cockpit (1) The pit or well near the stern of a small sailing vessel from where the vessel is steered – whether by tiller or steering wheel. It often doubles as the entrance to “below decks” sleeping quarters or access to the motor if there is one. The term seamlessly transferred to its aeronautical equivalent in the early days of flying.

(2)In the Age of Sail the term referred to a space at the rear of and below the lower gundeck – usually used as sleeping quarters for the senior midshipman but, in battle, taken over by the ship's surgeon and his staff. Horatio Nelson died in the cockpit of HMS Victory.

Companionway the access to decks and cabins - either from above or below - sort of halfway between a ladder and a staircase.

Deck: the word has an interesting history – originally meaning a roof or canopy over the rowers or archers on a Mediterranean war galley. As ships became bigger and cannon replaced archers the “roof” became sturdy enough to be walked on, then to carry its own cannon (gundeck). Ships have not always had decks – Viking ships had no decks. The first “three-decker” was “Sovereign of the Seas”, launched in 1637.

Decker refers to a multi-deck war ship of the Age of Sail and describes the vessel according to the number of gun-decks. There were other decks and they often contained cannon, but not in batteries of sufficient numbers of ordinance to be called gun-decks. Frigates were single deckers – the workhorse of the line of battle (and the most numerous) was the two-decker with 74 guns. The big battleships with guns usually numbering between 90 and 110 were three deckers. Four-deckers were tried but were considered too cumbersome; although the firepower was awesome. The first British “three-decker” was “Sovereign of the Seas”, launched in 1637.

Derrick was a 16th century hangman who invented a means whereby he could follow his trade without hurting his back. The use of a swiveling boom or spar with the appropriate block and tackle arrangement – these days used to bring cargo on and off a ship – is still called a derrick.

Draught (draft) is the depth of water a vessel draws. The less the draught of a vessel, the shallower the water inwhich it can operate.

Flotsam: goods or equipment accidentally lost overboard from a vessel at sea; or has floated to the surface from a wrecked vessel. It varies from "jetsam" which describes items deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) – usually to lighten the vessel when it is in trouble – and "lagan", which can refer to jettisoned items secured to a buoy for future retrieval – though there are other meanings for that last term, including items lying on the ocean floor either in or out of a submerged vessel. There are long and complicated legal definitions for each term.

Fore-and-aft rigging refers to sails that are set along a line between bow and stern of a vessel. Obviously, depending on the direction of the wind in relation to the intended course of the ship, those sails attached to booms and/or gaffs* will be set at some sort of angle. Your standard yacht has fore-and-aft rigging.

Forecastle, (pronounced Foc's'l,) these days, is the space below the forward deck. It was, in the Middle Ages, indeed up to the development of the galleon, a raised portion of a ship from which archers and (later) musketeers could fire down on the enemy ship. It is pronounced “fo’c’sle".

Gaff-rigged refers to a spar attached, by means of a fixture that allows it to swivel and be raised and lowered, to a mast. To it can be “hung” a square sail with its bottom corners usually attached to a boom. This is “gaff-rigged” and is one of the two common forms of rigging for the mainsail on yachts and other fore and aft rigged boats and ships. (The other is Bermudian.)

Gaff topsail is a triangudlar sail that uses the gaff of the gaff-sail below it as its boom. Paintings and drawings of the late 18th century show that Cook and his contemporaries preferred a lug-sail in this position on the mizzen.

Galley was the kitchen - the cooking area on a ship. (It still is.) In the age of sail the galley stove was set just aft of the foremast and just below the forecastle deck. Strangely it was frequently set directly above the magazine and powder room.

Gunwale (pronounced “gunnel”) can mean:

  • (1) timber lining binding the tops and ends of those strakes that end because of the sheer of a wooden vessel.
  • (2) timber planking covering the ends of the timbers of a wooden vessel.
  • (3) that part of the sides of a vessel above deck level that acts to keep the sea off the deck when the vessel is heeling over and acts as a guard against sailors and equipment being swept overboard.

Heads: Nautical vernacular for toilets on board ships. (See beakhead.)

Jetsam: see flotsam.

Jolly boat: a small ship’s boat during the later age of sail – clinker built, with 3 pairs of oars, it was usually stored on a davit at the stern of the ship and was used more often than not for inspecting the condition of the hull and yards of the ship, or for trips ashore when in port.

The Keel, historically, is the "spine" of a ship. It is the lowest part of the vessel and to it are attached the stem and sternpost, the ribs and the bottom strakes. In nearly all sailing ships, the masts are "bedded" into it. With the advent of steel in ships, then the prolification of pleasure craft, especially racing yachts, the variations in shape, size, number and even function of keels has given the term too much weight to be treated in a mere "glossary".

Lagan: see flotsam.

Launch: (sometimes called a ”longboat”) the largest of a major warship’s “ship’s boats” – carvel built and later standardised to 42 ft long with 9 pairs of oars and a mast with simple rigging. The modern powered cruising launch is derived from it. (See also “whaler”, “whaleboat”)

Leeward: (pronounced loo’ard) downwind; the opposite of windward. To be in the “lee” of something is to have that something between you and the wind. A ”lee shore” is potentially dangerous for a sailing vessel as the wind is blowing the vessel towards that coast.

Leeway: the distance a ship is moved from its intended course by a cross wind or current.

Lug-sails are trapezoidal four sided, attached to booms and slung to the mast much like the lateen rig of the dhow and usually set fore-and-aft.

Mast: Simply put, the vertical spars that carry the sails on a sailing vessel. These days they can carry a range of other equipment to do with communications, radar and the like.

Mizzen refers to the aft mast. The one at the stern.

Poop, or poop-deck is the stern-most deck of a sailing ship. Frequently it was the roof of the master’s cabin, however it could be any raised structure at the very stern of the vessel. (Latin: puppis = stern) and replaced the sometimes ridiculously high stern-castles of the early Age of Sail.

Port: See Port and Starboard.

Quarter can mean:

  • (1) The stern of a vessel to one side or other of the sternpost. So, you have the port or starboard quarters, the centres of each are where the stern becomes the side – this can be fairly approximate in, say, a Viking ship.
  • (2) The direction from which the wind is blowing if the bearing is fairly constant. It can be referred to as the "weather quarter".

The Quarterdeck was that part of the upper deck (or waist) of a three-masted ship that extended from just abaft the mainmast back to just forward of the raised poop. If no mainmast, it was the aft half of the "waist" of the ship. It is from this deck that the ship was commanded

Reef: (1) A group or line of rocks or coral at about water-level or close enough to it to be a danger to navigation. SeeShoal.

(2) the amount of sail taken in (shortened) due to an increase in wind or other circumstances. All square-rig sails except the very top ones have two “reef-points” to enable reductions in sail area. Bermudian and gaff-rig sails have three. Other triangular sails are taken in, or furled on the “luff” - their leading edge.

Rig (or rigged) refers to the type and configuration of the sails on a sailing vessel. The difference between a sloop and a brig is usually their rig. Remove the square-rig sails from the aft mast (mizzen) of a three masted full-rigged ship and you are left with a barque.

Rigging refers to all those ropes, chains etc. that support the masts, yards and booms or are used to trim the sails, or to hoist and lower them. The rigging used to support the masts and yards called “standing rigging”.

Sheer: the upward curve of the deck of a vessel towards the bow and stern. The lowest point is called the waist. Sheer is fairly universal on traditional craft, however certain modern racing yachts have a “Reverse Sheer” with the deck sloping down towards bow and stern.

Sheer hulk: a floating crane, consisting of a decommissioned warship carrying an "A" frame of heavy spars with lifting tackle, used to install or remove masts and other heavy objects to and from other vessels.

A Sheet (strangely to non-nautical ears) is not a sail but a length of rope. It is a line that is attached to a clew and is therefore the means whereby a sail is trimmed to gain its greatest efficiency. A ship with sheets improperly set is liable to lurch and wallow in the wind, giving cause to the phrase “three sheets to the wind”, meaning drunk.

Shoal: Put simply, a patch of shallow water caused by a bank of sand, mud or rocks. It is derived from “shallow” and differs from a reef in that a it is beneath the surface whereas a reef – at least at low tide - can be above it.

Shrouds are those lines that run from the masts to either side of the hull of a vessel to give the masts lateral support as apart from the stays which give support fore and aft. They usually come in groups with short lines between them to enable the crew to use them as ladders. These are called "ratlines".

Skipper: the captain or master of a vessel, usually fishing or trading vessels or yachts etc., It was introduced into English in the 14th century from the Dutch: “schipper”, itself derived from the Dutch “schip” - ship.

Spar: the generic term for any of the pole-shaped support pieces used for a ship’s rigging. These include masts, yards, gaffs, booms, sprits etc.

Square-rigged refers to the set of the sails on what most people would consider the classic large sailing ship – the galleon or the clipper for example, or any large warship of the age of sail. The sails are set across the bow to stern line of the vessel and are four-sided and attached to yards that can be angled according wind direction. (Very few vessels in the last 500 years have been purely square-rigged – almost every ship has had triangular staysails set between the masts or from the foremast to the bow and most have a gaff-sail on its stern-most mast – usually called a “spanker” – whether or not there is square rigging on that mast.)

Starboard: see Port and Starboard

Stays are those lines of rigging that support the masts fore and aft as apart from the shrouds which give the masts lateral support.

Staysail: refers to a triangular sail set between two masts with two corners attached to the aftmost. (The bottom of these corners is called the clew and it is here that the sail is trimmed by tightening or loosening it.) If set from the foremast it gets a little complicated: it can be called a headsail or forestaysail or foretopmast staysail depending on where the top aft corner originated.. If there is only one on the foremast that sail is called the jib. If more than one headsail, then jib refers only to the topmost, except sometimes the upper staysail is referred to as the flying jib with its mate below it called the jib, before coming down to the above-mentioned foretopmast staysail. (Did you get all that?)

Stem refers to the foremost part of the hull of a vessel, It is usually attached to the keel (if there is one) and rises up out of the water as the "pointy end" of a vessel. To it are attached the strakes.

Stern The back of the boat. The blunt end.

Sternpost: a hefty piece of timber attached to and rising from the keel and forming the main brace for the stern of the vessel. The original rudders (from the middle of the 13th century in Europe) were hung from it although later, in vessels of any size, the rudder had its own post.

Strakes refer to the longitudinal planks of a wooden vessel that, attached to the ribs from the keel to the top of the sides, make up the hull. A craft can be referred to as being carvel- or clinker-built, depending on the way the strakes are put together.

Studdingsails (pronounced "stuns'ls") were additional square sails set on booms on either side of the sails on a square-rigged vessel. They were only used in fine weather with the wind abaft the beam (that is, from behind a line drawn at right angles across the vessel) and their purpose was to get every last ounce of speed out of the vessel, by increasing the sail capacity.

Timbers: the “ribs” of a ship; the frames that connect from the keel to the deck beams and are topped by the gunwales. They give a vessel its shape. To them are attached the side planks of the vessel's hull - the strakes.

Trim: the term is usually meant to adjust the sails to the most favourable setting to catch the wind. This is normally done by tautening or loosening the sheets. It can also refer to the position of a vessel in the water, which can be trimmed by moving cargo or ballast fore or aft so that the craft is “balanced”.

Whaleboat: an open boat originally used for whaling. There were a number of them carried on a whaling ship and, until powered vessels were developed, were the actual “pack” that pursued the whale. They were rudderless and pointed at both ends, negating the need to come about. Later the design was used as a ship's boat used for shoreline reconnaissance and exploration or where there was need for beaching, such as water collecting. They carried simple rigging.


  • (1)the generic term for a ship engaged in the whaling industry.
  • (2)a “ship’s boat”, especially of a warship, with a hull designed somewhat like a “whale boat” with five oars (one for steering) plus mast and basic rigging.

Windlass: a drum mounted on a horizontal spindle used as a winch or hoist on board. It was usually smaller than the capstan and mounted near the bow, but worked in a similar fashion to the vertical capstan. In addition, there was often a pawl and ratchet gear arrangement so that it could be used using the up-and-down motion of a bar – as with some modern car jacks.

Windward: the opposite of leeward. Up wind. The direction from which the wind is blowing.

Yard refers to the spar (pole) which is attached more or less half way along its length to a mast. The portions on either side are called “yardarms.” To yards are attached the standard four sided sails of the square-rigged ship. The term also refers to the cross-spar atop a lateen sail or with the trapezoid lug sails of a lugger.

To be continued...