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Game Guide: Sailing Jargon

The first of hopefully many Game Guides. These are meant as system-agnostic guides that can help you flesh out your game world.

This issue is Sailing Jargon. Make your salty seadogs sound even saltier! Sailing is a specialized world full of unique words. Keep your players off-balance while they’re on-board ship by having the crew talk authentically.


Able Seaman Knowledgeable/experienced sailor.
Afore To the front of the vessel.
Aft At, near or towards the stern, or rear, of the boat.
Aloft High in the masts or rigging.
Amidships In the middle of the vessel. An order of “Rudder amidships” means to bring the rudder centered (neither port nor starboard).
Ballast Weight in the keel of a boat, to add stability.
Beam A term used to describe a boat’s width.
Bear Away/Off See Head Down.
Beating To sail a zigzag course into the wind.
Bilges Bottom compartment of ship, usually filled with waste water.
Block The nautical term for a pulley.
Boarding Nets Nets strung out from ship’s side to stop boarding.
Boom A pole or spar extending horizontally from the mast, which holds the base of the mainsail.
Bow The front of the boat.
Bowsprit Spar at the front of a ship.
Box Haul Sharp turning of a ship.
Brace Rope used to hold direction of a sail.
Brigantine Two-masted ship.
Bring To Slowing a ship so that it almost stops by heading it into the wind.
Bulkhead Internal partitions of ships.
By the Lee Sailing downwind with the wind blowing over the leeward side of the boat, increasing the possibility of an unexpected gybe.
Cable Heavy rope.
Cable (Length) 240 yards (219.5m).
Capstan Large cylindrical device that sailors inserted poles into to help haul up cables.
Careen Lying a ship on its side to allow its hull to be cleaned.
Close Hauled Sailing as directly into the wind as possible.
Cutter Single-masted small ship.
Downwind Sailing with the wind behind you.
Draught Vertical distance from water line to bottom of keel. Vessels with smaller draughts can navigate shallower waters (and usually get closer to shore). The downside is they tend to be less stable in heavy winds.
Easterly A wind blowing from the east. Can be similarly applied to the other points of the compass.
Eight Bells Aboard Navy ships, bells are struck to designate the hours of being on watch. Each watch is four hours in length. One bell is struck after the first half-hour has passed, two bells after one hour has passed, three bells after an hour and a half, four bells after two hours, and so forth up to eight bells are struck at the completion of the four hours. Completing a watch with no incidents to report was “Eight bells and all is well.” Sailors couldn’t afford to have their own time pieces and relied on the ship’s bells to tell time. The ship’s boy kept time by using a half-hour glass. Each time the sand ran out, he would turn the glass over and ring the appropriate number of bells.
En Flute A warship without some, or all, of its cannons.
Fore Front of a ship.
Foredeck The area of a boat’s deck that is in front of the mast. Also a crew position.
Forestay A mast support that runs from the top of the mast, or near the top of the mast, to the bow.
Furl To fold or roll a sail and secure it to its main support.
Gaff Yard supporting top of a sail.
Gooseneck The joint connecting the boom and the mast.
Gybe To change a boat’s course so that the stern moves through the wind.
Halyard Rope used to hoist or lower sails.
Head Down (Fall Off) To turn the boat away from the wind.
Headsail Sail flown between the mast and the bow of the boat. The headsail is attached to the forestay and acts like the boat’s gears – the lighter the wind, the bigger the headsail.
Heel The action of the boat leaning over due to the pressure of the wind.
Helm The mechanism, a wheel or tiller, used to move the rudder and thus steer the boat. The skipper can also be called the helm.
Holystone Teak, and other wooden decks, were scrubbed with a piece of sandstone, nicknamed at one time by an anonymous witty sailor as the “holystone.” It was so named because since its use always brought a man to his knees, it must be holy!
Hull The body of the boat.
Jib Another name for a headsail.
Jibe See Gybe.
Keel A weighted piece (wood or metal) running underneath the vessel, that acts to balance it.
Knot A fastening made by looping a piece of string on itself and tightening it. Also, unit of speed equivalent to one nautical mile per hour (1.15 mph or 1.85 km/h).
Landsman Inexperienced sailor.
Larboard Same as Port, but since it sounds so similar to Starboard, it isn’t used as often.
Leech Trailing edge of the sail.
Leeward The side of the boat away from the direction from which the wind blows; the side sheltered from the wind. The opposite side is windward.
Luff To change course towards the direction of the wind; also the leading edge of the sail.
Mainsail The large triangular sail behind the mast.
Mast Vertical spar that holds up the sails, also known as the rig.
Mizzen Rear of a ship.
Mizzenmast A mast located at the rear of the ship.
Nautical mile One minute (ie one sixtieth) of a degree of latitude; approx. 6076 feet – about 1/8 longer than the statute mile of 5280ft (1852m).
Ordinary Seaman Sailor with limited experience.
Orlop deck The lowest deck on a vessel.
Overboard Over the side or out of the boat, as in “Man Overboard!”
Pinnace A ship’s boat.
Plying Turn to windward.
Port The side of the ship that is on the left when one is facing forward. Opposite of starboard.
Port Tack When a boat is sailing with the wind blowing on its port side. Opposite of starboard tack.
Ratlines Ropes attached to a ship’s shrouds that are used as ladders.
Reaching Sailing across the wind.
Reef To reduce the area of sail available to the wind.
Rig General term used to describe a boat’s mast and sail combination.
Rudder A flat blade hanging vertically below the waterline near the rear of the boat used for steering.
Runner Sailing downwind, with the wind directly behind you.
Sheet Rope attached to the lower corner of the sails.
Sheet in/out Tightening or slackening of the sheets to adjust the shape of the sails.
Shrouds Support ropes attached to the masts.
Spar A thick, strong pole used for a mast or yard on a ship.
Starboard The right side of the boat when facing forward.
Stern The rear of the boat.
Tack Way of a ship zig-zagging into the wind or turning it by steering to winward.
Tender A small boat used to transport equipment and crew from shore to a larger boat.
Tiller The stick or tube attached to the top of a rudder and used to turn it.
Trim To adjust the sails depending on the position and or strength of the wind.
Topgallant Highest of the three spars used to make a mast.
Upwind Sailing towards/into the wind.
Victualling The restocking/resupplying of a ship at sea.
Watches Traditionally, a 24-hour day is divided into seven watches. These are: midnight to 4 a.m. [0000-0400], the mid-watch; 4 to 8 a.m. [0400-0800], morning watch; 8 a.m. to noon [0800-1200], forenoon watch; noon to 4 p.m. [1200-1600], afternoon watch; 4 to 6 p.m. [1600-1800] first dog watch; 6 to 8 p.m. [1800-2000], second dog watch; and, 8 p.m. to midnight [2000-2400], evening watch. The half hours of the watch are marked by the striking the bell an appropriate number of times.
Wake A trail of disturbed water left by a ship.
Wear Turn a ship by moving prow in direction of the wind.
Weather Helm The natural tendency of a sailboat to turn toward the wind, which the helmsman feels as the tiller tries to turn to leeward.
Winch A device used to move sheets quickly and efficiently.
Windward Facing the wind or the side of the boat facing the prevailing winds. Opposite to leeward.
Yard Horizontal spar that holds up the sails.
Yardarm Outer sections of the yard.
Zephyr A gentle breeze from the west.

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