Sailing Terms You Need To Know

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You’ll need to learn some basic terminology if you’re looking to get into boating or sailing. In this article, we’ll be giving you a definition of windward and leeward sailing, their applications in the context of sailing, as well as some other important sailing terms that would be good for you to know.

We’ll also be giving you some general boating advice and knowledge. If you’re looking to expand your sailing lexicon, then be sure to read on to understand the differences between windward vs leeward sailing.

Windward, Leeward, & Other Sailing Terms

If you’ve gone out on the waves and have been totally confounded by the terminology, then we’ve got some basic terms that will get you up to speed.

Windward & Leeward

Unlike port and starboard – terms which you may have heard before – the windward and leeward (pronounced loo’erd) sides of the vessel change depending on the wind’s direction. Windward is the side of the boat closest to the wind, which means that leeward is the furthest side from the wind.

The Windward Islands in the Caribbean were the closest to the wind when the old English trading routes were still around, while the Leeward Islands were away from the wind.

Port & Starboard

On a boat or yacht, you don’t use words like ‘left’ or ‘right’, but rather port and starboard. When you are facing the front of the boat, the boat’s left side is its port side and the boat’s right side is its starboard side.

There is an old nautical myth that states that ‘posh’ is actually an acronym for the phrase – Port Out Starboard Home. This was when the English gentry turned their boat’s side from the sun when traveling to India.

Bow & Stern

The spot where Jack and Rose stood – at the boat’s front – in Titanic’s famous scene is called the bow, while the back of a boat is called the stern. When referring to things near the boat’s front, you say forward – for instance, you may hear a sailor say “bring in the forward port line”.

The stern can also be referred to as aft or astern. You may hear the captain telling a sailor to “go aft,” which means go to the back of the boat.


The mainsail is the boat’s largest sail, slightly aft of the mast, which is the tall pole at the middle of the boat. There is a large pole that runs at the mainsail’s bottom that is known as the boom.

If you hear the phrase “coming about” on smaller boats, you’re going to want to lower your head. The boom, which carries the mainsail, will be changing direction and rapidly swinging to its new position.


Two similar sounding words in sailing are jib and jibe – not to be confused with each other. A jib is a sail, whereas jibing is a means of changing the direction of sailing. You jibe by turning the stern through the wind and setting off on a zig-zag course. This is something you’ll see a lot in yacht racing because it’s a fast way of turning.


Tacking is used to refer to when the yacht turns bow-first into the wind. This is when a boat will come about and is a slightly more challenging process because the sails will be luffing (sitting stagnant without giving any power) while turning. The lines will then be pulled taught and your vessel will be on its way.

How Wind Moves a Boat

A sail full of wind will form an airfoil, which will propel the boat with lift in the same way that an airplane’s wing does, though across the water instead of into the air. The work of sailing comes in when positioning, or trimming, the sails to maximize lift in the desired direction.

Once the sails have been raised using the lines (not ‘ropes’) called halyards, they are trimmed using sheets, which moves the boom between the starboard and port sides. On a two-sail boat, the emphasis is placed on the mainsail, and while the smaller jib also moves, new sailors will focus on the mainsail mostly.

The tiller is used to move the rudder and adjust the angle of the boat so that it is perpendicular to the wind. The sheets are used to angle the mainsail so that it becomes filled with wind. In the bowing airfoil shape, the air that moves over the curved, longer side moves quicker than the wind that flows by the other side, which creates lift.

Dinghy Sailing

Dinghy sailing is different from regular sailing, and it’s also fast, fun, and wet. It is an incredibly popular version of sailing, with millions of sailors dedicated to the craft around the world. It’s also not difficult to see why the sport is so popular. There’s no other feeling than hanging off the side of a dinghy while speeding over the water at sunset.

Different people will experience different thrills from sailing. Many live for the excitement of racing and the accompanying training and tactics, while others just like the tranquility and relaxation that comes with sailing independently.

The actual dinghies that are used for dinghy sailing are available in several different sizes and shapes, but they follow essentially the same sailing principles as regular sailing. The best way to learn is by using a relatively stable two-person dinghy or a small single-handed version.

Once you have the basics down, you unlock endless possibilities. You could start racing, progress to fast catamarans or performance dinghies, or even transfer the skills you’ve learned to yachting.

Why Sail In the First Place?

Sailing has been proven to have many health benefits. It’s great for the body and the mind, and it is also great for your fitness.

Sailing allows you to build your arm and leg muscles, and when sailing on a dinghy, you’re met with the added demand of hanging off of the boat. Sailing also improves concentration and balance, which is needed to stay safely on course.

If you practice steering the boat, you’re also practicing your hand-eye coordination in a unique way that’s difficult to replicate. Finally, you get the chance to clear and refresh your mind thanks to the seawater and fresh air.

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