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Nautical Glossary

The marine world uses a vocabulary that mystifies the layman for its obscurity. Below is a list in alphabetical order of terms used in the Royal Navy and their explanations, obtained from Wikipedia (see also its Glossary of Nautical Terms) and other sources.

Words in italics have own entries under Term. Clicking a blue link entry shows a related image from the Internet - reliable source attribution for it is rather difficult because a given image may be shared by many sites.

Term Meaning/ExplanationImage Source
AAbackTo turn a foresail against the wind to help the vessel turn when tacking.Fine Art America
AbaftTo the back of.
AbeamAt right angles to the vessel's keel.Transport Safety
AboardOn the vessel.
AdriftA vessel afloat but out of control.NZ Folk Song
AftThe rear part of a vessel.Rick McClain
AfloatA vessel floating freely, not aground or sunk.Afloat IE
AgroundResting on or touching the sea bottom, a submerged reef or a sandbar.Ocean's Bridge
AleeTo leeward.
AloftOver the upper deck, on the rigging.P* Tall Ships
AmidshipsIn the middle of a vessel.Rick McClain
AnchorObject to prevent or slow the drift of a vessel, attached by a line or chain - a metal hook-like object designed to grip the bottom.Christine DeMerchant
Athwart, athwartshipsAt right angles to the fore and aft or centerline of a vessel.Rick McClain
BBackstays Lines or cables to support the masts from their rear.Global Security
Barque, barc, barkVessel with 3 or more masts, the foremast and mainmast square-rigged and the mizzen mast rigged fore-and-aft.Wikipedia
BarometerInstrument used to measure atmospheric pressure and forecast short-term weather changes.Land and Sea Collection
Barquentine, schooner barkVessel with 3 or more masts: a square rigged foremast and fore-and-aft rigged main, mizzen and any other masts.Wikipedia
BattensWooden steps on vessels' sides to facilitate ascent to the entry ports.Media Harmonists
BeakheadSmall deck in front of the forecastle, where the heads are located.Wikipedia
Beating to quartersSummoning a vessel's complement to battle stations by a continuous drum roll.Pinterest
Belaying pinWooden device with a round handle and cylindrical shaft, usually inserted into a hole
in various strategically placed wooden fife rails lining the top of bulwarks and elsewhere.
Also a handy seaman's weapon during boardings.
Bend on (sails)To attach sails to the vessel before hoisting them up.
BerthsDocking places assigned to vessels, or sleeping quarters on board of them.
BinnacleStand where the vessel's compass is mounted.CSDS*
BlocksPulleys with single or multiple grooved wheels.Shutterstock
Boatswain, Bo'sunA Warrant Officer in charge of deck and rigging activities.Alamy
BoomsSpars attached to yards that can be extended outwards to hoist stunning sails.P* Old Sails
Bow, bowsThe front part of a vessel.P* Tall Ships
BowerA vessel's main anchor(s), normally carried in the catheads at the bow.Blogger
BowspritLong spar extending forward from the vessel's prow.Dreams Time
Boy, cabin boyServant, attendant. Usually a very young man - see NavalRanks on another page.ULD*
BracesRunning rigging used to turn the yards.Classic Sailing
Brail upTo haul in or up the leeches of sails so as to make them spill the wind and stop drawing.SMA*
BrigVessel with 2 square-rigged masts.WoodenBoat Forum
Brig of warUnrated flush-decked, 2-masted fighting vessel - see Ships' Rates on another page.Wikipedia
Brigantine2-masted vessel with a square-rigged foremast and gaff-rigged mainsail
with square rig above it on the aft mainmast.
BroachA vessel turning sideways to high waves, thus liable to being swamped by the seas and capsize.Broadway
BrowJoined wooden planks to board or leave a ship at a pier. Also gangplank or gangway.Blogger
BulwarksExtensions (1) of a ship's sides above the level of the deck.Ship Modeling
BuntlinesLines tied to the bottom of a square sail to haul it up to the yard when furling.Classic Sailing
BurgooPorridge or gruel of oatmeal.
CCableThick anchor line, or measure of length (200 yards).ANMM * WP*
Canister shotGun ammunition similar to grapeshot but with more and smaller balls.Quora
CannonThe smoothbore main armament of a sailing vessel - see Naval Cannon on another page.Blogger
CapstanA broad revolving cylinder with vertical axle through the deck, used for winding a rope,
cable or hawser and turned round by seamen with bars to raise anchors or spars.
CaptainThe Commissioned Officer in command of a ship - see Naval Ranks on another page.Wikipedia
Captain's mastFormal hearing conducted before the mainmast by a Captain or a lower-ranking Commissioned Officer to examine and dispose of disciplinary cases involving those under their command,
either dismissing the charges or imposing appropriate punishment.
Canadian War Museum
CareenBeaching a vessel at high tide to perform work on its normally submerged parts.Wikipedia
CarpenterWarrant Officer responsible for the maintenance of a vessel's hull, masts, spars and boats.ULD*
CatheadsBeams extending laterally at the bow, to raise anchors without hitting the hull
and to secure them afterwards.
St. Vincent College
Cat-o'-nine-tailsWhip with 9 knotted ends, prepared anew and kept in a red baize bag by a bosun's mate,
to give lashes to seamen defaulters.
Caulking, calkingSealing the seams bertween planks with fibers of cotton and oakum (hemp fiber soaked in pine tar), then covering them overwith a putty in the case of hull seams, or with melted pine pitch in deck seams.Q-files
ChainsLateral outboard platforms to spread the shrouds, also used by leadsmen to take soundings.MNH
CoasterVessel for coastal trade.Blogger
CockbillTo suspend an anchor vertically in preparation to letting it go.Lossi Antiik
CommanderFormerly "Master and Commander", a Commissioned Officer in command of a vessel - see Naval Ranks on another page.Wikipedia
Commissioned OfficerAn Officer who has received the Admiralty's commission - see Naval Ranks on another page.WoodenBoat Forum
CookCivilian who prepares food in the a vessel's galley - see Naval Ranks on another page.ULD*
Corvette, sloop of warUnrated flush-decked, 2-masted fighting vessel - see Ships' Rates on another page.WoodenBoat Forum
Coxswain, Cox'nSailor in charge of a boat, Petty Officer commanding the Captain's gig or barge.Blogger
CutlassNaval sword with a 28" blade.Nelson's Navy
DDeadeyesThree-holed blocks.Wikipedia
Dead reckoningNavigation based on log entries of ship's directions, speeds and times.
DecksThe various horizontal wooden surfaces between the sides of a ship.Global Security
DefaulterCrewman found guilty of some misdemeanour, offense or crime.
DockA harbour quay, a stone platform lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships. Also wharf, pier, berth, jetty. To make fast to it.WoodenBoat Forum
Dolphin strikerA small vertical or near vertical ancillary spar (B) between bowsprit and martingale.Wikipedia
DriverSee gaff sail.
DunnagePersonal baggage, like an Officer's sea chest.Nautical Style
EEn flûteShip with some or all of her guns removed.Pinterest
FFathomMeasure of depth (6').
FiddlesRaised strips of wood on table or desk to keep objects from falling off during ship rolls.
Also a cheap violin.
Fife railsHorizontal strips of wood joined to the tops of stanchions to belay the vessel's halyards at the base of a mast.Wikipedia
Figurehead Decorative carving, typically a bust or a full-length figure, at the prow of a sailing ship.P* - Morgans Lists
Fighting topsPlatforms at the upper end of each lower mast, holding musket and swivel sharpshooters.Pinterest
FlemishedLine coiled to lie flat on the deck.Modelship World
Flush deckUpper deck extending from bow to stern.Pinterest
Forecastle, foc's'lThe forward section of a vessel, housing crew quarters.RDS*
ForedeckRaised forward section of a ship over the forecastle.RMG*
ForemastThe mast nearest to a vessel's bow.PDP*
ForesailsSails from the foremast to the bowsprit.Alamy
ForefootLower part of the stem of a vessel.Quora
FotherCovering a leaking hole in the hull by tying a sail or other canvas over it.RMG*
FramesCurved structural elements of a vessel's hull.TMS*
Full and by(e)Sailing as close to the wind as possible yet with full-drawing sails.News API
FurlTo roll up the sails and secure them to their yards with gaskets, so they will no longer draw.SWOTW
FuttocksStructural elements of a vessel's stem.Quora
GGaff sailA four-cornered, fore-and-aft rigged sail, controlled at its peak and, usually, its entire head by a spar (2) called the gaff.Wikipedia
GalleySpace under the forecastle where the cook prepares food for officers and crew.TET* WP*
GalleySince Greek times and until the advent of square-rigged ships, the most widely used type of war vessel in the Mediterranean. Later, still used by Barbary corsairs and pirates.Wikipedia
GasketsCords (H) to secure a furled sail to its yard.Ocean Navigator
GangwaysNarrow open-air corridors joining the quarterdeck to the forecastle.Monkbarns WP*
GlassA telescope (also called spyglass, bring-em-near), or the barometer.SMG
Gybing, jibingSee Wearing.
GratingsWooden frames used as hatch covers, and as vertical supports for lashings.Getty Images
Grape, grapeshotGun ammunition consisting of small metal balls or slugs packed tightly into a canvas bag.TreasureNet
GunwaleThe upper edge or planking of the side of a vessel, an extension of the bulwark over the gun deck - hence the name.Stock Photo
GunsSee Cannon.
HHalyards, halliardsLines used to raise a sail, flag, yard or ladder.Jans Sajt
HammocksSleeping accomodations for non-officer crew: fabric slings suspended between two points.ASLFM
Hard tackA type of biscuit made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. Inexpensive and long-lasting, it was and is used for sustenance in the absence of perishable foods, as during long sea voyages.NBHS*
Hawse, hawsepipe, hawseholeHole in a vessel's bow side through which the anchor cable passes.ANMM* WP*
HawserThick rope or cable for mooring or towing a vessel.Alamy
HMS/H.M.S.Acronym/abbreviation for His/Her Majesty's Ship.
Head, headsSeamen's open-air 'toilets' at the bows.Kayedacus WP*
HeadgearRigging ahead of the foremast.Schooner Coast
HeaveTo pull a line, to lift or move with effort.Wikipedia
Heave toTo adjust rudder and sails so as to stop forward motion.Find Boat Pics
HelmThe single or multiple, 8- or 10-spoked steering device on larger vessels,
connected by cables to the rudder. Also wheel
HelmsmanAble Seaman who steers the vesselWoodenBoat Forum
HitchKnot to fasten a rope or line to a fixed object.Skipper Tips
HoistTo raise, or the device used for lifting or lowering a load by means of a drum or lift-wheel around which rope or chain wraps.Adam Nash
HolystoneA brick of sandstone used to scrub decks and ensure their smoothness.Q-files
HoyHeavy barge used for freight.MLH*
HoundsProtrusions high on a mast onto which blocks are hung for the halyards.Model Ship World
HullThe body of a vessel, meeting the water surface at the waterline.Pinterest
Hung in stays, in ironsIneffective tacking maneuvre, with the vessel not turning through the eye of the wind into the opposite direction.Find Boat Pics
IIdlersSailors who never work during night watches, like Cooks, Carpenters, Boatswains, Pursers, Sailmakers, Coopers & their mates.
JJibsTriangular staysails (1,2,3,4) set between the foremast and bowsprit of a sailing vessel.EB*
JonasA person bringing bad luck, from Biblical prophet Jonah.Pravoslavie
KKeelThe lowest structural member at the bottom of a vessel.Wood Magazine
Kelson, keelsonStructural member (17) parallel and fastened to the keel, to impart additional longitudinal stiffness but mainly to bind the longitudinal members (keel and hog) to the transverse members (frames and floors).Wikipedia
Kiss the Gunner’s DaughterMidshipmen found wanting were bent over the breech of a cannon and disciplined by caning their bare buttocks.Corpun
KneesStructural support elements.NJSD*
KnotMeasure of speed: 1 nautical mile (1.8520 km, 1.1508 mi) per hour.
KnotsVarious ways of tying a rope or line securely.Ask Ideas
LLandlubber, landsmanA crewman without previous sailing experience.CNU*
LangridgeCannon ammunition of various types to damage rigging,
including bar, link and chain shots.
LarboardFacing the bow, the left-hand side of a vessel. Also port.
Lateen sailsFore-and-aft triangular sails set on a long yard mounted at an angle to the mast.Simple Sail
League3 statute miles.
LeadDevice to take soundings: a lead plummet attached to a long line with marks made of leather, calico, serge and other materialsat intervals along the line, so shaped and attached that it is possible to "read" them by eye during the day or by feel at night.RMG*
LeadsmanSeaman who takes soundings with a lead.Wikipedia
LeewardDownwind of a point of reference.Wikipedia
LuffSteering a vessel closer to the wind.Pinterest
MMagazineStoreroom for gunpowder kegs below the water line, usually copper-sheathed to prevent accidental sparks.Techno-Fandom
Mainmast, main The tallest mast on a vessel.Pinterest
Make and mendTime allowed to seamen on Sunday or Wednesday afternoons so that they could attend to their clothing and appearance.Sea Thieves
MartingaleStay (G) between the tip of the bowsprit and the dolphin striker.Global Security
Master and CommanderSee Commander.
Master, Sailing MasterWarrant Officer appointed by the Navy Board, responsible for the ship's navigation and its fitting out.Wigowsky
Master, Master-at-armsPetty Officer responsible for the ship's security and small-arms training of the crew.ULD*
MastsVertical poles to hold yards and sails. On large vessels the masts were built from up to four sections (also called masts), known in order of rising height above the decks as the lower, top, topgallant and royal masts.Pinterest
MessThe space below deck where seamen have their meals.La Perouse Museum
Mess kidWooden bucket to hold a mess's ration of food (upper left).St. Vincent College
Mess tablesFoldable wooden plank tables, usually accomodating 6 seamen.Pinterest
MidshipmenOfficer candidates.ULD*
Mizzen mast, mizen mastThe aftmost mast of a full-rigged vessel.Alamy
MonkeysYoung boys carrying gun charges from the powder room to the gun decks.Wikipedia
OOfficersCommissioned Officers, Warrant Officers (WOs) and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) - see Naval Ranks on another page.Woodenboat Forum
OrdinaryVessels 'in ordinary' are out of active service for repairs or maintenance.Magnolia Box
Orlop deckThe lowest deck in a ship, usually below the waterline, where the cables are stowed.Global Security
PPinnaceA light boat, propelled by 8 oars or sails, serving as a tender.Pinterest
PipeWine cask of ½ tun capacity (240 gallons).Wikipedia
Points of sailingThe course of a sailing vessel in relation to the direction of the wind.Pinterest
Poop, poop deckThe deck that forms the roof of a cabin in the aft part of the superstructure of a ship.Global Security
Port (side)Same as larboard, so named because with a steering rudder at starboard, it was the ship's side used to dock.
Powder roomA small area close to the magazine where powder charges are prepared by the gunner.Pinterest
ProwThe forward-most part of a ship's bow that cuts through the water, above the waterline.
Prow and bow are often used interchangeably.
Clash of Steel
PurserA Warrant Officer appointed by the Victualling Board to manage ship's provisions.ULD*
QQuarterThe aftmost side, port and starboard, of a vessel's hull.Rick McClain
QuarterdeckRaised deck behind the main mast of a sailing vessel, its windward side a space reserved to the Commanding Officer.Wikipedia
Quarter galleriesOfficers' privies.Kayedacus WP*
QuartermasterA Petty Officer or Able Seaman operating as helmsman.ULD*
QuoinWooden wedge (4) to adjust gun elevation.Sea Thieves
RRateOrdinal number system (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th) devised by Admiral George Anson to indicate an RN fighting ship's type - see Ships' Rates on another page.
RatlinesLengths of thin line tied between the shrouds to form a ladder for topmen.St. Vincent College
Reave, reeveTo pass ropes over the wheels of a block.HNSA*
RiggingThe system of ropes, cables and chains which support a sailing vessel's masts and permit to trim her sails:
— Standing rigging: shrouds and stays adjust the vessel's sails and spars
— Running rigging: halyards, braces, sheets and vangs (on mizzen masts).
RoundhousesMidshipmen's enclosed privies at the bow.Kayedacus WP*
RudderA vessel's primary steering device, placed aft and externally to the keel, governed by helm or tiller.BMB*
Ruse de guerreA ruse of war, a deception to trick one's opponent and gain an advantage over him.
SSailsThe wind-driven 'engines' propelling a sailing vessel.The Pirate King
Sail namesDifferent names identify square sails depending on their level in a vessel's rigging. Wikipedia
Sail partsSquare sail: head (top), leeches (sides), foot (bottom) with clews to make it fast.Wikipedia
SchoonerUnrated flush-decked, 2-masted fighting vessel - see Ships' Rates on another page.Artnet
ScuttlebuttsWater barrels with a hole from which sailors could drink. Also the rumours and gossip typically exchanged there among seamen.Navy
Seamen, sailorsExcluding Officers, Warrant Officers, Midshipmen and Petty Officers, the rest of the crew classified as either Able Seamen,Ordinary Seamen and Landlubbers depending on their level of skill - see Naval Ranks on another page.Library of Congress
Ship's complementA ship's entire population, inhabiting and working in her.Pinterest
Ship's living spacesThe areas below deck in a ship.Daily Mail
SheavesSee Blocks.
SheetsLines, ropes, or cables (2) to control the movable corner(s) (clews) of a sail.Pinterest
Ship rig, ship riggedA full-rigged ship or fully rigged ship denotes a sailing vessel's sail plan with 3 or more masts, all of them square-rigged.Fine Art America
Shot garlandA wooden frame to hold shot close to the guns.Photobucket
ShroudsRopes to hold a mast up laterally.Global Security
Sick bayVessel's compartment to treat medical cases.ASLFM*
SkylarkingThe antics of midshipmen and sailors climbing about the rigging and sliding down the backstays for fun.Readex
SlopsCrew clothing issued by the Purser.Maritime Aloft
SoundingsMeasuring the depth of water below the keel of a vessel with a lead.Wikipedia
SparsPoles of wood in the rigging of a sailing vessel to carry or support its sails: they include yards, booms, masts and bowsprit.Pirates Hegewisch
Speaking trumpetA loud hailer to carry orders and messages over distances or in bad weather.Nathan Zeldes
SpikingTemporarily disabling a gun by hammering a barbed steel spike into its touch-holePractical Machinist
SplicingJoining two ends of rope together without using a knot.Marine Waypoints
Square rig, square riggedA vessel with square sails.PMM*
StarterKnotted rope end or rattan cane wielded by Petty Officers to stimulate prompt seamen's reaction to orders.Types of Everything
StemFront vertical beam of the hull.NJSD*
SternThe aft end of a vessel.WHAWL*
StarboardFacing the bow, the right-hand side of a vessel - so named because it accomodated the lateral steering rudderbefore central rudders came into general use.
StaysFore-and-aft ropes running from the masts to the hull, deck or bowsprit to provide stability, with ratlines to aid ascent aloft.Global Security.
Stroke oarIn a rowboat, the rower closest to the stern at the port side, setting the stroke rate and rhythm for the other rowers.
Stunning sails, stuns'lsSails on booms extended out of the side of the ship, on the top of lower and upper topsail yards, to increase the sail areawith a following wind in lighter airs.Pinterest
SupernumeraryAn unofficial extra passenger on board.
SweepsLong oars used to row vessels with a low freeboard.Blogger
TTackingTo turn a vessel's bow toward the wind so that it will blow from the opposite side.
Also going/coming about.
Meridian 360
TaffrailHandrail at the sternmost deck.Pinterest
Tampion, tompionWooden plug to close the muzzle of a cannon.4.bp.blogspot
TillerThe steering device on smaller vessels, directly attached to the rudder.Wikipedia
TomahawkBoarding axe.Nelson's Navy
Top hamperThe upper spars and gear above deck.The Square Rigger
TowTo draw a vessel forward by long lines attached to rowing boats.Pinterest
Trim (sails)To adjust a vessel's sails for optimum efficiency in the prevailing wind conditions.
Trim (load)To adjust a vessel's cargo and ballast for stability, or to offer the least resistance to movement through water.Pinterest
TopmenSkilled seamen working aloft.ANMM* WP*
TopsWooden platforms to anchor the shrouds of upper topmasts, and convenient observation perches for lookouts.Pinterest
TruckWooden cap at the top of a mast with holes through which flag halyards are passed.GNB*
TrysailThe main fore-and-aft sail (12) on any mast.Cichw1
UUnder way, underwayA vessel moving under control and with sufficient speed through water to steer with its own rudder or tiller.Pinterest
Up and downSlack anchor cable at short stay, hanging vertically from the hawsepipe with the vessel directly above the anchor.
Upper deckThe topmost deck of a vessel.Global Security
VVanThe front of a line or convoy of vessels.Imgur
VolunteersCivilians joining a vessel's crew of their own free will, receiving the King's shilling in reward.
WWaistThe upper deck area amidships, between main and mizzen masts.Kayedacus WP*
WaistersLess skilled seamen employed in the waist of the ship.BBC
WalesThick wooden planks fastened to the sides of a vessel to protect them from wear.Pinterest
WardroomLiving and berthing quarters for Commissioned Officers.Pinterest
Wardroom cabinsBerths for Commissioned Officers, wide enough for a cot or hammock and a table, a cloth curtain for privacy.Pinterest
WarpTo turn an anchored vessel on its axis by hauling on a cable spring fastened to another fixed object. To move a vessel, especially through a restricted place.Wikipedia
WearingTurning a vessel's stern through a following wind. Also gybing or jibing.Pinterest
Weather gauge, weather gageAdvantageous upwind position of a sailing vessel (right) relative to another (left).Bermuda Online
WheelShip's steering device. See also helm.Wikipedia
WindlassA horizontal revolving cylinder wound with ropes to move heavy weights.AWS*
WindwardUpwind of a point of reference.Wikipedia
WivesSeamen were not usually granted leave ashore when in port but could receive their wives, real or presumed, on board.ULD*
XXebecA Mediterranean sailing and oared vessel used for trading or piracy, with a long bowsprit and lateen sails.Wikipedia
YYardarmsThe outermost tips of the yards.Omniglot
YardsThe horizontal poles, secured to the mast with buntlines, holding square sails.HMS Trincomalee
nautical Terms, illustrated by images linked from the Internet.

Image source abbreviations (*):

  • ANMM: Australian National Maritime Museum
  • ASLFM: A Sailor's Life For Me
  • AWS: Amazon Web Services
  • BMB: Building Model Boats
  • CNU: Christopher Newport University
  • CSDS: Cool San Diego Sights
  • EB: Encyclopedia Britannica
  • GNB: Government of New Brunswick
  • HNSA: Historic Naval Ships Association
  • MLH: Margate Local History
  • MNH: Military Naval History
  • NBHS: New Boston Historical Society
  • NJSD: New Jersey Scuba Diving
  • P: Pinterest
  • PDP: Public Domain Pictures
  • PMM: Penobscot Marine Museum
  • PSMHS: Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society
  • RDS: Robin's Dockside Shop
  • RMG: Royal Museums Greenwich
  • SMA: Ship Modelers' Association
  • SMG: Skipjack Marine Gallery
  • SWOTW: Shipping Wonders of the World
  • TET: The Eternal Traveller
  • TMS: The Model Shipwright
  • ULD: Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt - The British Navy in 1799: the Uniform Plates of Thomas Rowlandson - © Markus Stein.
  • WHAWL: White Haven and Western Lakeland
  • WP: Word Press
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