Sailing Basics – Terminology

Sailing Terminology

This post defines the many terms used in sail boating. It is limited to terms relevant to model yachts. It contains terms about parts of a sailboat, functions of items on a sailboat, sailboat terms, and the parts of sails.

Like many sports or professions sailing has its own terminology. Developed over the last several hundred years with all the richness that comes along with that. At first glance many of our sailing terms may seem to have been assigned in a haphazard manner but, they have all developed out of nautical traditions, mostly from Europe.

For instance, the terms for right and left come from a time when ships used a steering board slung over one side of the boat. With sheer man-power or block and tackle they would apply leverage to the steering board to make their turns. Imagine coming into port and docking; you wouldn’t want to dock on the side the steering board is on so the other side of the boat, facing the port, came to be called ‘port’ and the side of the boat the steering board was on became known as ‘starboard’.


Note: Most of the content of this post is from the “School of Sailing” website. You can use the link to pursue building your sailing knowledge at that site.

This post has been edited to remove all, at least most, of the information that is not relevant to our models.

The entries below are copied from the Glossary.

Parts of a sailboat

A stay (line) that runs from near or at the top of the mast to the stern of the boat.
A spar that supports the foot of the mainsail. See figure #1.
The forward part of a boat also called ‘the pointy end’.
The fitting that attaches the boom to the mast.
Also called forestay, a cable /line that runs from the bow to the upper part of the mast. figure #5.
The underbody of a boat. See figure #5.
jib. A foresail (headsail) that fits inside the foretriangle. See figure #5.
keel. An extension of the hull that goes deeper into the water and provides stability from heel and sideways resistance to wind; as in: A well designed keel can provide lift to windward. See figure #5.
mainsail. The main sail of a boat, often the largest sail and raised on the
mainmast. See figures #1 and #5.
mast. A pole made from wood, aluminum, or carbon fiber on which a sail is set;. See figures #1 and #5.
shroud. A wire or cable holding up the mast athwartships (side to side)
spreader. A horizontal support for the stays that sticks out from the mast.
stern. The aftermost part of a vessel See figure #5.

Functions of Items on a Sailboat

topping lift. A line that runs from the end of the main boom to the mast in order to hold it up when the sail is not set.

boom vang. A device to hold the boom down; as in: Use the boom vang to
prevent the boom from rising up while on a run.
downhaul. Used to place tension in the luff of a sail.
halyard. A line attaches the sails to the mast.
jib sheet. A line that controls the jib.
mainsheet. A single line used to control the main.
outhaul. A sail control that attaches to the clew and allows tensioning of the foot of the sail.
rudder. An underwater appendage that controls the direction of the boat. See figure #5.

stay. A wire or cable supporting the mast, also see: “headstay” and “backstay”. See figure #5.

telltale. A fine string or ribbon which may be located on a sail or in the rigging to help determine wind direction and proper sail trim. See the Sail Trim post.

Sailboat terms

abeam. At a right angle to the boat.
astern. Behind the stern of the boat.
beam. The widest part of the boat.
draft. The depth of the boat underwater
heel. The angle the boat sails at.
jibe. To turn the stern of the boat through the eye of the wind. See Tacking and Jibing post.
lee and leeward (pronounced “lee” and “loo-ward”).
port. left side when looking toward the bow.
running rigging. All the lines that control any part of the sails including sheets, halyards, and outhaul.
standing rigging. All wires or cables that hold up the mast.
starboard. The right side facing the bow.
tack(ing). To change tacks by putting the bow through the eye of the wind.
weather helm. The tendency of a boat to turn into the wind.
windward. Towards the wind, upwind.

Sails and parts of a sail

Figure #5

Sailboat showing names of sails, hull, keel, rudder, bow, stern, forestay, backstay, battens, head, tack, clew, foot, luff, and leech.

batten. A strip used to stiffen the leech of a sail.
clew. The after lower corner of a sail.
foot. the bottom edge of a sail.
head. the top corner of a triangular sail.
jib. A foresail that fits inside the foretriangle of the mast and head stay.
leech. The back edge of a sail.
luff. the leading edge of a sail.
tack. To change tacks by putting the bow through the eye of the wind.

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