Boating Lingo: How to Speak Boating Language

Updated on September 17, 2017
DzyMsLizzy profile image

With seafaring ancestors in her maternal line, Liz gives them credit for her lifelong fascination with boats and water.

Right or Left?

Nope, it's neither! Welcome aboard, landlubbers! Class is now in session for basic boating terminology. (A landlubber is a person unaccustomed to being on or around boats.)

If invited aboard someone's boat, you don't want to come off looking like some kind of a dummy, now, do you? Good.

Now of course we all have a right and left hand, but just as with my article on using a compass, left and right can be confused depending upon the direction from which you are observing.

On a boat, left is called port. If you have trouble remembering that, then use this memory trick: left and port are both four-letter words that end in the letter "t."

Right is starboard (pronounced almost as 'stahbuhd' and not as if you were separating the word into 'star' and 'board').

Port and Starboard Lighting Diagram

Port-Starboard diagram; lights are mounted to the bow, or to each respective side, but must be visible over the arc shown
Port-Starboard diagram; lights are mounted to the bow, or to each respective side, but must be visible over the arc shown | Source

Marking Your Direction

Just as we use headlights and tail lights on cars, so people know which way we are traveling at night, so boats must use port and starboard lighting indicators for the same reason.

As seen in the diagram, these lights must be visible throughout the arc shown.

Port is red, like the wine, so that's a useful memory trick. Starboard is green. Always.

Illustration of Transom

The transom is the rear end of a small boat.  It's where you'd hang the outboard motor.
The transom is the rear end of a small boat. It's where you'd hang the outboard motor.

Front? Back?

Now, the back of the boat is the stern, and the front is the bow--that's the "pointy end." ;-) The transom is the surface of the boat which forms the stern, and upon which an outboard motor may be mounted on smaller boats. (See photo above.)

Just to add a bit of confusion to this issue, the rear of a boat can also be referred to as "aft," and the front as "forward." Usually these terms are used in pointing someone to move or look in a particular direction such as, "Go aft and grab a fishing pole from under the seat." Or, "Go forward and haul in the anchor line." A related and more obscure term is "abaft." This points to a location aboard, toward the aft, or stern, "The engine hatch is abaft the captain's chair."

Amidships should be fairly self-explanatory, referring to the middle section of the craft. "The ladder to the galley is located amidships." If you are in a rowboat, however, you will find that the oarlocks (hardware gizmos that hold the oars and help keep them from falling overboard) are amidships, as there will be no ladder or galley.

At night, running lights are required, and they are very color-specific. Red is port, and green is starboard. An anchor light is required after dark if the boat is at anchor. This is a white light, mounted at the highest available point on the boat. It can be compared to parking lights on a car. It lets other boaters know that the boat is not moving, so they don't run into it.

If you are aboard a small boat, such as a rowboat, dinghy, or minimally comfortable fishing boat, such as a bass boat, then the above is about all you have to remember.

Up and Down

You don't go "downstairs," you go "below," or "down below." You arrive in that location via a ladder (steep narrow stairs flanked by tubular railings), or a companionway, (comfortable "normal" stairs wide enough for two (you and a companion). Ladders and companionways are usually found on bigger boats, starting with large yachts and elegant cruise ships.

To imagine a companionway, think of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet coming down that elegant staircase to the formal dining room in the movie, "Titanic." That is a companionway as grand as they come, though they can be much simpler.

The Titanic Grand Staircase: an exaggeratedly elegant form of the companionway
The Titanic Grand Staircase: an exaggeratedly elegant form of the companionway | Source

On personal yachts, ladders will usually lead down into the engine room; on cruise ships, ladders are not found in passenger areas--they serve the crew.

On the smallest yachts or pleasure boats, the "engine room" is more likely to be accessed by removing hatch covers , and lying on one's belly to reach down inside: not a task for the frail or physically challenged.

So, Where Do We Eat?

Likewise, the kitchen of a boat so equipped is referred to as the galley. This term is also used in airplanes, and in pickup truck campers. Typically, the cooking and washing operations are on one side of a narrow walkway, and storage on the other.

Frequently you will find in real estate descriptions for apartments or small houses, "galley kitchen." This tells you the kitchen is very small and linear in arrangement--not usually desirable in permanent living quarters.

Ship's Galley

This galley aboard a Coast Guard Cutter is typical of those on a larger boat, while those on cruise ships can rival the huge kitchens of a 5-star land-based restaurant.
This galley aboard a Coast Guard Cutter is typical of those on a larger boat, while those on cruise ships can rival the huge kitchens of a 5-star land-based restaurant. | Source
Typical galley on a smaller pleasure boat
Typical galley on a smaller pleasure boat | Source

Excuse Me, But Where is Your Restroom?

On larger boats with more amenities, don't get tripped up by asking where to find the bathroom, restroom, toilet, or loo. No, on a boat, it's the "head."

The origins date back to ancient sailing ships, and the fact that the front (bow) of a vessel was called the 'head.' The toilet facility was located there, in order that the splashing of the water could provide automatic cleaning for the area. Now you know...nothing glamorous or romantic about it.

In fact, in the very early days of the tall sailing ships, the crew had to climb out onto a rope net, slung under the bowsprit, and hang on for dear life as they did their business over the open water. Naturally, the officers had better accommodations!

The Head

Typical Head setup on a smaller yacht or pleasure boat, with the shower and toilet using the same space.
Typical Head setup on a smaller yacht or pleasure boat, with the shower and toilet using the same space. | Source


No, no ropes. Well, I stand corrected. On larger ships, such as the old-time sailing ships, there are two ropes: the bell rope and the bucket rope.

Everything else is a line, halyard or hawser. It is a matter of size and usage.

A line is used on boats up to large pleasure boats to tie the boat up at dock, (also called 'dock lines'), or to hang fenders over the side.

A halyard is used for hoisting sails or flags.

A hawser--well, if you've ever lived in an area where huge ocean-going commercial cargo vessels tie up at dock, you've seen those monsters! They are up to 4 or 5 inches in diameter, and you do not want to get hit with one!


Dock lines secure boats to the cleats or bollards on the dock
Dock lines secure boats to the cleats or bollards on the dock

What is a Fender?

Ooops...I threw in another term in the middle of the lines, now didn't I?! A fender is a soft plastic or rubber bumper affair, typically cylindrical in shape, and hung over the rails to protect the sides of the boat while at dock. They are pulled up and stowed (put away) when the boat is underway. They may be stowed in a locker, known to landlubbers as a cupboard or cabinet.

Fenders are also used in rafting up. This is when a group of boats traveling together finds a nice place to stop for a bit, and drop anchor. They will tie up with lines from one boat to another, so they don't drift apart, and fenders are dropped between to protect the boats from damage due to water motion. The boaters are then able to boat-hop between each other's boats to visit, without need for swimming or using a dinghy...they can just step across the gap.

What do You Think?

Do You Like Boating?

See results
Fenders between two boats rafting up
Fenders between two boats rafting up

Fenders on a boat serve essentially the same purpose as bumpers on a car, except they look different

Life vests these days come in all kinds of styles and fashion colors
Life vests these days come in all kinds of styles and fashion colors

Basic Safety

It is the law: anyone age 12 and under must wear a life jacket when aboard a boat that is underway. It is a good idea for everyone aboard a boat to wear a life jacket. (If that youngster does not yet have swimming skills, they should also wear a life vest even at the dock!) It's kind of like your seatbelt in the car: protection in case of the unthinkable. In an emergency, panic can set in, and people can either forget to don their life vests, or forget how to put them on. Easier just to wear it.

As with driving a car, operating a boat involves a heavy machine with a lot of power (unless you're in a canoe or rowboat). Nonetheless, drinking and boating do not mix. Boats do not have brakes. Boats cannot stop in the same distance as a car, especially if they are moving fast. The only 'brakes' you have is engine reverse. On some boats, this will bring you to a fairly quick stop, but you still have the water motion to contend with.

Seasick Much?

There are also more directions of motion involved. Not only do you have forward and backward motion, you also have sideways drift, which can be severe in strong currents or windy conditions. Boats also roll from side-to-side, pitch up and down from front to back, and yaw, which is more of a pivoting around the center point from port to can be caused by that sideways current motion mentioned above, or wind...and sometimes by operator error in over-correcting their steering.

When combined at the same time, these motions are what make some folks get seasick. If you have this tendency, one trick is to keep your eyes focused on a distant point toward the horizon, because the closer your focus, the more you will notice the motion. Another tip is to keep your gaze forward, so you are not seeing the land or water zip past you in a dizzying blur.

Seasickness also falls under safety, believe it or not! Why? Because if the seasick person gets in the way of people trying to operate the boat, it is very much a safety issue. The general rule of boating etiquette is: if you feel sick, lean over the side (rail) and "feed the fishes"--do not try to make it to the head! A messy, disgusting accident will be the likely result.

Seasick? Head for the Rail!

Feeding the fishes
Feeding the fishes


Naturally, there is not much point to having or being aboard a boat if you only sit tied up at the dock. You want to go somewhere. To this end, you must know the boating rules of the road, or navigation.

Obviously, no one can go around painting lane markers on water, so boaters have their own means of telling which "side of the road" to use. You drive your boat in a channel, which is marked by buoys (pronounced 'boo-ees').These are markers anchored to the bottom, and painted either red or green. You must stay between the red and green buoys to be in the channel. The channels are only for driving; you do not anchor or stop to go fishing in the channel, and you are certainly not allowed to tie off to a buoy! The Coast Guard or Harbor Patrol with nail you for that, with not only a ticket, but also possible confiscation of your vessel.

Likewise if you get caught boating while drunk. Boating and drinking do not mix anymore than drinking and driving.

Which Way Do I Go?

Channel marker buoys; remember the three Rs"  Red to Right Returning
Channel marker buoys; remember the three Rs" Red to Right Returning | Source

If you fail to stay in between the channel markers, you may find you have run aground and need to call for the Vessel Assist service: how embarrassing!

Red to Right Returning

The easiest rule of navigation to remember in this regard is, "red to right returning." ("The Three R's" is the memory trick.) Now, let me be clear, as this can confuse novices. "returning" does not necessarily mean going back to your home dock or launch ramp location. (It can be, but not necessarily.) Returning means in a direction away from the ocean waters. So, if your are in a river system, it means going upriver, even it that is your outbound direction when you begin your trip.

That means, to be in the channel, you keep the red buoys to your starboard side. Boats heading opposite directions should always pass port-to-port (left to left--just like cars on the road; well, at least in the USA.) However, these boating rules are standard worldwide, regardless of which side of the road automobile drivers use.

And why is it important to stay in the channel? Well, because that's where the deepest water is. Stray outside the channel markers, and you might find yourself run aground, especially at low tide in a tidal river system. Not too bad a problem in a kayak or rowboat, but very serious in a larger boat.

There is much more to properly driving (piloting; captaining) a boat than this, and beyond the scope of this article, but these are the bare essentials you should know to safely enjoy the many waterways available to recreational boater.

In Case of Emergency

What do you do in case there is a serious emergency while you are out on the water? Hopefully, the captain or pilot of the boat knows what the procedure is. However, if they become incapacitated, it is well to know what to do, yourself.

If you are stranded with a dead motor, for example, and just sort of sitting there, it's no real emergency unless you are in a major shipping lane. But out for a pleasure cruise on calm water, you hope the boat owner has Vessel Assist. That's sort of like the auto club, but for boats. Their boat will come assist you in getting started again, or tow you in.

Why "Mayday?"

The origin of the distress call, "mayday," is from the French, "M'aidez," meaning, "help me!" The pronunciation is very similar to "mayday," with a slight shift of emphasis toward the "m," so it is now easy to see how this slid over into the English, "mayday."

However, in the case of a life-or-death emergency ONLY, (such as someone having a heart attack, or an accident that has the boat taking on water and in danger of sinking), you get on the radio and call out a "Mayday" distress signal. You had better be sure it is a genuine life-or-death situation, though, because the fine for calling a false emergency is a felony, and authorizes a maximum fine of up to $250,000 plus a maximum of 6 years in jail.

The standard protocol is to call out, three times in a row, "MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY." This is followed by announcing the name of the boat, also 3 times, it's call sign (or Coast Guard registration number if you don't have a radio call sign) and your location, or last known location.

Boating Classes

Even if you do not own a boat, taking a boating class may prove interesting, and should you be on a friend's boat, and an emergency occurs, you'd know what to do.

Basic seamanship classes are offered all over the country by the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The fee is very reasonable, and classes are taught by folks who know all about boats from the inside out.

The class I took included everything from how to read charts (nautical maps) to how to back up with a trailer. It was 6 weeks long, one evening a week. I've included a bare introductory sampling here.

(My husband has been around boats of all sizes all his life. He and I had a small yacht of our own for several years, until the economy crashed and we had to sell it. )

Photo Credits

The photo of the ship's galley is of events
surrounding the commissioning ceremony for the Coast Guard 
Cutter Bernard Webber in Miami April 14, 2012.

Taken by a government employee in the discharge
of his duties qualifies this photo as being 
in the public domain.

Questions & Answers

  • Someone said, "We can anchor at some point." What does that mean?

    It does not refer to anything physical by a nautical chart or map. It merely refers to a point in time, much as you might say, "I'll need to go to the store at some point."

© 2010 Liz Elias


Submit a Comment
  • Harem Cinema profile image


    8 months ago

    Unlike my wife, I been fortunate in that I have never suffered from seasickness. I am very thankful for that.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Boater--

    Yes, you are correct. In fact, my husband pointed out that very boo-boo just the other day. I should have said, "both PORT and LEFT are FOUR-LETTER words ending in T." I'm going to fix that matter right now.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    On a boat, left is called port. If you have trouble remembering that, then use this memory trick: left and port both end in the letter "t."

    good thing that right does not end in "t".

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Thank YOU, Micky Dee! ;-)

  • Micky Dee profile image

    Micky Dee 

    9 years ago

    Yes Ma'am DzyMsLizzy! I had to learn a bit of this in the Marine Corps. Thank you for another great hub!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    10 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Thanks, Sa'ge. Glad you enjoyed the hub! Appreciate the comments! ;-) Cheers!

  • Sa`ge profile image


    10 years ago from Barefoot Island

    Oh Dzy you done did it again, great hub. I thought I know everything i needed to know, you thought me some thing. :) you come up with the oddest subjects and I love them. ~aloha~


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