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Nautical Terms: When Is a Boat a Ship? Why Is a Bathroom a Head?

Russ is a boat owner and a veteran of the United States Navy.

This article will not qualify you for a captain's license, but it will enable you to hold your own at a yacht club bar. It will also endear you to folks who take maritime matters seriously.

Nautical terms confound people for no good reason. Boating terms and shipping terms are simply established words or phrases that apply to maritime life. Other fields of human endeavor also have their own terminology. Builders talk about beams, joists and rafters. Bridal planners never talk about a wedding dress; it's a gown. Police refer to suspects, perps and unsubs. So when talking about matters nautical, use the right nautical terms. At a minimum, it will keep you from annoying salty types.

Knowing the right word for an object on a vessel or a maritime concept is not only a good way to enhance your enjoyment. It can also be a matter of safety. In an emergency, you don't want to be consulting a dictionary when you hear things like "Everybody move to starboard."

This is NOT a Ship

This is NOT a Ship

The Major Nautical Terms You Want to Get Right

A Boat or a Ship?

Use the wrong term here and you will drive maritime mavens nuts. With the huge growth of the cruise industry over the past few years, many people talk about ships who never did before. But, and this is only a personal observation, 90 percent refer to a cruise ship as a boat. All this Navy veteran can do in such cases is to practice deep breathing exercises. One hates to be a boor and constantly correct people. But they really should be locked in irons.

A cruise ship is a ship. It is a simple fact of life. The bad news is that there is no precise line of distinction between a boat and a ship, but the good news is that understanding a few key points will make you get it right 99 percent of the time.

  • Ships are large, boats small. Okay, okay, we'll split a few hairs when we talk about yachts.
  • A ship can carry a boat or boats; a boat can NEVER carry a ship. Some large boats do indeed carry smaller boats, but they can never carry a ship.
  • Ships are designed for deep water and rough weather conditions. Yes, some boats can handle deep water (and large waves), but ships are designed for this.
  • A vessel under 500 tons is a boat; over 500 it's a ship. Like any hard rule, this is difficult. You can tell that an aircraft carrier is over 500 tons, but what about a small freighter? Can you tell how much it weighs?
  • Ships are designed for commercial purposes. A yacht, no matter how large, would seldom be described as a ship unless it is designed to carry passengers for hire.
A yacht

A yacht

A Boat or a Yacht?

This is a lot trickier than the difference between a boat and a ship, and it gets into cultural matters. Here is a simple rule to follow, and most do, except pompous jerks: NEVER refer to your boat as a yacht no matter how big the thing is. If you own a 100-foot mega yacht, you will look cool if you call it a boat. A bit of noblesse oblige goes a long way. So here are some differences between a boat and a yacht:

Yachts start at 34 feet in length. You will find this number everywhere. So what? If you call your 34-foot boat a yacht you may as well wear a tee shirt with "pompous ass" inscribed on the back. See the rule above. To repeat, never call YOUR boat a yacht no matter how big it is. You would only discuss yachts as boats in excess of 34 feet when discussing the industry in general.

Yachts are big and fancy. How's that for a fuzzy rule? The point is, yachts are thought of in general conversation as large luxurious vessels. Yachts can be power or sail.

Why Is a Bathroom on a Vessel Called a Head?

Head is an old Navy term for the place where sailors would go to relieve themselves before the advent of modern plumbing. The forward-most part of a vessel was called the ship's head. It often protruded out beyond the bow (aka the front of a vessel). There was a grate through which the waste went into the ocean.

The term head is now used as a synonym for bathrooms on ships and boats, both military and private. Some cruise ships call them bathrooms, and I shall not quibble with this (as long as you don't call the ship a boat). The use of the word head is almost universal on boats. If you're looking to buy one for your boat you would shop under the word "head." A head is both a boating term and a shipping term.

What Are Port and Starboard and What's Wrong With Left and Right?

Port is the left side of a vessel, starboard the right. These quaint nautical terms go back to the early days of boating. Before the invention of a rudder, early mariners would affix a "steering board" toward one side of the boat. There is some opinion that the steering board was usually affixed to the right side of the boat because most sailors were right handed. The old English term was steorbord, which eventually became starboard. It is pronounced “starb'd” or “starbid.” Live with it. To keep from smashing up the steering board, sailors would come into port on the left side.

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Hence, the left side became known as port. So there's nothing wrong with left and right except in a nautical setting. Aboard a vessel, knowing port from starboard is as basic as, well, knowing your left from right. It's also crucial when learning how to dock a boat.

What Are Bow and Stern and What's Wrong With Front and Back?

The front of a vessel is called the bow, coming from the word bough, the limb of a tree. Carpenters would use the sturdiest boughs or bows for the front of a vessel because that's the part that took the most pounding. Hence, the front of a craft became known as the bow. The stern is the rear of a vessel and gets its name from the fact that the sternpost is the rearmost wood on a vessel. The back of a boat or ship eventually became known as the stern. You will shiver the timbers of any experienced mariner if you call the bow the front or the stern the rear.

Above and Below

On a vessel, you do not go upstairs or downstairs. You go above or below. Please, you do not go downstairs to the bathroom; you go below to the head.

Forward and Aft

On a boat or ship, you never go up front or to the back, you go forward or aft.

This article discussed the most basic nautical terms. Learn them and you will be able to understand your boating friends, and perhaps become a boater yourself.


Brian Harry Lee on August 19, 2019:

By chance I have found your site,I have found it of great interest, For six years, and five I was catering staff on the M,V.Rangitiki, N.Z. Shipping Co, Then changed to B.O.A.C/British Airways for 32 years as long haul cabin crew, All a great way to see the world

Ted on May 26, 2019:

I would add that knowing starboard vs port is important because they don’t change.

Whether facing the bow or the stern starboard doesn’t change.

Russ Moran on October 07, 2018:

Great stuff, Jan. I'm going to add it to my hub—and credit you of course.

Jan de Groot on October 07, 2018:

Many years ago, in the Netherlands, a yearly event took place. It was a competition, a race, of sailing cargo vessels. This was done because the fastest one would be able to collect more money for cargo delivery. This event was called the Jacht (jagt), which comes from the term jachen (originally Jagen), to hunt, to hurry, to rush, to go fast. The event became popular for watching bystanders and eventually, some built boats especially for the event. These boats had noting to do with cargo, they were built strictly for the pleasure of participating in the Jacht. Hence, they were called Jachts. Eventually one of these jachts was donated to an English King, (can't remember who) and this is how the word Jacht became introduced into the English language. In Dutch the letter J is pronounced as a Y, therefore, Yacht instead of Jacht. As a result, a Yacht is a vessel that is strictly used for pleasure. With the introduction of the Yacht, other Dutch words were introduced into the English language. Halyard comes from haalerd, meaning to raise, to haul up. Sheet comes from schoot or schiet, to shoot or let go. Sail, originally called canvas, comes from zeil or zijl, a large piece of material. A zijl covers a car or any other object, in the Netherlands, Linoleum (again, a large piece of material) is called Zijl.

paul king on December 08, 2013:

hi russ im trying to find out some things about the wasp . is this a ship that you were on from 1968-70 ?


Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on August 29, 2012:

You are now officially salty.

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on August 29, 2012:

Yes, starboard is to the right when facing the bow.

Kristi Sharp from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota. on August 28, 2012:

I learned quite a bit. I assume that port and starboard are when you are on the boat facing the bow and not on the ground looking at the bow - does that make sense? Interesting hub. -K

Claudia Porter on August 25, 2012:

This is an awesome hub. I can't tell you how many times I've heard these terms and have absolutely no idea what they mean. This is really helpful. Thanks!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff (author) from Long Island, New York on August 24, 2012:

Thanks Bill. Count me as a boating friend.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 24, 2012:

Well, Russ, I don't have any boating friends, but I now feel qualified to at least discuss these matter should I ever have any. Great information for us landlubbers.

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