sailing terms

20 Terms Every Future Sailor Should Know

Written by Boatsetter Team
September 1, 2020

Last Updated on January 13, 2022 by Boatsetter Team

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As an aspiring sailor, you should be aware that the sport of sailing has its own whole vocabulary. Like lots of sports, there are certain terms that you simply need to know to be an effective sailor. By studying the jargon and really becoming familiar with all the terminology, you will allow yourself to become really comfortable with your boat and with being out on the water on a sailing boat hire. Read on below to find out more about this terminology before you book your sail boat rental. We have given you twenty specific terms that every future sailor really needs to become familiar with. Some of the terms are for everyday sailing, and some of the terms come from the Navy and so you may not use them on a daily basis. However, it really helps your credibility as a sailor to know what all the words mean!

Sailor’s Term 1: Chit

In the Navy, a chit refers to any piece of paper, all the way from an official form to a pass and even dollar bills. According to the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, the word chit has been carried over from the days of Hindu traders when they used slips of paper called “citthi” for money.

Sailor’s Term 2: Scuttlebutt

This is the Navy term for a water fountain. The National Museum of the U.S. Navy describes it as a combination of “scuttle,” to make a hole in the ship’s side that can cause the boat to sink, and “butt,” a cask or hogshead that was used in the days of wooden ships to hold their drinking water.

Sailor’s Term 3: Crank

This is used to describe a mess-deck worker, usually a new transferee assigned to the mess decks while he or she is trying to qualify for a regular watch. You probably won’t find many of these on your sailing boat hire!

Sailor’s Term 4: Cadillac

This term refers to a mop bucket with wheels and a ringer. Most of the time, when sailors are assigned to cleaning duties, they tend to prefer the luxurious Cadillac over the simple bucket. Hopefully, when you book a sailing boat hire, you can arrange somebody to do the cleaning for you!

Sailor’s Term 5: Cumshaw

This is used to describe how somebody gets something outside of official channels or payment, usually by trading or bartering. For example, sailors might be able to organize a few pizzas in exchange for doing the laundry of the delivery service that flew it in. Some younger sailors have been known to refer to this kind of thing as a “drug deal” rather than as cumshaw.

Sailor’s Term 6: Snipe

This term is used to describe sailors that work below the deck, usually those that are assigned to engineering jobs, such as Hull Technicians, Machinists’ Mates, Boilermen, Enginemen, and more.

Sailor’s Terms 7, 8, and 9: Airdale, Bubble Head and Gun Decking

These are sailors assigned to the air wing. Airdale can include everyone from pilots all the way down to the airplane maintenance crew. Bubble head is the term sailors use to describe people who work on a submarine. Gun decking is filling out a log or official form with false information, usually done out of laziness or to satisfy an inspection.

Sailor’s Term 10: Reef the Main

To reef the main is to reduce the size of your sail. One way to do this is by folding or rolling the sail. On a sailing boat rental, this can provide the boat with more stability, particularly during rough boating conditions.

Sailor’s Terms 11, 12, and 13: Muster, Turco, and Pad Eye

Muster is the term sailors use interchangeably for meetings and roll call. Turco is the chemical used for washing airplanes. Pad eye refers to the hook points on a large Navy ship’s surface that can be used to tie down airplanes with chains.

Sailor’s Terms 14 and 15: Roach coach and Bomb Farm

The snack or lunch truck that sometimes stops by the pier when the sailors are docking their boat for the day. A bomb farm is the area on the ship where aviation men store their bombs.

Sailor’s Term 16: Nuke it

The term used when a sailor is overthinking a simple task. Here’s how the Navy magazine All Hands describes the term: “The phrase is often used by sailors as a way to say stop over-thinking things in the way a nuclear officer might. Don’t dissect everything down to its nuts and bolts. Just stop thinking. But that’s the thing; sailors who are part of the nuclear Navy can’t stop. They have no choice but to nuke it.”

Sailor’s Term 17: Bosun’s Chair

A Bosun’s chair is a machine that can be used to keep somebody up in the air. Generally, these chairs have suspension cables so you can swing them along the side of your boat to clean it or do other maintenance. These chairs have been around for centuries and they began as simple wooden planks, but the models they have now when you book a sailing boat hire are much sturdier and more comfortable!


Sailor’s Term 18: Listing

Listing refers to how far your boat leans to the side. If a boat is described as listing, it means there is something really wrong with your ballast or, even worse, there is another issue that is causing your boat to lean in the water. This is not a boating term that you want to hear very often because it can cause havoc with your boating safety on your sailing boat rental!


Sailor’s Term 19: Running Backstay

A running backstay is a removable piece of equipment (a stay) that supports your mast from the back part of the sail. Again, when you book a sailing boat rental, this knowledge can be vital for your boating safety. Running backstays counter the limits of how much weight your sailing equipment can handle, so make sure yours are in order before getting on the boat.


Sailor’s Term 20 (plus a few bonus terms!): Halyard, Boom, Jib, Spinnaker, and Gunnels

A halyard is simply a rope for lowering/raising a flag, particularly on a sailing vessel. A boom is a pole along the bottom of a rigged sail that improves the control of your vessel through the angle and shape of the sail. A jib is a triangular mini-sail at the front of the boat. A spinnaker is a special type of sail designed for sailing off-wind as in the opposite direction. The spinnaker will actually fill up with wind and it can look like a massive balloon. Finally, gunnels, or gunwales, refer to the top edge portion of a boat. Some of these terms will certainly come in handy on your sailing boat hire.


Good Words to Know!

As we said earlier, you may not need to know all of this terminology if you don’t own a sailboat. However, if you are thinking of a sailing boat rental, the terms will certainly come in handy – at least as a way to show off to your friends! When you arrange a sailing boat rental through Boatsetter, it is your big chance to learn more about boats in general and become the type of sailor you have always dreamed of being.

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