“Look over there, under the gunwale,” says the skipper to a guest who needs a boat hook to help snare a mooring line. “Under the what?” the guest asks. “Over there on the starboard side, under the gunwale,” the skipper says, adding, “It’s just ahead of that cockpit stowage locker.” Obviously aggravated, the guest says, “Can you speak English, please? And what the heck does ‘mooring’ mean?”
Boating terminology can be a frustrating barrier to communication on a boat, especially between old salts and newbies. While it may appear as if the folks who use this sometimes confusing language are just speaking perplexing words to be snobby, that’s generally not the case. Trust us, knowing the vernacular is an important part of being a capable boater—it’s not some secret language boaters use to sound cool.
With that in mind we’ve assembled a basic yet comprehensive glossary to help you start down the road to boat-speak fluency. While a full account of these words could stretch on for an endless number of pages, we’ve listed the true essentials you’ll need to become a competent member of any boat crew and even sound like it.
Parts of a Boat
Perhaps the most important terms you can know as a boater are the words that identify the many different parts and pieces that make up a boat. Whether you’re asking someone to shut the door to the head or secure a piece of gear in the aft locker, having a basic knowledge of the following boat terms will go a long way to advancing your nautical lingo.
Ballast: Weight added to a boat to enhance stability. “The J/24 has 950 pounds of lead ballast.”
Berth: A sleeping area on a boat. Also, a place where a boat is tied up. “We slept in the forward berth while John and Amy slept in the quarter berth” or “We keep our boat in a berth at McDoodle’s Marina.”
Bilge: The lowest section of a boat where water typically collects. “The shower sump is located in the bilge.”
Bimini: A type of folding canvas top used to shield occupants from rain and sun. “It was nice and cool in the aft cockpit under the Bimini top.” You can watch one being set up and see how it works when deployed, in our Cruisers Sport Series 258 video boat review.
Bow: The forward end of any boat. “John went up to the bow to lower the anchor.”
Bulkhead: Typically a transverse structural component in a boat that often supports a deck. “The aft bulkhead separates the main saloon from the engine room.”
Cabin: An enclosed and protected area on a boat. “The boat’s cabin was wide and roomy with plenty of space for relaxing out of the weather.” It can range from a small “cuddy cabin” to large living spaces with multiple rooms, which themselves may be referred to as cabins.
Cabintop: The flat or curved deck surface above an enclosed structure on a boat. “There is plenty of space up on the cabintop to stow the dinghy.”
Casting Platform: A raised, open deck on a fishing boat used for casting a fishing rod. You can see a great example of casting platforms on the Pathfinder 2600 HPS.
Chine: The part of a boat where its hull sides and bottom intersect. “The boat’s chines were sharp and angled, which gave it an aggressive look.”
Cleat: A metal or plastic fitting used to securely attach a line. “Peter tied off the fender to the starboard amidships cleat.”
Coaming: Raised edges, or sides, designed to help keep waves and water from entering a certain area of a boat. “The cockpit has an ample coaming to keep the area dry and give it a secure feeling.”
Cockpit: Any semi-enclosed, recessed area that is lower than the surrounding decks, such as the cockpit of a sailboat or a center-console powerboat. “The cooler was stowed in the aft cockpit.”
Companionway: An entryway that provides access to the below-decks spaces on a boat. “The galley is located just below the companionway, to port.”
Console: A raised area above the deck or cockpit that occupants often sit or stand behind while the boat is underway. “John drove the boat from the helm, which is located in the starboard console.”
Deck: Essentially any exposed, flat exterior surface on a boat that people stand on. “The decks were awash with salt water after the wave crashed over them.”
Dinette: An area for dining on a boat, typically with a table set between two seating areas. “The main saloon has a huge dinette to starboard.” There’s a great photo of one in our Prestige 620 S Flybridge review.
Flybridge: A steering station, sometimes with a small entertaining space, built atop a boat’s cabin. It’s also sometimes called a ‘flying bridge’. “We ran the boat from up in the flybridge, which gave us a great view out over the ocean.”
Foredeck: The forward-most deck on a boat. “The anchor windlass is located up on the bow; you can access it from the foredeck.”
Galley: An area on a boat where food is prepared. “John steamed up the lobsters on the stove in the galley.”
Gunwale: The top edge of a boat’s hull sides. “The fishing rod racks are located along the starboard gunwale.”
Hardtop: A supported fiberglass or composite roof-like external structure that covers a portion of a boat. “We mounted the radar dome on the hardtop” or “The hardtop covers the center console unit.”
Hatch: The cover or door that closes over any opening in a boat’s deck or cabintop. “The forward hatch allowed lots of natural light inside the boat.”
Head: The bathroom on a boat. “An enclosed head is fitted underneath the center console, for when nature calls.”
Helm: The area of a boat where the steering and engine controls are located. “Betsy steered the boat from the helm.”
Hull: The physical portions of a boat that sit in the water. “The Jones Brothers Cape Fisherman 23 has a hull shape that cuts through waves with ease.” See our Boat Hull Basics video, to learn about different hull shapes.
Inboard Engine: An engine that is mounted inside the hull of a boat. “The boat has a 237-horsepower gasoline inboard engine.” Boats may be called inboards whether they have a straight shaft running through the hull (such as the Marlow Pilot 34), a stern-drive going through the transom (like the Monterey 218SS), or pod drives going through the bottom of the boat (as in the case of the Sea Ray L590).
Jib: Generally the smaller of two or more sails on a sailboat, flown forward of the mast. "Gael trimmed the jib in tight as she sailed a course against the wind."
Jump Seats: Small, pop-up seats usually located in the aft cockpit of a powerboat. “The Everglades 243cc has twin pop-up jump seats in the aft cockpit.”
Lifelines: Cables or lines used to prevent people or gear from falling overboard. “Andrea grasped the lifelines firmly as she walked forward on the starboard deck.”
Livewell: A specialized compartment on a boat designed to keep fish, shrimp, and other fishing bait alive. “Fred stocked the livewell with a bunch of minnows.”
Locker: An area on a boat where gear is stowed. “The tackle boxes are in the aft stowage locker.”
Mainsail: Generally the largest sail on a sailboat. “Eve hoisted the mainsail as John pointed the boat into the wind.” (See Basic Sailing and Seamanship: Making Sense of Sails to learn more about the different sails found on sailboats).
Mast: A vertical structure, usually made of aluminum, which supports sails on a sailboat. “We hoisted the mainsail up the mast before raising the jib.”
Keel: The lowest portion of a boat’s hull as it sits in the water. Also, a hull appendage that improves stability. “The Bristol 24 has a full keel that helps improve its lateral stability.”
Outboard Well: A recessed area on a boat just forward of where an outboard engine is mounted. “The outboard well filled with water when we backed the boat down into a set of waves.”
Outboard Engine: An engine that is generally mounted to the transom of a boat that has a self-contained engine block, transmission, and lower drive unit. “The boat has a 350-horsepower outboard engine on its stern.” You can learn more about different engines and drive systems by reading Marine Engines and Power Systems.
Pod Drives: Inboard engines mounted above articulating drive units that protrude through the bottom of the boat. “Pod drives provide excellent handling and maneuverability.” Read All About Pod Drives to learn more.
Propeller: A rotating device that is paired with an engine to propel a boat through the water. “The outboard has a stainless-steel propeller.” Watch our How do Propellers Work video to learn more about propellers (also called ‘props’).
Rigging: The lines and wires that support and help control a spar or mast. “The backstay, forestay, and side stays are some of the rigging that supports the mast.”
Rubrail: A protective outer element on the hull sides that helps protect the hull from damage. “The rubrail rested against the piling, protecting the boat’s hull.”
Rudder: A vertical hull appendage that controls steering. “The Farr 40’s long, slender rudder makes the boat highly maneuverable.”
Saloon: A room in the cabin on a boat that’s usually the primary entertaining area. “We served cocktails in the main saloon; it was a great area for entertaining our guests.”
Scuppers: Deck drains that channel water from rain and spray overboard. “The cockpit filled with water, but was quickly drained by the scuppers.”
Sheer Line: The outline of a boat’s deck at the gunwale or hull-deck joint from bow to stern. “The boat has a sheer line that rises gracefully toward the bow.”
Stateroom: An enclosed cabin in a boat with sleeping quarters. “The master stateroom had luxurious accommodations, including a queen-size berth.”
Stern: The aft-most section of a boat’s hull. “We mounted the swim ladder on the boat’s stern.”
Stern Drive: A propulsion system consisting of an inboard engine with a steerable drive system that is mounted to the transom. “The boat was fitted with twin MerCruiser inboard gas engines coupled to stern drives.” You can learn more about different engines and drive systems by reading Marine Engines and Power Systems.
Swim Platform: A structure on the stern of a boat designed to make getting in and out of the water easier. “Janie sat on the swim platform with her legs dangling in the water.”
T-Top: A metal structure on a boat that is usually topped with a section of canvas or a hard top to protect occupants from sun, spray, and rain. “George and his crew huddled under the T-top during the rainstorm.”
Tiller: A wood, metal, or composite handle that is connected to the rudder(s) or a small outboard and used to steer a boat. “As the wind increased, Blair pulled hard on the tiller to keep the boat on course.”
Toerail: A wood or fiberglass rail or fiddle located around the outside edge of a boat’s deck, usually situated near where the hull sides meet the deck. “The boat’s teak toerail was beautifully varnished.”
Topsides: The portion of a boat’s hull that is above the waterline. “Jenny polished the topsides to a beautiful shine.”
Transom: The aft-most section of a boat that connects the port and starboard sections of the hull. “Most people put a boat’s name on the transom, though some put it on the hull sides.”
Trim Tabs: Adjustable metal plates on a powerboat’s hull bottom or transom that help adjust the boat’s running attitude, pitch, and roll as it moves through the water. On a sailboat, a single trim tab may be located on the aft edge of the keel to help the boat steer better in certain conditions. “Jim adjusted the trim tabs to make the powerboat’s bow ride farther down in the water.”
V-Berth: A berth that is situated in the bow of a boat. “Fred took a nap in the V-berth.”
Waterline: The line around a boat’s hull where it intersects the water. “We spent all day scrubbing the boat’s waterline.”
The best way to get an idea of what a boat is designed for and how it will act in the water is to take a look at some of its key measurements and specifications. Know these terms and you’re on your way to being able to identify the key characteristics of any given boat you come across in person, or in a review or video.
Beam: The measurement of a boat’s width at its widest point. “The Boston Whaler 320 Outrage has a 10-foot, two-inch beam.”
Deadrise: The angle of a powerboat hull’s “V” shape, usually measured in degrees at the transom. “The boat has a whopping 24-degree transom deadrise, which makes it extremely capable in rough water.”
Displacement: The weight of water displaced by a boat’s hull. “The boat displaces 18,200 pounds.” A boat’s displacement is equal to its weight at any given time, with any given load.
Draft: The total distance a boat penetrates the water, from waterline to keel or appendage bottom. “The Schenectady 54 has a draft of four feet, six inches.”
Dry Weight: The weight of a boat without fuel or water onboard. “The boat has a dry weight of 3,456 pounds.”
Freeboard: The distance between a boat’s waterline and the top of its gunwales. “The boat’s high freeboard made us feel secure in the big waves.”
Length Overall: The overall length of a boat, as measured from its aft-most to forward-most appendages. Sometimes abbreviated “LOA.” “The boat had a length overall of 21 feet, five inches, from its swim platform to the bow sprit.”
Waterline Length: The length of the hull where it intersects the water, from bow to stern. Sometimes shortened to “LWL.” “The superyacht has a waterline length of 102 feet.”
Types of Boats
While it’s not an essential boating skill to be versed in every type of power and sailing craft out on the water, most accomplished boaters know how to identify a handful of different basic boat designs, as well as what they’re designed to do. Here’s a listing of the most popular types.
Bass Boat: A type of boat that generally has a flat deck, low freeboard, and a shallow draft that is used primarily for fishing protected lakes and rivers. The Triton 21 TRX is a prime example of a bass boat.
Bay Boat: A low freeboard center console fishing boat designed for near-shore and coastal use. To learn more, check out our comprehensive feature Bay Boat Battles: What Makes One Better Than the Other.
Bow Rider: A powerboat with a seating area set in its bow. Consider checking out our buyer’s guide Bow Riders: 10 Key Considerations Before You Buy.
Cabin Cruiser: Generally, any larger powerboat that provides sleeping accommodations within its structure. This generic term can be used to describe motoryachts, expresses, and a number of different designs.
Catamaran: A power or sail craft with two hulls.
Center Console: A powerboat with its console and helm located in a central location on deck. Read our feature Center Console Boats: Fish, Cruise, or Just Have Fun to get the skinny on this class of boats.
Cuddy Cabin: A powerboat with a relatively small cabin on its bow section. Learn what makes these great boats tick by checking out our feature Cuddy Cabin Boats: Family Friendly Fun.
Deck Boat: A powerboat with a flat, open deck plan and without any below-decks accommodations. Most deck boats have a rather boxy shape, instead of tapering to a point at the bow, to create more forward deck space. The Hurricane Sundeck is a classic example.
Downeast Boat: A traditional style of boat that is derived primarily from commercial Downeast lobster boat designs of the American Northeast.
Dual Console: A boat with twin dashboards that are separated by a walk-through that allows access to a forward cockpit or seating area. You can get an idea of what these boats are all about by reading our feature Dual Console Boats: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Express Boat: A sleek powerboat with a steering station on deck level, no flying bridge, and a cabin forward of and lower than the helm station. Folks in the market for an express cruiser would be wise to browse our Choosing the Perfect Express Cruiser article for more information.
Flats Boat: A powered skiff designed with an extremely shallow draft for fishing on flats and other shallow water areas.
House Boat: Just as the name implies; these are boats that have a large home-like accommodations built on a barge-like hull.
Inflatable Boat: Any boat with inflatable sponsons and a flexible bottom. Learn more about these utilitarian craft by reading our article on Choosing the Perfect Inflatable Boat.
Jon Boat: Small utilitarian craft with a flat bottom, which are usually constructed of aluminum. We reviewed an entire series of jon boats in our Frontier Series Video Boat Review.
Multi-species Boat: An open and rugged dual console boat with a utilitarian cockpit that’s designed primarily for fishing lakes and rivers. Most are constructed of aluminum.
Personal Watercraft: Small, open, jet-power watercraft that can seat one to three people. Often abbreviated as “PWC.”
Pontoon Boat: A flat-decked boat with a perimeter fence built atop two or more pontoons. Find out all about these party platforms by reading Pontoon Boat Basics.
Rigid Inflatable Hull Boat: An inflatable boat with sponsons built around a rigid fiberglass or aluminum hull. Also known as “RIBs.”
Runabout: A generic term used for any small powerboat, generally meant for day-boating with limited (if any) below-decks accommodations.
Sailboat: Any boat driven by sails.
Sloop: A sailboat with one mast, a jib and a mainsail. The most common type of sailboat.
Sportfish Yacht: Generally a large offshore fishing boat with an expansive aft cockpit, narrow side decks, a generous foredeck, and a flybridge that sits above a capacious main saloon.
Tow Boat: A boat designed and built with an eye toward towing people who enjoy watersports such as wake boarding, wake surfing, or water skiing. Often, these are also called watersports boats.
Trawler: A rugged, long-distance recreational powerboat designed for cruising that resembles commercial fishing trawlers.
Trimaran: Any boat with three hulls.
Walkaround: A fishing boat built with side decks that allows anglers to walk around the cabin house and up to a foredeck.
Nautical Directions and Terms
If someone asked to you, “Can you look in the aft stowage locker for a first aid kit” would you know where to look? If not, the following basic nautical terms that apply to direction, location, and speed may be of help to you.
Aloft: Above the deck, generally in the rigging. “Harry went aloft to fix the VHF antenna.”
Abeam: Alongside or at right angles to the centerline of a boat. “The marine police brought their patrol boat just abeam of us.”
Aft: Toward the stern of the boat, or closer to the stern than another item being referenced. “The captain’s chair is just aft of the helm station.”
Amidships: The central portion of the boat. “Let’s keep all the crew amidships to balance the boat better.”
Forward: Toward the bow of the boat, or closer to the bow than another item being referenced. “The bow seats are just forward of the helm station.”
Knots: Term used to describe the speed at which a vessel is traveling in nautical miles per hour. One nautical mile is equal to 1.15 statute miles. “We were cruising at 20 knots, which is 23 MPH.”
Port: The left side of a boat when facing forward. “The gear locker is on the port side of the aft cockpit.”
Starboard: The right side of a boat when facing forward. “The boat hook is under the gunwale on the starboard side.
Docking and Mooring Terms
Docking a boat is an important skill all boaters must learn. If you’re new to boating and don’t know a spring line from a stern line, you should read Boating Tips: Tips for Easier Docking, Five Docking Disasters: Don’t Let This Happen to You!, and Tying Up Boats: Mooring Basics. In the meantime, you can browse the basic docking terms we’ve defined below.
Bow Line: Dock lines secured to the bow of a boat that limit its movement.
Cleat: A metal or plastic fitting used to securely attach a line.
Dock: A flat walkway usually secured to pilings that boats tie up to. Docks can either be fixed or floating.
Dock Line: A line made of braided or three-strand nylon designed to secure a boat along a bulkhead, to a dock, in a slip, or to another boat.
Fender: An inflatable cushion used to protect a boat from contact against pilings, docks, piers, bulkheads, or other boats.
Finger Pier: A flat slender walkway that branches out from a dock and divides two slips.
Mooring: This word refers to multiple forms of tying up a boat. You can call a permanently anchored float with an attachment point a mooring; you can call a docking line a mooring line, and when your boat is tied up in its slip you can say it’s moored.
Piling: A long cylindrical piece of wood or metal driven into the bottom that is used to secure docks in place or to which boats can be tied.
Spring Line: Dock lines used to prevent a boat from moving forward and aft.
Stern Line: Dock line secured to the stern of a boat that limit its movement.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in August 2016 and updated in August 2018.