Sailing Ship Terminology

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Sailing ships
are, at first glance, one of the most insanely complicated objects the human race was able to devise until the advent of the computer. Hundreds of tonnes of wood, miles and miles of rope, all kinds of widgets, pulleys, doohickeys, tallywhackers, cringles and timenoguys. To the uninitiated, trying to separate their futtocks from their bunts, a sailing ship offers more opportunities for embarrassment than any human creation.


In fact though, sailing ships are very orderly and occasionally logical places. The typical 19th century sailor had far less education than the average h2g2 reader, but could still manage to find the port-main-royal-brace-belaying-pin on a dark and stormy night. Once you get the hang of a little bit of jargon, the rest is surprisingly easy to figure out and the purpose of this article is to make sense of the impossibly complex for you, the reader.


The first, most obvious, feature of a sailing ship is that it is a ship. ie it is a box-like structure displacing enough water to float on the surface. This box is called the hull and is generally shaped in such a way as to make it easier to travel in one particular direction, which we call forward.

Viewed from above, a ship moves forward most easily if the front tapers to a point. For this reason the front is usually referred to as the pointy end. This is a bit of a mouthful, so it has also come to be known as the bow, but ‘pointy end’ is still perfectly acceptable on most ships. The other end may be referred to as the blunt end, and you'll probably get away with it, but the generally accepted term is the stern. Moving toward the pointy end (while on the ship) is moving forward, and salty old sea dogs like to abbreviate that to forr'ard.

Moving towards the stern is moving aft. If you face forward then the side of the ship on your left is known as port, and the right hand side is starboard.


These names stay the same whichever direction you turn. If you are standing on the bow, facing aft, and walk forwards you are still walking aft. Walking forward in nautical-speak would mean stepping (backwards) off the bow into the water. Likewise port and starboard are fixed in relationship to the ship, not to the observer. Port is left if you are facing forward, and right if you are facing aft.

The 'lid' of the box is the deck, and this word can be used to describe any horizontal, flat, surface on which we might normally stand. For instance, there is generally another 'level' inside the hull, between the deck and the cargo hold (place where you put the cargo), which is known as the 'tweendeck.


Sticks and sails

The other, equally obvious, feature of sailing ships is that they have sails, large sheets of cloth designed to catch the wind and propel the ship forward. Sails come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but the basic classifications are square - a pretty self-explanatory name – and fore-and-aft. Square sails are usually attached to something else along the top and bottom, with the ‘side edges’ being unsecured, whereas fore-and-aft sails are generally triangular-ish in shape and are usually attached to something else along one edge, ie up and down. (And maybe the bottom as well.)

Sails have a tendency to collapse in bundles on the deck, or blow away, if simply left to their own devices and so sticks of wood (or metal) are used to help them hold their shape. Although some ancient mariners will still refer to sticks, the proper name for them is spars.

Spars fall into two basic types. Vertical spars grow upwards out of the deck (Actually they sit on the keel, the backbone of the ship which runs along the bottom.) and are called masts. Horizontal spars hang from the masts and are further subdivided into two categories, depending on which kind of sail they support:

Fore and aft sails, which are attached to a mast along the front edge, will blow around like flags without something controlling them. A horizontal spar, called a boom, is often fastened to the bottom of the sail, and attached to the mast at one end so that it points aft along the centreline of the ship. This is the kind of rig favoured by most modern sailing boats, and the sail is controlled by moving the free end of the boom from side to side.

Square sails hang from yards5
- spars which sit across the ship (at 90 degrees to the centreline) and are attached to the mast at their centre. Most sailing ships have several yards per mast, forming a stack when the sails are in use. Yards are controlled by moving both ends in order to swivel, or swing, the sail about the mast.

Rope and string

In order to control the sails properly, and to stop the masts falling over, sailing ships utilise an immense amount of string.
The Star of India
, for instance, has approximately 8 miles of the stuff and it is known collectively as rigging. Identifying all the rigging correctly is essential when doing anything on a ship, so the first task for any new sailor is to learn the ropes.

Rigging falls into two basic categories: standing rigging and running rigging. Standing rigging, unsurprisingly, doesn't move. Running rigging is the stuff that people haul on to make things happen, and it’s all generically referred to as line when it is being used for some purpose. It works basically like this:

To keep the mast from blowing over in a big wind you need standing rigging. (Helps the mast keep standing!) Fore-and-aft rigging lines are usually called stays, while the ropes to the sides are called shrouds. Stays and shrouds run from various points high up on the mast to the deck, where they are attached to something solid, and are not normally adjusted.

In order to adjust the sails, a process known as trimming, while under way (sailing ) we need to pull on their corners using various control lines. Square sails are controlled by braces attached to both ends of the yard, while fore-and-aft sails are controlled by sheets (which are not to be confused with sails!
) attached to the ‘free’ end of the boom. Actually not all fore-and-aft sails have a boom, but the principle remains unchanged and the sheets are attached at the same point.

Of course, before sails can be adjusted they have to be set, that is they have to deployed from wherever they were being kept while not in use. Some squares are set by pulling the bottom corners down to the yard below. Others are set by hauling the yard up the mast and pulling the sail tight that way. Hauling on a yard means using yet another rope, this time with a pretty logical name - halyard, from “haul yard”. Halyards are also used to raise triangular sails and, to keep things simple, the rope that hauls down on the corner of the square is the same as the name for the rope that controls a fore-and-aft sail - sheet. In fact they both pull downwards on their respective corners, but this is not so apparent with triangular sails. The corners being pulled on are called clews on both kinds of sail.

It may be helpful to read the previous paragraph again before proceeding. Or test yourself on how well you have absorbed this by reading the entry on how to sail a tall ship.

More complicated stuff

We now have the basic terminology necessary to understand the more complex vocabulary made necessary by advances in technology. Sailing ships evolved slowly, and developments usually built on whatever was already in place. The language of the sailing ship has mostly followed the same pattern, which thankfully makes it not too difficult to grasp.

The most obvious development was that people started building bigger ships. This meant that they added more masts. Instead of 'the mast' sailors now had to contend with, front to rear, foremast, mainmast, and mizzenmast. Masts also started growing upwards and added more spars.

The platform at the top of the mast was still the top, but now there was another mast above it: 'the topmast'. Then someone added another mast above the topmast, which they called the topgallant, followed by yet another: the royal mast. The highest point of the mast, for reasons best known to those doing the naming, is known as the truck.

Each extension to the mast had its own associated yard, sail, and running rigging, and to save on mental effort the names for things were just concatenations of words identifying where they are. For instance:

  • fore-t’gallant yard - first mast from the front, third yard up
  • mainsail - the lowest sail on the main (middle) mast
  • main-royal-port-brace - the brace (rope) controlling the port (left) end of the royal (fourth) yard up the main (middle) mast

In addition there are many more ropes that perform specialised tasks (see
the advanced guide to sailing ship terminology
) on the squares at other times. All these ropes have two ends! One end is attached to something that needs moving occasionally, and the other needs to find its way down to the deck so that the crew can pull on it. And having been pulled on it needs to be tied up, or belayed, out of the way (on a belaying pin) until it is needed again. And then it needs to be easily locatable in the future so that it can be released or pulled further as circumstances dictate. Although your first sight of a sailing ship’s pin rail will be pretty bewildering there is a very simple logic at work to make all this quite easy.

The higher up the mast a rope starts, the further back on the ship it is tied at the other end. All the ropes associated with a particular yard (mast section) on one side are kept together and always in a particular sequence that is repeated for each section of each mast. Simply by memorising the order, and uses, of ropes in one section of the ship a sailor could know where to find a particular rope in any other section. All you need to know is the sequence of masts, the order of the ropes in one section, and the difference between right and left on a ship. So if you need a rope that does something to the port-fore-royal you go to the shrouds on the port side of the foremast and count the appropriate number of pins aft. If you need a rope that does something to the starboard mainsail you go to the mainmast shrouds on the starboard side and the rope you want should be right there. All you need to know is the sequence of masts, the order of the ropes in one section, and the difference between right and left on a ship.

Once this basic system had been adopted anybody could run away to sea and be able to find their way around the ship in a matter of days, unless they were washed overboard and drowned first.

Note: the braces are not included in the above system. Because they have to pull the ends of the yards a long way back they come to the deck as far aft as possible, and are not belayed with the other rigging. Braces are not easily confused with anything else because they handle enormous loads and are therefore much thicker than any other running rigging.

The other ‘extra’ running rigging is for all the fore-and-aft sails that cunning shipwrights have found ways to hang on their creations. Masts have stays to stop them toppling over backwards and it was inevitable that eventually someone should think of hanging triangular sails from these stays. These staysails usually have just four control lines each: a halyard to raise the sail, a downhaul to pull it down again, and two sheets to move the clew to port or starboard. This may not sound like too much extra trouble but a large sailing ship could easily have 10 or more staysails so again their rigging is usually grouped together.

We now understand the basics of running and standing rigging, and the sails that they manage. Before proceeding to learn
how to sail a tall ship
it may also be constructive to study our subject in a little more detail. Additional information can be found at
the advanced guide to sailing ship terminology

1With the possible exception of 'Blind Date'.2Sailors have a habit of abbreviating words that started out making sense, but end up being almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. There are no hard and fast rules for the way this is done, and anyone attempting to guess at the proper pronunciation of an unfamiliar term is likely to end up being jeered at mercilessly.3Viking longships were steered with a long oar, or board, that was always on the same side of the boat, the right side. To avoid damaging it when tying up in port vessels were always docked on the left side. Left became known as port, and the 'steer-board' side became starboard.4The captain of the famous clipper Cutty Sark used to roller skate around the 'tweendeck while travelling from Australia to China to load up with tea.5The yardarm is an extension to the yard and doesn't have any sail hanging from it, presumably to make room for the mutineers and pirates who will be hung from it as soon as the sun is high enough for everyone to have a drinky and enjoy the sight.6This would be more logical, but didn't we tell you about educational standards of 19th century seamen?

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