Boat Terminology: The Anatomy Of A Vessel, Basic Boating Terms

In my youth, I’d often listen (albeit bored and reluctantly) to my father and his colleague author Warren Bennis conversing on the phone about their work in leadership studies, as they hashed out how “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality”. A bit heady for me at the time, yes, but the idea that leadership is more about achieving a vision than just telling people what to do, stuck with me. What on earth does that have to do with boating, you might ask? Well, for one, the captain of a boat is perhaps one of the most palpable forms of a leader imaginable. They must be able to share and communicate the vision (for example, the vessel’s intended course) quickly and efficiently, with no confusion. If they can’t use proper boating terms (such as “20 degrees to starboard, full steam ahead”) effectively, certainly the vision (direction) will not become reality. More importantly, the boat may sink!

Why Is Correct Boat Terminology Important?

There are very good reasons why sailors (and all experienced boaters) refer to the right side of a boat as the starboard side, and the left side as the port side. Speaking the right language is important. But why not just say right and left? Simply put, calling it the starboard side makes it independent of the direction and orientation of the vessel and eliminates any potential confusion. This helps captains and crew (and passengers on recreational boats) react faster to real world scenarios. Consider the following two examples: Someone standing in the bow (front) of a boat, looking back towards the stern (rear) of the boat, has their left hand on the right side (starboard side) of the ship. To them, an object would be on their left, but it would still be on the starboard side of the boat. Or, if a vessel is going in reverse, and someone shouts out “watch out for the rock on your left”, that may confuse the captain. Instead, saying “rock, 10 yards back, starboard side” is far more useful and eliminates any delay in trying to interpret the potential hazard and immediate danger it may pose.

What Are The Most Important Boating Terms For New Boaters To Learn?

From our two examples, we can see the obvious importance of some very basic boating terms in terms of boat safety and handling, and how not using or understanding them can have catastrophic consequences. But what are the most important terms that any new boater should learn first? Let’s start with the anatomy of a boat – i.e. the different areas onboard a boat. We will go from the back of the vessel (the stern) to the front (the bow).

Basic Boat Anatomy

Hull – The main watertight body of a vessel that floats in the water.

Stern – The rear of the vessel.

Chine – The changes in the angle of a boat’s hull. There are hull designs with single chines (i.e. only one change, such as simple V-shape hulls), two chines (such as flat bottom boats), three chines (such as rounded V-hulls) and multichines (numerous changes in the angle of a hull. A “hard chine” refers to a sharp change in angle with little rounding, while a “soft chine” refers to a rounded, softer change in angle. For more on this check out our boat types and hulls guide.

Waterline – The line along which the hull of the boat emerges from the surface of the water.

Transom – The vertical cross section at the rear of a vessel (i.e. the rear wall of a boat’s cockpit). Often this term is used interchangeably with “stern” although it usually applies just to the specific reinforcing structural cross section whereas “stern” applies to the general back of the boat. On outboard powered boats, the transom is where the engines are mounted.

Swim Platform – A horizontal platform mounted to the hull that extends from the rear of the vessel (off the stern, behind the transom) and serves as a staging area or access point to and from the water. Some swim platforms are often designed to hold a tender or watersports gear, while others are designed for lounging.

Gunnels (or gunwhales, for those of you scholarly Moby Dick readers) – The top of the outer hull edges or sidewalls of a vessel.

Freeboard – The freeboard on a boat is the measurement of the outer sidewalls from the surface of the water to the top of the sidewall (i.e. gunnel).

Cockpit – The cockpit of a boat is any space within the hull and (generally) below the outer gunnels in which passengers ride and gear can be stowed.

Aft Deck – The aft deck on a boat is the part of the deck towards the rear of the vessel between the stern and midship, behind (or aft of) the helm. (Note: the word “aft” generally means anything closer to the rear of the vessel than wherever you are standing – so if you are in the bow of a boat, anything close to the stern is technically “aft”)

Helm – This is the main control station where the captain sits and the boat is driven from. There is generally a steering wheel and throttle at the main helm controls, along with gauges and monitoring devices. Some boats may have more than one control station, but there is always a main helm. On larger boats the main control station is often referred to as “The Bridge” as it is the main command center through which all communication is relayed. For boats with an elevated control station, this area may also be called a bridgedeck.

Console – A bulkhead or partition within the cockpit that is usually where the main controls are placed and also has storage space within (sometimes a head or even a berth). Usually boats with a console are either side consoles, dual consoles or center consoles, and are often used as small to mid-sized fishing boats. The console makes for a great area to stow extra safety equipment and gear.

Cabin – The main interior space within the hull that is generally enclosed and protected from the outside elements. Boats with cabins are designed for longer distance cruising and overnight trips or weekending.

Staterooms – The bedrooms on a boat.

Berths – The beds on a boat (or anything that can be converted to a bed, such as a settee or a couch).

Head – Onboard toilet or bathroom.

Flybridge – An open, upper deck above the main cabin that often has a second set of controls. This affords an expansive view of the sea surrounding a vessel and allows the occupants to spot things like weed lines and diving birds, where fish are often located. It also allows the driver to avoid a clueless sailboarder who read somewhere that a sailing vessel has the right of way and hasn’t gotten to the part of the manual that explains the Law of Gross Tonnage.

Galley – There are no kitchens aboard a yacht. The original term for a galley meant a vessel powered by oars, often manned by slaves, which, when you think about it, isn’t a bad description for those toiling over a hot stove.

Salon or Saloon – Both terms mean the largest enclosed, common area of a yacht (essentially the “living room” in the terms of a land-based home). Most modern boaters use the term salon to avoid confusing it with a bar found in the old west. Old salts and those who sail with the wind prefer the old-school term, saloon.

Common Boat Hardware

Most boats are equipped with some fairly standard, common boat hardware features that help with everyday use onboard the boat. Here is a roundup of some of the most basic:

Cleat – Cleats (also called mooring cleats) are sturdy fixtures anchored to a boat’s hull that can be used to secure lines to for docking.

Anchor – The onboard device used to secure a vessel to the bed of a body of water that prevents it from drifting. (This is separate from a mooring, which is not kept onboard a vessel, but is rather a permanent under water structure that a boat is tied up to.)

T-Top – The T-top on a boat is a frame that is mounted to the deck of the boat to provide protection from the elements (shade and shelter). They can be made of metal, wood or fiberglass, although they are typically metal frames on modern boats. (They are called “T-Tops” because they are often shaped like a capital “T” letter.

Scuppers – These are the drains in the cockpit that allow water to quickly be expelled overboard after a heavy rainstorm or after the captain jams the boat into reverse without closing the transom door first.

Davit – A crane used to raise and lower items like dinghies and jet skis. Derived from the Old French word daviot or “little David” of Biblical fame, this little crane can lower large objects, as did David when he dropped Goliath.

Fenders – Are the air-filled or foam cushions temporarily tied to the outside of a vessel to keep it from being damaged by a dock or another boat. Calling a fender a bumper in the presence of an experienced seaman will cause them to deduct 10 points off your boating IQ. Cruising with fenders dangling overboard is great advertising that the driver is a rookie.

Fishing Features On A Boat

People buy boats for many different reasons. From leisurely cruising and adventurous eco-tours to hosting extravagant boat parties or high performance powerboat races, plus of course, hardcore fishing tournaments. The reality is that whatever style of boating you prefer, the amazing capabilities of modern boats owe a lot to the world of tournament fishing, where speed and fishability are key. There are a number of common basic features built into boats designed for fishing, aka fishing boats. These days, many “family-friendly” style boats with comfortable accommodations and cruising capabilities come equipped with these features as well, so that they can be considered both fishing boats and recreational cruising boats. Here is a round up of some of the most common:

Livewell (Or Baitwell or bait tank) – Aerated tanks that can be filled (or drained) with water and can be constantly circulated using a water pump in order to keep fish alive inside. Fishboxes can vary greatly, but are usually insulated tanks with a drain. They can be filled with ice, where fresh fish are caught and packed on ice then the compartment is closed to keep them preserved until you get back to shore.

Fish Boxes – Boxes that are used for storing fish, generally insulated and with a drain plug.

Rod Holders – Purpose built holders for securing fishing rods while fishing.

Rocket Launchers – A type or study rod holder that keeps the rods up high and out of the way, generally mounted to a boat’s T-Top and made of heavy duty anodized finish or stainless steel.

Outriggers – Long poles that are fitted on either side of a boat design to hold fishing lines.

Downriggers – Horizontal poles that are designed to support trolling fishing lines.

The Four Points of a Vessel’s Compass

When you are out there on the water, direction and speed are everything. So it is very important to understand the four points of a vessel’s compass and be able to use them quickly when communicating. We’ve already covered these for the most part, but to re-iterate, here is a breakdown once again:

Fore – Is not the command to protect one’s self after an errant golf shot but rather, it’s a shortened version of the word forward. The forward section of a boat is called the bow (rhymes with wow!) and for some nautical reason should never be called the front of the boat.

Aft – Is the opposite of fore and refers to either a rearward direction i.e. “I’m heading aft” or the name for the “back” of the boat, which like the Harry Potter villain Voldemort, should also never be spoken aloud.

Port – Refers to the left side of the boat when facing forward and can be remembered with the mnemonic phrase, “The boat left port.”

Starboard – Hails from the olden days when the rudder or “steerboard” was affixed to the right side of the boat. Like front and back, the words left and right should never be used unless entering into a heated political discussion — something that should be avoided on board a boat due to the close confines.

Knowledge Is Power: Do Your Due Diligence

I read a bumper sticker the other day that said “be the person your dog thinks you are”. I’m not quite sure what kind of person my dog thinks I am (I’d like to imagine she thinks I’m a genius), but she does look at me for help every time we get to the boat. Mostly because she needs me to lift her up over the gunnel and into the cockpit then clip her leash onto the heavy duty carabiner (posable thumbs help, thanks evolution!) so that she doesn’t fall overboard when she gets overly excited by the first sea gull that flies overhead. In any event, this seems to be good advice and it also reminds me of a Chinese fortune cookie I got recently: “In any moment, be what you ought to be.” If you’re the captain of a boat and you have passengers trusting you with their safety, be they canine, feline (although I’ve yet to meet a cat that likes boats) or homo sapien, you owe it to them (and the rest of the boaters out there) to do your due diligence and know all the basic boating terms, rules of the road and general boat safety guidelines before you get out on the water.

Written by: Ryan McVinney

C. Ryan McVinney is a film director, writer and producer. As an experienced boater he regularly produces and directs on-the-water video shoots for major boat manufacturers, yacht brokers and dealers, as well as independent film and media companies. He is president of the National Soho House Film Club with chapters in Miami, FL, Manhattan, NY and Los Angeles, CA and regularly contributes content to YachtWorld, and Boat Trader.