Everyone knows that "speaking the lingo" is part and parcel of being a professional: doctors, lawyers, mechanics and sous-chefs can all converse in such a way that the layman might not understand a single word. But why does the amateur boater need to know so much specialist terminology? At worst, it can be a frustrating barrier to communication on a boat, especially between old salts and newbies and it may even come across as some secret language boaters use to sound cool.

But there is a great deal of history and practical use for specialist terminology, so with that in mind we’ve assembled a basic yet comprehensive glossary to help get you started 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 start sounding like you’re a salty pro.

boat terminology

Boat-terms caption: Do you know the bow from the stern? If not, you will after reading this article.

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 Yacht Club.”

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.”

Bow: The forward end of any boat. “John went up to the bow to drop the anchor.”

Bulkhead: Typically a transverse structural component in a boat that supports a deck. “The aft bulkhead separates the main salon 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.

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 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.” See our guide to sentre colsole boats.

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.”

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.” See Best flybridge cruisers.

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 centre 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.” You also might say "Betsy helmed the boat."

Hull: The physical portions of a boat that sit in the water.

Inboard engine: An engine that is mounted inside the hull of a boat. “The boat has a 237-horsepower gasoline inboard engine.” See Marine engines and power systems.

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 sailing boat.

Mast: A vertical structure, usually made of aluminium, carbon or wood, which supports sails on a sailing boat.

Keel: The lowest portion of a boat’s hull as it sits in the water. Also, a hull appendage that improves 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. See our outboard buying tips.

Pod drives: Inboard engines are mounted above articulating drive units that protrude through the bottom of the boat. “Pod drives provide excellent handling and maneuverability.”

Propeller: A rotating device that is paired with an engine to propel a boat through the water. “The outboard has a stainless-steel propeller.” Read our feature on propellers (also called ‘props’) to learn more.

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.”

Rubbing strake: A protective outer element on the hull sides that helps protect the hull from damage.

Rudder: A vertical hull appendage that controls steering.

Saloon: A room in the cabin on a boat that’s usually the primary entertaining area.

Scuppers: Deck drains that drain 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 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.

Transom: The aft most section of a boat that connects the port and starboard sections of the hull.

Trim tabs: Adjustable metal plates on a boat’s hull bottom or transom that help adjust the boat’s running attitude, pitch, and roll as it moves through the water.

V-Berth: A berth that is situated in the bow of a boat.

Waterline: The line around a boat’s hull where it intersects the water. “We spent all day scrubbing the boat’s waterline.”

Boat measurements

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 it feel secure in the big waves.”

Length Overall: The overall length of a boat, as measured from its aft-most to forward-most appendages. Often 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 yacht has a waterline length of 102 feet.”

Identifying boat types

Is that a centre console, or is it an express cruiser? Read on, to find out.

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 powerboat 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.

Bay Boat: A low freeboard centre console fishing boat designed for near-shore and coastal use.

Bow Rider: A powerboat with a seating area set in its bow.

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.

Centre Console: A powerboat with its console and helm located in a central location on deck.

Cruiser: Can be applied to a powerboat or a sailing boat, referring to a boat that is designed to visit other areas with overnight accommodation aboard.

Cruiser-racer: Sometimes referred to as a racer-cruiser, depending on how 'racy' the design is intended to be. A type of sailing boat that is designed to both cruise and to race, so there will usually have been some compromises with regards to comfort in search of better performance, and some compromises with regards to performance to ensure comfort. A cruiser-racer will be more comfort features than on an out-and-out racing boat.

Cuddy Cabin: A powerboat with a relatively small cabin on its bow section.

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.

Dual Console: A boat with twin dashboards that are separated by a walk-through that allows access to a forward cockpit or seating area.

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.

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.

Personal watercraft: Small, open, jet-power watercraft that can seat one to three people. Often abbreviated as “PW”.

Pontoon boat: A flat-decked boat with a perimeter fence built atop one or more pontoons. Find out all about these party platforms by reading Pontoon Boat Basics.

Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB): An inflatable boat with sponsons built around a rigid fiberglass or aluminum hull. Also known as “RIBs.” See our RIB buyign guidex.

Runabout: A generic term used for any small powerboat, generally meant for day-boating with limited (if any) below-decks accommodation.

Sailing boat: Any boat driven by sails. The American phrase 'sailboat' is also fairly often used today.

Sportfisher: 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.

Understanding boat directions

Boat-direction caption: Is that a forward stateroom, or is it aft? Let’s find out.

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.

Mooring and rope terms

Mooring a boat is an important skill all boaters must learn.

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.

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.

Halyards: Ropes used to raise and lower the sails on a sailing boat.

Mooring: This word refers to multiple forms of tying 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.

Mooring warp: 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.

Painter: A rope attached to a small dinghy used to tie it up.

Piling: A long cylindrical piece of wood or metal driven into the bottom that is used to secure docks in place or to tie boats up to.

Pontoon: A flat walkway secured to pilings pilings that boats tie up to. Docks can either be fixed or floating.

Sheets: Lines used to control the sails on a sailing boat (not those used to raise and lower them - those are known as halyards).

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

Warp: A rope used for mooring (see mooring warp).

To help broaden your understanding, read more about powerboats or sailing boats in our relevant essential guides.

Written by: Gary Reich
Gary Reich is a Chesapeake Bay-based freelance writer and photojournalist with over 25 years of experience in the marine industry. He is the former editor of PropTalk Magazine and was the managing editor of the Waterway Guide. His writing and photography have been published in PassageMaker Magazine, Soundings, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Yachting Magazine, and Lakeland Boating, among others.