Naval Glossary of Sailing Ship Terms

Gaff Ketch entering the Baltic Port of Warnemünde

This glossary assumes you know some basics, such as stern, port, hull, and fore and aft. See our miniature wargame review section if you are interested in fighting naval battles with miniature fleets. You will find fellow ship modellers in the Miniatures Forum.

Sail Basics

In general, each mast had three sails. The designation for the nine primary sails of a frigate or ship is as follows:

fore topgallant
fore topsail
foresail
fore mast
main topgallant
main topsail
mainsail
main mast
mizzen topgallant
mizzen topsail
mizzensail
mizzen mast

In addition, the ship usually carried a jib and a spanker.

Term Definition
abaft Wide
Avast! Wait!
beating up Tacking back and forth (close hauled) to move towards the wind.
belaying pin A large wooden pin used to tie the halliards to. Could also be pulled out and used as a club. A stave.
bosun Also boatswain. Originally head of the gang that moved the lifeboats and whaleboats on and off the ship. Essentially an NCO.
bowsprit The long pole projecting from the bow of the ship.
bulwark Interior wall of a ship.
capstan A large winch, mounted on end on the front of the ship, turned by crew members to raise and lower the anchors.
carronades Light weight, short-barreled guns with large caliber, but limited range. Used by the British as an inexpensive way to increase the weight of their broadsides.
cathead A beam projecting from the side of the bow to hold the ship's anchor out from the hull.
chaser A small, long range gun mounted in the bow of a ship. clews The lower corners of sails.
close hauled Sailing close to the wind, with the sails turned almost 90 degrees.
courses The lowest sail on each mast.
crosstrees A wooden platform partway up a mast to keep the shrouds spread apart.
fighting tops Topsails designed for fighting rather than cruising.
forecastl Also foc'sle. The raised deck at the front of the ship.
gangway A narrow passage with rope rails between the quarterdeck and forecastle, over the gun deck or cargo hold.
gunwale The top edge of the hull.
halliard Also halyard. Rope or tackle used to raise or lower a sail.
hance The curving rail or gunwale from the gundeck to the quarterdeck.
hawser Cable.
heave to, lie to Turn and stop the ship to bring it in line with another ship or a pier.
jib A triangular sail between the bowspirit and the fore mast.
  • inner jib: A smaller jib below the jib.
  • flying jib: A smaller jib above the jib.
  • storm jib: A jib for use in storms.
keel haul To tie a person to a rope, throw that rope over a spar, and under the ship, and pull on the rope, dragging the person under the ship and along its hull.
larboard To the left.
lee Away from the wind.
leeches The outer side edges of a sail.
loblolly boy The surgeon's assitant. (loblolly medicine)
log A piece of wood thrown overboard at the front of the ship to determine the speed of the ship by measuring how long it took to travel the length of the ship. The record of such log measurements.
orlop deck The lowest deck on a ship.
poopdeck A deck at the stern, above and behind the quarter deck, often the top of the captain's cabin.
quarterdeck The raised deck on the rear of the ship, usually with the wheel.
rating A number assigned to a ship indicating its size and number of guns. The largest ships of the line (three deckers with 120 guns) were first ratings. Frigates were 5th.
ratlines Small ropes tied between the shrouds that acted as footholds for the crew to climb to the sails.
razee A ship of the line that has had one whole deck removed, making it a large frigate.
reef To roll up the sails onto the spars. Close-reefed - tightly rolled.
royals Small extra sails mounted above the topgallants to increase the sail area of a ship in an emergency in fair wind.
scuppers Holes in the side of the ship at the same level as the deck to allow water to drain out.
scuttle Beside the more modern meaning of "sink the ship," scuttle meant to wash the ship or deck, requiring the crew to scuttle across its surface like bugs. "holystones" or soft rocks were used.
scuttlebutt Half of a barrel, filled with soapy water and kept next to the main mast, where crew members went to clean up. Since each crew was often restricted to a particular location on the ship, this was the only location where members of different gangs could exchange information.
sheet To pull a sail tight.
shrouds Thick ropes between the mastheads and the sides of the ship. Part of the standing rigging to reduce lateral strain.
skysail, skyscraper Light sails placed above royals in a fair wind.
spanker A square sail, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, attached to a boom, that projects straight back from the mizzen mast, along the long axis of the ship. Almost like a sail rudder.
spar A long wooden pole mounted perpendicular to the mast that held a sail. Spars were held by rings and ropes and their positions could change.
stay sail A square sail suspended between two masts, along the long axis of the ship.
strike To surrender. To lower the colors.
studding sails Small sails put on the outside of primary sails, in a fair wind.
tack Direction of travel. Verb: to sail at an acute angle to the wind.
taffrail The upper edge of the stern of the ship.
warping Putting out the oar boats or anchors and pulling the ship with ropes, when there was no wind, to move into or across the wind.
yards Spars

Chris Salander

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