Terms at Sea


Lots of authentic ship-board language is used in Anton and Cecil: Cats at Sea, much of it unfamiliar to us (landlubbers) these days.  The drawing to the right shows some of the names of the rigging (click to make larger).  Below is a list of nautical terms you might not have heard before, and what those words mean on board a tall ship.

Credit: D Stewart, U. of Buffalo

Aft -- toward the back (or stern) of the ship, as in "he was moving aft."

Anchors aweigh (or, 'weigh anchor') -- to bring the anchor up to the ship in preparation for departure.

Belowdecks -- inside or into a ship, below the main deck.

Bow -- the front end, or forward-facing part of the ship.

Capstan -- A rotating device like an iron turnstile with arms pushed by sailors to wind up the heavy chain connected to the anchor, or to lift new spars up to the masts.

Deck -- the main horizontal surfaces on the ship.

Dinghy -- a small boat, often a rowboat, carried by a larger boat to use in short jaunts away from the ship

Fo'c'sle -- (pronounced 'fox-ull') short for Forecastle, the area in the upper forward deck, usually housing the sailors' living quarters.

Gallant sail -- the square sail or sails set just below the highest (royal) sail.

Galley -- the 'kitchen'  of a ship, where food is stored (in the larder) and prepared for the crew.

Gangplank -- a moveable wooden bridge used to board or leave a ship at a dock

Hatch -- a door to another deck or to the hold of a ship.

Hold -- a space for carrying cargo, under the main deck of a ship.

Main mast -- the tallest mast (vertical wooden post), usually located near the center of the ship.

Mast -- a tall vertical post attached to the deck to hold the sails. 

Port -- the left side of the ship, as you face forward.

Ratlines -- thin ropes tied across the vertical long lines which secure the masts to the deck, which form a kind of ladder sailors use to climb up and furl (roll) or unfurl (unroll) the sailcloth on the spars.

Reef the sails -- to pull in or reduce the area of the dropped sails, to better control the ship in high winds.

Set sail -- to begin a trip or voyage, so called because the sailors began by lowering and securing (or setting) the sails to catch the wind and begin to move.

Spanker sail -- the sail facing fore-and-aft (from end to end, instead of crossways) near the mainsail.

Spar -- the horizontal crossbar attached to the mast that the sail hangs down from. 

Starboard -- the right side of the ship, as you face forward. 

Stern -- the back end, or rearward-facing part of the ship