The vocabulary for a boat this small is only 137 words.

Experts estimate that there are over 6,500 languages spoken throughout the world.  This does not include Nauticalese, or Boatspeak, or whatever we want to call the jargon of sailing.

For centuries, people who work or play on boats have been known for their colorful language.  “He swore like a sailor” is a familiar expression, and if you’ve spent any time on the water, you know that boats give lots of reasons to string together creative compounds of four-letter words.

For example, I was not silent when I found myself dangling from the bow of a sailboat with an anchor wedged into my crotch.  How I got into that position is too long a story for this space, but I can assure you that I didn’t just say, “Oh, golly.”

Swearing like a sailor is not quite the same thing as talking like a sailor, though.  Unlike swearing, which seems to come naturally, the language of boaters is complex and difficult to master.  Its origins probably go back to the Phoenicians, but the fundamental fact about Boatspeak is that no matter what a thing is called on land, it is called something else on a boat.

Left is “port”; right is “starboard”; front is “bow”; back is “stern”; beer is “breakfast”.  Supposedly the indigenous people living above the Arctic circle have a hundred words for snow; boaters have about that many for knot, such as “half-hitch”, “bowline” (pronounced “bowlin'”), “clove hitch”, etc.  To Boatspeak purists, however, those are technically not knots, but are really techniques involving rope, since “knot” means something else (a nautical mile = 6,080 feet).

There are also many words in sailing jargon that have no terrestrial equivalent.  “Yawl” merely sounds like the plural pronoun widely used in the southern United States.  In fact, it is a kind of sailboat.

This might be a good time to review some of the types of sailing craft, so that when you’re at the lake or harbor with friends this summer, you can say authoritatively, “Hey, look at that schooner.”  (Your friends will either be impressed or wonder if you’re on a new medication that has strange side effects.)

Basically a sailboat can be identified by two characteristics:  the number of masts, and where they are located.  A mast, as you know, is that vertical pole to which the sails are attached.

OK, so a sloop only has one mast.  There are other single-masted vessels, like cutters and catboats, but those terms are taught in advanced Boatspeak.  A ketch and a yawl both have two masts, with the main being taller than the back (mizzen) mast.  The difference is that on a ketch, the mizzenmast is in front of the steering mechanism, while on a yawl, the mizzenmast is behind (aft) the rudder.  A schooner has two (or sometimes more) masts; the shorter mast is in front of the main.  Got all that?

With all its technical jargon — a vocabulary of hundreds of words — Boatspeak lacks one essential term.  There is no single word that conveys the pleasure one derives from gliding across the water on a perfect day, powered only by the wind.  The closest word in English is probably “bliss”.

One response to “Boatspeak

  1. Some of my happiest times have been “gliding across the water…powered only by the wind.” But there are other moments too: You’re in mid-channel, the wind has piped up to 25 knots, the tops of waves are joining you in the cockpit and a bit of rigging that was just singing to you has now parted. That’s when one hears another bit of boatspeak: What the hell am I doing out here?

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