Know Your Boat: Terms for Location, Position, and Direction

5 Common Terms All Mariners Should Know

Some of the most common terms in sailing refer to the basic directions you'll need to know while on the boat itself, as well as some terms referring to the boat's position (or location) while in the water. If you aren't a sailor but rather a passenger, mariners can seem to speak a foreign language at times. Still, knowing some common nautical terms will help make your experience more enjoyable. And if you're a beginning sailor, using these terms accurately is imperative for operating your boat as well as for communicating with your passengers and fellow sailors.

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Bow and Stern

Silhouette of girl jumping off sailboat
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The front end of a boat is called the bow. When you move toward the bow on the boat, you are going forward. The rear of a boat is called the stern. When you move toward the stern on the boat, you are going aft.

When a boat is moving in the water, either by motor power or by sail, it is called being ​underway. A boat moving forward is moving ahead. When the boat moves backward, it is going astern.

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Port and Starboard

Port and starboard are nautical terms for left and right. If you are standing at the rear of the boat looking forward, or to the bow, the entire right side of the boat is the starboard side and the entire left side is the port side. Because port and starboard are not relative to the observer (like "left" and "right" would be), there is never any confusion while on board about which direction you are facing or headed. 

The term starboard derives from the Old English steorbord, which refers to the side on which the ship was steered using an oar—the right side because most people are right-handed.

Other terms to know are starboard bow, which refers to the front right side of the boat, and port bow, which refers to the front left side of the boat. The right rear of the boat is the starboard quarter; the left rear is the port quarter.

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Divisions Within the Boat

Boats are divided into eight basic sections. Amidships is the central part of the boat, running from bow to stern. Think of it as dividing the boat in half, long ways. Athwartships is the central part of the boat, running from the port to starboard side. Think of it as now dividing the boat into quarters.

The right center side of the boat is the starboard beam; the left center side is the port beam. Together with port and starboard bow and port and starboard quarter, they finish dividing the boat.

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Up and Down on a Boat

Going topside is moving from a lower deck to an upper deck of the boat while going below is moving from an upper deck to a lower deck.

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Windward and Leeward

Windward is the direction from which the wind is blowing; leeward is the opposite direction from which the wind is blowing. Knowing the windward side (moving toward the wind) and leeward side (moving away from the wind) of a boat is critical when mooring, unmooring, and operating in heavy weather.

A windward vessel is normally the more maneuverable vessel, which is why rule 12 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea stipulates that windward vessels always give way to leeward vessels.