Sailing Terminology

In sailing, how deep is a fathom?

And the answer: six feet.

Photo credit: Kate Rarey

Fathoms measure the depth of something in the water. The length of six feet comes from the distance between the tip of the middle finger of the left hand, and the tip of the middle finger of the right hand, of the outstretched arms of a large sailor.

Sailing is a sport whose understanding grows in large part from the ability to speak its language. While much of the vocabulary surrounding sailing is in relation to the wind, there are many words which would be met with confused stares if spoken outside of a knowledgeable group of sailors (we're looking at you, "baggywrinkle" and "cat-head").

Sailing's unique vocabulary draws from, in large part, necessity. Often, situations on the water that require quick-thinking or a quick response will also require the ability to communicate this need with as few words as possible. As such, the terminology has been around since the practice began, hundreds of years ago.

Among the most need-to-know terms in sailing are those which refer directionally to the sides of the boat. If you're on board and looking towards the front, port is the left, while starboard is the right. Stern is the back, while the bow is the front. Easy enough, right?

Not so fast. While the term for moving forward is "ahead," the term for moving backward is "astern." Meanwhile, a right angle to the boat (on either side) is called "abeam," and changing direction into the eye of the wind is called "tacking" or "coming about." In sailing terminology, there isn't any real code to the inverse of a direction, nor is there really any code whatsoever. Beyond the terms we've mentioned, there are hundreds more. Learn more about the use of sailing terminology here.  

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