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How to Be More Nautical on a Ship or Boat

Updated on August 2, 2011
Navy Ship
Navy Ship | Source

Nautical terms can be a bit confusing to landlubbers. If you'd like to appear the least bit salty or nautical aboard a boat or ship, read and learn the information below.

Learn the Difference between a Boat and a Ship

To be nautical, you must learn the difference between a boat and a ship and use the correct term at all times! Generally speaking, ships are big and boats are small. A ship can carry a number of boats but no boat can carry a ship aboard. Ships are built for deep water use and are driven by sail or power. Most boats are not oceangoing vessels and some can be driven by oars as well as by sail or power.

Some exceptions: submarines are traditionally called boats (they used to be under 1,000 tons) and even oceangoing fishing vessels are usually still called fishing boats. Exception to the exception: ballistic missile submarines are ships of several thousand tons and are called ships. You will be regarded as quite nautical if you remember all these facts!

Learn Port and Starboard

Port side means left side when facing forward. Notice that port and left both have four letters. Starboard refers to the right side. You can't be nautical until you know port from starboard. At night a vessel's port side shows a red light and its starboard side shows a green light. These lights can tell you which direction vessels are going at night if they are crossing your path.

Learn Bow and Stern

The bow is the front of the ship. When you take a bow you lean forward. The stern is the rear end of the boat or ship. When you take your bow your rear faces aft. Aft is toward the back or stern. These are important nautical terms.

Learn Deck, Bulkhead, Overhead and Ladder

There are no "floors" on vessels. Vessels have decks instead. Walls are called bulkheads and ceilings are called overheads. And stairs are called ladders aboard ships except for the staircases on passenger ships. Deck is a crucial nautical term for you to learn.

Learn Draft and Keel

Draft is the depth of a vessel's keel below the waterline. It's important to know this information and the depth of the water you're traveling in to avoid running aground. A vessel's structural keel is its deepest part, being a main structural element and the first part of the vessel that is laid during its construction.

Learn Leeward and Windward

Leeward refers to the direction that the wind is blowing toward. Windward is the direction that a wind is blowing from. If the wind is coming from your left, that is the windward side; it's where the wind is. These terms are very nautical!

Learn Pollywog and Shellback

A pollywog refers to a sailor or other person who has never crossed the equator in a ship. Upon crossing it for the first time these individuals must undergo hazing rituals before becoming Shellbacks (those who have made the crossing).

Explore the Nautical Terms Glossary

See the link below for a glossary of nautical terms. Many of these terms may be familiar to you from books or movies. A lot of them are just plain fun. Avast, ye maties!

Nautical Terms Glossary


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    • Gordon Hamilton profile image

      Gordon Hamilton 6 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Lots of good information for the novice sea farer, Rob. Always remember the look on a friend's face when he boarded a fishing vessel for one of the first times and was told by the skipper that there was a head in the wheelhouse! :)