Boat Speak

There is a simple but inescapable truth when stepping aboard anything that floats. Landlubbers and mariners have different definitions for simple words and gear. Two of my biggest peeves on boats are referring to "ropes and bumpers." To be clear, ropes are used to tie a load bound for the dump and a bumper is the hard chrome plated appendage on the same pick-up truck protecting your radiator from calamity. Please, on a vessel they are "lines and fenders.

Some may question who really cares? While on a boat, referring to the right and left side is not really wrong, however the terms "starboard and port" leave no ambiguity as to orientation of the observer. They are clear and concise. Nautical terms are rooted deep in tradition and history like many professions having their own specific terminology. Even recreational boaters can benefit from what I call boat-speak.

Using recognized terms gives us the means of accurate communication. It is a common language that unites all mariners throughout the world. Think about your own professional or other leisure time affiliations, meaning is conveyed in many seemingly obscure words often misunderstood as pretension by outsiders. If you aren't really in the know, trying to fake it is obvious to anyone within earshot.

Beyond avoiding embarrassment, use of recognized boat speak avoids the potential for miscommunication when docking, rafting up, anchoring out, navigating, or responding to an emergency. "Make fast a bow line to the starboard cleat" leaves nothing open to interpretation and no explanation is necessary if your crew is also bilingual.

Granted, on smaller boats you can get away doing everything yourself without much communication, or by pointing and using words like "thingy." Boat speak is not critical. Boat speak, however, is the first indication of your knowledge and experience during the check out ride on a yacht charter. In addition, docking a forty footer in a cross wind requires quick decisions and fast action. A common language makes this possible with your crew. My kids all get the captain speak first, followed by the interpretation if necessary. You'd be surprised how quickly your crew will pick it up if used consistently.

Should an emergency occur, boat-speak makes communication with the Coast Guard (VHF Ch.16) or Marine Patrol efficient. For example, conveying your position decisively and accurately will get help on its way faster, often when response time is crucial. Always know where you are, both the body of water being traveled on and proximity to an intersection or identifiable landmark. For example, "We are on Middle River 1/2 way between the Bacon Island Bridge and Empire Cut on the east side." Alternatively, using a GPS with latitude and longitude coordinates is also useful if you can read and convey them accurately.

Lastly, every boater should own a copy of Chapman's Piloting and Seamanship. It is a great reference for all things boating related and a wealth of useful information with every term you'll ever need to know. Pick up a copy and continue the quest for maritime skill and knowledge. Have fun and boat safe.

Jonathan Bloom is a USCG licensed Master and ASA certified sailing instructor. He can be reached via

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