Bluffer's Guide to Sailing

22 August 2008 By Kate Hubert

When you step on board a sailing yacht, something strange happens. You enter a parallel universe, where people seem to be speaking English, yet you can’t understand a word they’re saying.

Perhaps you’ve always worked on a motor yacht (a.k.a. a “stink boat” or “stink pot”), or maybe you’re a chef or steward new to life under sail. In any case you might feel at a distinct disadvantage. So here's a handy guide that may help eliminate confusion and possible embarrassment for you on board a sailing yacht. Presenting’s “Bluffer’s Guide to Sailing.”

There Are No Ropes on a Sailboat

Perhaps the easiest way you will mark yourself as a less-than-salty-old-sea-dog is by referring to anything on a yacht as a “rope.” Don’t do it – really, don’t. If you do need to mention one and you don’t know its real name, refer to it as a “line.” If you want to be really clever (or you fancy that sailing-mad deckie) then try to remember these non-ropes:

- Halyard pulls the sail up
- Sheet controls the angle of the sail (hence “three sheets to the wind” – on an old three-masted square rigger you could lose one or two sheets to the wind, but lose all three and you were totally out of control…)
- Warp attaches the boat to the dock
- Painter is the rope on the front of a tender

When Lee is a Loo

This has nothing to do with Lee the 2nd engineer or a British toilet… The windward side of a yacht is the side the wind is blowing from, if the yacht heels (leans) over (yes they do that, but that’s another story) the high side is windward.

So the side in the lee, protected from the wind, is the leeward side. Simple huh? Well no, if you want to sound like a true numpty try referring to the leeward side of the boat. Those sailors will soon be sniggering…While you might turn the helm to lee, or sit in the lee, protected from the wind – the leeward side of the boat is pronounced “loo-erd.” It just is. Deal with it…

Go Fly a Kite

You may have noticed that a lot of fuss is made about the white flappy things that make the boat sail. As this is a sailing yacht, it’s kind of hard to ignore them.

So what’s the jargon to listen out for regarding sails? The “main sail” (often just “the main”) is the biggest white sail. On a boat with a single mast, the main is behind the mast. If you have more than one mast, it’s the sail on the tallest (main) mast. For once, pretty straightforward. And if you refer to anything in front of the mast as a “head sail” you won’t go too far wrong.

On yachts up to around 120 feet you might find even more fuss being made about the multi-colored spinnaker – often casually referred to as the “kite.” This large sail, used when sailing downwind (when the wind is coming from behind) may look stunning, but can be difficult and dangerous to handle. For once, all the fuss may be justified.

Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

Want to say something nice to a skipper, or are you still after that cute deckie? Here are some phrases to drop into conversation to get them glowing with pride.

“Wow, that’s a really high rig!” You’re complimenting him on the height of his mast. Ahem, ‘nuff said.

“Those sails are really well set; great trim.” A bit high risk this one; only use it if the boat is sailing along very well and the sails look tight (no hint of flapping or shivering.) You’re telling them they’re good at pulling on all the non-ropes to get the sails just-so.

Luff to Luff You, Baby

If you’re really getting into this sailing lark, then you’ll need to be “wind aware.” No, nothing to do with avoiding beans if you’re sharing a cabin, but thinking about the wind. Where is it coming from, how strong is it, will it change later or when we go round the island…?

Apart from the old wet finger in the air trick, a more subtle, and more accurate measure, is to turn you head until you feel the wind on your face, and can hear it equally in both ears. Then you are looking directly into the wind. The boat can’t sail this way – any closer than around 35° is “sailing too close to the wind” – and as you approach this point the sails shiver at the front edge or “luff” and you’re said to be “luffing up.”

Here endeth the first lesson. Set sail with confidence.

Are there any other sailing terms you'd like to share? Let us know. Share your comments below.