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Boating Terms: Orientation For New Yacht Owners And Captains

Yacht Orientation - Room Names And Boat Terms. Photo: YachtWorld/Azimut. Anatomy of a yacht: room names, spaces and terms. Photo: YachtWorld/Azimut.

As many new boaters have discovered in 2020, being on a boat or yacht is the ultimate platform for social distancing. Assuming you’re not being boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard, the people onboard are those of your choosing. Modern technology such as joystick docking has given people with limited expertise the ability to handle larger vessels. But no one likes to be outed as a rookie and the quickest way to reveal that status is to talk like a landlubber. Being fluent in nautical-speak and boat terminology shows others you have the sea-cred to rightfully take your place at the helm.

Learn the Four Points of a Vessel’s Compass


Above: A man hold’s a compass with a boat in the background. Photo by Valentin Antonucci from Pexels.

Fore – Is not the command to protect one’s self after an errant golf shot but rather, it’s a shortened version of the word forward. The forward section of a boat is called the bow (rhymes with wow!) and for some nautical reason should never be called the front of the boat.

Aft – Is the opposite of fore and refers to either a rearward direction i.e. “I’m heading aft” or the name for the “back” of the boat, which like the Harry Potter villain Voldemort, should also never be spoken aloud.

Port – Refers to the left side of the boat when facing forward and can be remembered with the mnemonic phrase, “The boat left port.”

Starboard – Hails from the olden days when the rudder or “steerboard” was affixed to the right side of the boat. Like front and back, the words left and right should never be used unless entering into a heated political discussion — something that should be avoided on board a boat due to the close confines.

The Anatomy of a Yacht

Beneteau 62 cabin layout

Above: Design and layout plans for the interior cabin onboard a 2022 Beneteau Oceanis 62 yacht. Rendering from Ancasta International Boat Sales in Port Hamble, UK and Beneteau Yachts.

Each general area onboard a yacht or boat has a distinct name. This helps the captain and crew communicate quickly and efficiently with passengers and guests onboard. Of course there are many different types of boats out there with various hull designs, but they all share common terminology. Let’s move from the front of the vessel to the rear, labeling and defining each general area as we go.

Areas And Compartments Onboard

Bow – This is the front of the vessel. Some vessels have open bows that connect to the rest of the cockpit and are safe to ride in while underway (such as center consoles, dual consoles and bow riders), while other vessels have utilitarian closed bows designed that are void of seating designed for maximum efficiency when cutting through waves in the open ocean (such as sportfishing yachts, tugs, and many trawlers).

Deck – The deck of a boat is the main structural, horizontal covering on a vessel’s hull that comprises its exterior floor and interior roof. The crew and passengers typically walk on the deck when they are riding above on the exterior of the boat.

Cockpit – Rather than referring to the fighting arena of male chickens, the cockpit is the section of a vessel surrounded by the deck that is protected and/or somewhat enclosed and is an activity center where the ship’s main controls (see helm below) are located and where fishing or social gathering often occurs.

Cabin – A fully-enclosed and protected interior area on a boat, these can range from small “cuddy cabins” to large, multi-room interior layouts (sometimes with multiple cabins). Some boats do not have any cabin space and are instead “open” boats.

Helm – Technically, the helm is the wheel or tiller that steers a vessel, which in the olden days was the only thing the skipper had at hand to control the direction of the ship. Modern helm stations offer a lot more assistance. Many vessels use joystick controls for docking and the driver just tilts or twists the knob in the direction they want the boat to go. This precise and intuitive controller has helped those new to boating avoid the painful learning process for docking that often attracts unwanted spectators looking for juicy Facebook content. Nowadays “helm” is synonymous with the main controls of the vessel and the instrument cluster and seating area around this station.

Aft Deck – the area of the deck just forward of the stern of the vessel. This is often the central outdoor activity center of the boat as it is usually a safe place to ride while underway and generally has the best casting decks for fishing, as well as the most convenient access to the waterline for watersports, sun lounging and other activities.

Stern – the rear of a boat, or aft-most part of the vessel. The stern is essentially the entire back section of the boat while the transom is the back structural “wall” that holds the rear of the boat together and strengthens the stern. This wall is typically used to support outboard engines, rudders, towing features, rod holders and livewells (fishing features) and can also have a doorway to access a lowered aft swim platform that protrudes beyond the transom for direct access to the waterline.

Swim Platform – New boaters quickly discover that the aft (rear) area of a vessel provides the most entertainment to its passengers when the key is turned off. The swim platform is the conduit for those who gravitate toward the water and the bigger and lower it is to the surface, the more its utility. Some yachts have swim platforms that can be hydraulically lowered to below surface level to help launch water toys or dunk overheated guests.

Bilge – The lowest part of the boat where water tends to collect. A bilge pump is used to evacuate the accumulated water and experienced boaters quickly realize the importance of this device…when it’s not working and the boat is taking on water. Then, after grabbing a five-gallon bucket and starting to bail will boaters understand the true meaning of the word motivation.

Lazarette – This is a large below-deck compartment in the stern used for storage that usually houses systems like steering components, batteries, cooling and hydraulic hoses and seacocks. Originally, it was the compartment used to stow important people who died during a voyage. Unimportant folks were wrapped and jettisoned overboard.

Flybridge – An open, upper deck above the main cabin that often has a second set of controls. This affords an expansive view of the sea surrounding a vessel and allows the occupants to spot things like weed lines and diving birds, where fish are often located. It also allows the driver to avoid a clueless sailboarder who read somewhere that a sailing vessel has the right of way and hasn’t gotten to the part of the manual that explains the Law of Gross Tonnage.

Specific Room Names

Galley – There are no kitchens aboard a yacht. The original term for a galley meant a vessel powered by oars, often manned by slaves, which, when you think about it, isn’t a bad description for those toiling over a hot stove.

Head Compartment (or just “head”) – No seafarer has ever said, “I’m going to the bathroom.” Instead, the place to tend to one’s necessities is called a head compartment where the marine toilet is located. In the days of sail, the head was the bow (front) of the boat where there would usually be a carved figurehead and this area was the location designated to take care of business.

Salon or Saloon – Both terms mean the largest enclosed, common area of a yacht (essentially the “living room” in the terms of a land-based home). Most modern boaters use the term salon to avoid confusing it with a bar found in the old west. Old salts and those who sail with the wind prefer the old-school term, saloon.

Stateroom – Derived from the Latin world “status,” staterooms were originally the captain’s quarters, which were usually the most luxurious on a ship. Now, it means any fancy sleeping quarters for guests as opposed to crew quarters, which more closely resemble closets with bunk beds.

Other Key Terms

Gunwhale (or Gunnel) – the top edge of the boat’s hull. Essentially this is just the top of the outer wall of the boat.

Freeboard – the amount of distance from the waterline to the top of the gunwhale.

Berth – essentially these are any beds onboard the boat. While staterooms or crew quarters do contain berths, this term is often used to describe a feature that converts from one function to another, such as a settee berth which is a seat at a table that can be transformed and pulled out into a bunk for sleeping.

Scuppers – These are the drains in the cockpit that allow water to quickly be expelled overboard after a heavy rainstorm or after the captain jams the boat into reverse without closing the transom door first.

Davit – A crane used to raise and lower items like dinghies and jet skis. Derived from the Old French word daviot or “little David” of Biblical fame, this little crane can lower large objects, as did David when he dropped Goliath.

Fenders – Are the air-filled or foam cushions temporarily tied to the outside of a vessel to keep it from being damaged by a dock or another boat. Calling a fender a bumper in the presence of an experienced seaman will cause them to deduct 10 points off your boating IQ. Cruising with fenders dangling overboard is great advertising that the driver is a rookie.

Cleat – A boat cleat is the sturdy, load bearing device (usually metal) onboard used to secure the rope lines to the vessel when at a dock or on a mooring/anchor.

Written by Alan Jones

Written by: Alan Jones

Alan Jones is a marine journalist who has tested more than a thousand boats and written more than 500 boat reviews and video walkthroughs online, including fishing boats, cruisers, PWC, pontoons and ski boats. If it floats, he's tested it. One of his passions is testing new products that make boating easier and safer. Currently the president of Boating Writers International, Alan is a gearhead who's tested almost every engine that's come out in the last 20 years. He also loves fishing of all kinds.


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