Top Ten Nautical Terms

When I first learned to sail I quickly realized that part of the process was learning a new language. To some, this is a major turn-off and can feel intimidating. To me, sailing terminology and nautical lore are all part of the appeal. The jargon makes sailing unique and more fun. Where else can I get away with telling my kids to "Do the two-six heave on the jib sheet before that whelkie overtakes us to starboard!" in my best grungy skipper voice?

If you're into etymology, you know that many modern day English phrases have roots in sailing and Royal Navy history. In fact, I'm always amazed to learn how much maritime history has shaped the world, not just directly by way of discovering and claiming new lands, but indirectly by influencing the way we communicate with one another, even when far removed from a life at sea.

And so, I present to you my list of Top Ten Coolest Nautical Terms. Some have interesting meanings, others a strange history and some I simply prefer because of how goofy they sound.

Baggywrinkle: A soft and sometimes fluffy covering for rigging lines that prevents chaff. Baggywrinkles look very nautical and are hard to say without a smile. Give it a try!

Baggywrinkle! (Try to say it with a straight face)

Bitter End: This is the very last loose end of a rope/line. A bitt is a post or a block with a crosspin that can be tied to for holding fast, thus the "bitter end" of a line is the end that gets tied to the bitt. The Bitter End Yacht Club in Virgin Gorda, BVI also happens to add appeal to this term, since the BEYC is well-known and well-loved among sailors and would be on my itinerary if I'm ever cruising the BVI's.

Doldrums: Feeling down in the dumps? A little depressed by the weather? Is your mind going through the mental doldrums? The doldrums are officially an area between about 200 and 300 miles in width around the equator that are infamous for their calms, light and variable winds, heavy rains, and squally thunderstorms. They were the bane of historic explorers and continue to be a challenge for many world cruising sailors even today. The name "doldrum" is derived from a combination of dolorous (sad) and tantrum (bad temper).

Dolphin Striker: A near vertical spar that extends from the bowsprit and helps distribute tension from the forestay. Don't worry Isabel (my dolphin-loving 8-year old), I don't think any dolphins were ever actually struck by this appendage. Even so, the term sounds cool and begs inquiry.

It does look like it could strike a dolphin, yes?

Turtling: Have you ever seen a sailing dinghy turned completely upside down? The sailboat now resembles a turtle's shell with the mast sticking straight towards the bottom of the sea and the hull facing skyward. Obviously this is a somewhat ominous image, but I like the term's connection with everyone's favorite marine reptile.

Oh no! We just turtled! (Photo by Jim Sorbie)

Scuttlebutt: Water for immediate consumption on a sailing ship was conventionally stored in a scuttled butt - a cask which had a small opening through which water could be withdrawn. Since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became navy slang for gossip or rumors.

Grog: Many of you probably already know grog is a seafaring term for a sailor's rum-based drink, but do you know how it got the name "grog"? Britain's 1655 invasion and take over of Jamaica from Spain led to rum becoming the seaman's daily spirit ration in the Royal Navy. The maximum allowed daily ration was one pint of rum for men and half a pint for boys, issued in two halves, one at noon and the other in the early evening. Admiral Edward Vernon, chief of the British Fleet in the West Indies, became alarmed at the "men stupefying themselves with spirituous liquors" and ordered that the daily pint of rum be diluted with a quart of water (and kept in a scuttle butt! - see above). The admiral often wore a cloak made of a coarse material called grogram and was nicknamed "Old Grogram" by the seamen under his authority. His introduction of the watered down rum was immediately unpopular and quickly dubbed "grog". Interestingly, the tradition of daily liquor rations wasn't abolished in the Royal Navy until 1970.

Sun Over the Yardarm: A "yard" is a horizontal spar on the mast of a square-rigger and the yardarm is the very end of said yard. From the deck of the ship, it took until mid- to late morning (depending upon geographic location) for the sun to rise above the yardarm and thereby signal that it is late enough in the day for a drink of grog (see above). Nowadays cruising sailors often have "sundowners", or cocktails in the cockpit as the sun is leaving the horizon, but perhaps those who prefer to drink sooner should at least wait for the "sun over the spreader" on a modern rig.

Shellback: I'm a pollywog, I admit it! For me to abandon that status I would need to sail across the equator and thereby earn the shellback moniker. Crossing the equator under sail for the first time is a big deal and is marked with an elaborate line crossing ceremony. Such ceremonies go way back in naval history and produce some really good stories. Even today, some of my favorite posts from fellow cruising bloggers are where they describe their line crossing ceremony and metamorphose from pollywog to shellback. (See the crossing ceremony posts from s/v Wondertime here and s\v Estrellita 5.10B here)

Coconut Milk Run: Speaking of line crossings and shellbacks, let's add the coconut milk run to the list of my favorite nautical terms and phrases. The coconut milk run is familiar to almost all cruisers with tropical dreams. Officially, the run (or cruising sailor's route, if you prefer) starts in the islands of the Marquesas in eastern French Polynesia and winds its' way through the Tuamotus, the Society Islands (Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora), the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Niue (sometimes) and can include Fiji, Vanuatu and other pacific islands for those with time or ambition. Most cruisers enter the coconut milk run from Mexico or the west coast of the United States and eventually exit to Australia or New Zealand. But what about the name, "coconut milk run"? Given the southeast trade winds prevalent in the South Pacific, this route is a downwind run through the many tropical islands that are best known for coconuts.

If you like blog posts featuring lists, you can view a few others I've written here:

Top Ten Favorite Bluewater Sailboats

What's in a Name? (My thoughts on boat names)

You Know You're a Cruiser When...

Grounded! 5 Tips to Help When you Run Aground

Quick Tips for Sailboat Restoration


  1. A pint of rum a day could be dangerous for most men, especially if it were consumed in a short period of time. Think about it....a typical bar drink has between one and one and a half ounces of liquor. There are 16 ounces in a pint. Swab the deck? Swab it yourself, you f@$%&*) #%@&*^?!

    1. Baydog - I agree! The crews must have been buzzed all day and night. And half a pint for "boys"? Wow!

  2. RE The Dolphin Striker; given that a dolphin can also refer to part of a dock or quay, this spar would be the one to first make contact in the unfortunate (or careless) event of hitting the dock stem on.

    1. Boathook - You're right, and thanks for pointing that out. Now that you mention it, that use of the dolphin striker makes a lot of sense. Thanks!

  3. Wind Dancer Charters.
    Hello we are enjoying your page and would like to get permission to use the photo of Wind Dancer at sunset on our web site. Could you please direct us to the photographer.

    Thank you and fair winds.
    Captain Chip and Mary Sayre


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