Sailing glossary

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Sailing glossary

Like any sport, sailing has its own technical language too. Perhaps more than other activities, sailing – and yachting in general – have taken their labels, idioms and peculiar elements to the extreme. Below we propose a short glossary, aimed at simplifying a few concepts while making them more familiar, without claiming – at least for now – to explore the technical jargon or the specific terminology of the sector (purists and sailing experts will kindly forgive us!).



It’s the sailing competition, the match. There are many types, but all date from an ancient legend, dating back to 1861, when England lost the America’s Cup and – to Queen Victoria’s question about who had finished second – the answer went down in history: “There is no second, her Majesty”. Beyond the result, there are several formats. IBSA, together with Alberto Bona, will be engaged in a non-stop solo ocean regatta, namely the Atlantic crossing: there are no ports of call, and there is only one sailor on the boat.



It’s the boat chosen for this challenge, characterised by a “box rule”. Boats are “quite similar to each other”, as there is a series of rules that define their main characteristics. While complying with these rules, there is however some freedom to create customised improvements and solutions. The Class40 is the type of class that best highlights the talent of the sailor and the design team, while mitigating the role of external variables, such as the available budget and the use of particularly innovative materials.



The start of a regatta takes place at a certain time, defined by regulations, along an imaginary line that joins two points, usually indicated by buoys and/or jury boats. In our case, IBSA’s boat departure is scheduled for November 6 at 12:00 pm, on the occasion of the start of the Route du Rhum.


Bow and stern, starboard tack and port tack 

These are the basic elements for orienting oneself in the description of a boat. The bow is the front, the stern is the back. Starboard and port tack are, however, relative concepts: they indicate, when the boat is sailing, the side on which the wind “beats”. Boats sailing on starboard tack expose their “right side” to the wind – and therefore, since they are going against the wind, have their sails on the left side of the boat; in navigation, they normally have the right of way over those coming from the opposite direction.


Hoisting and lowering, slackening and hauling aft 

These are the verbs related to sails: pulling them up or taking them down, slackening (loosing) them (therefore offering the wind a greater sail area) or hauling them aft (making them more rigid and less exposed to the wind). These last two actions are related to the lift of the sail, i.e. they correspond to “pressing the accelerator” or vice versa, depending on the point of sailing.


Close hauled/close reach, run, beam reach 

These are the three main points of sailing: since the boat cannot go against the wind, when sailors want to go upwind they proceeds by beating to windward, creating an angle with the direction of the wind. The smaller the angle, the more effective the close hauled is, but the boat will also go slower than in a wider point of sailing, because it exposes less sail surface to the wind. Beam reach is a point of sailing in which the wind is orthogonal to the boat, that is, the sailor feel it from the side. Run (or running) is the point of sailing in which the boat moves in the same direction of the wind, and can hoist “fatter” sails, with greater surface area. If well managed, this is the fastest point of sailing and the one sailors aim at, weather permitting. However, there are many more points of sailing; indeed, there is an infinite range between these three. The skill consists precisely in interpreting at best the point of sailing in which one is in relation to the wind and using the right sails to reach the maximum possible speed.


Heading up, bearing away, tacking, gybing 

In the sailing jargon, these are the verbs “of direction”. At sea one does not go “forward” or “backward”, but each direction is always relative to the direction of the wind. Heading up means moving the rudder so that the boat approaches the direction of the wind, until reaching close hauled. Bearing away is the opposite: the sailor “pushes” the boat away from the wind, bringing it up to a run. When one wants to change direction, “turning” (therefore moving 90 degrees with respect to the wind), one has to head up if the manoeuver requires the boat to be upwind for a moment, or to gybe if, on the contrary, the change occurs while fully running. In both cases, the manoeuvers require the passage of the sails from one “side” (tack) of the boat to the other. It is precisely in the middle of both manoeuvers that the sailor must lower their head in order not to be hit by the boom.


Mast, boom, spinnaker pole, bowsprit 

These are the metal parts (steel or carbon, depending on the type of boat) necessary to support the sails and keep them in the best shape to exert their propulsive thrust. These components are heavily stressed, and their resistance is strategic, because they are difficult to repair at sea. The boom is hooked at 90 degrees to the mast and is parallel to the boat: its job is to haul taut the mainsail – the sail that ensures stability and propulsion. At the bow, when sailing close to the wind, the jib (or genoa) is used. While running, the genoa is added to – or is replaced with – the spinnaker (symmetrical) or the gennaker (asymmetrical): they are fat sails, that expose a lot of surface to the wind and allow to navigate at high speeds. Spinnaker pole and bowsprit are equipment used to haul taut these bow sails and keep them swelling.


Keel, rudder 

These are the underwater parts of the boat. The keel moves the centre of gravity of the boat down and ensures its stability; when it breaks, the boat capsizes. The rudder steers the boat; when it breaks, the boat drifts, meaning it can be no longer steered.



The heading is the route a boat travels along, the direction it has taken and will take. In regattas, it is the best compromise between the point of arrival and the direction of the wind: one can go farther and faster with a favourable wind and vice versa. Victory depends on the best compromise one can find from a tactical point of view. Weather forecasts obviously play a central role in the choice of a course.



They are unidentified objects, but they do not come from space: they are on the surface of the water or they are semi-floating (UFO = unidentified floating objects). These are nets, abandoned containers, pieces of plastic or wood, objects that, in case of collision at sea with a boat at full sail, can cause serious damage, up to sinking. They are the main enemies of ocean navigators.




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