Tall Ships Glossary

A-Lee - "On the side away from the wind, on the leeward side." (Uden & Cooper, 1980)
Aback - A condition in which the sails are brought back against the mast by the wind, rather than blown forward by it. Also known as "backwinded."
Abaft - "Behind, or nearer the stern." (Underhill, 1978)
Abeam - "At right angles to the middle of the ship's side." (Uden & Cooper)
About - "To pass from one tack to the other." (Colcord, 1974)
Aft - The entire area toward the stern of a vessel from amidships.
After - Toward the stern of a vessel.
After-leading - Said of a line that leads from its point of attachment (e.g., the sheet on the course) towards the stern of the ship.
Aloft - Any area above the deck of a vessel. Any place a sailor would climb up to.
Alow - Down or downwards; as in "Lay alow!" (Get down on deck!)
Amidships - "In or toward the middle of the ship's lengthwise direction." (Colcord)
Athwart - "Across, from one side to the other." (Uden & Cooper) Also "athwartships" (adverb).
Avast - A command to stop immediately what one is doing.
Belay - "To make a line fast by throwing turns around an upright pin, called a belaying-pin, which passes through a hole in the rail." (Colcord)
Boom - The spar "used to extend the foot of a sail." (Underhill)
Bow - The front part of the ship.
Bowsprit - A spar running forward from the bow of a vessel. It functions as a horizontal mast for the spritsail, fore-topmast-staysail and, in conjunction with the jib-boom, the jib.
Brace - Both a noun and a verb. The noun denotes one of two lines per yard, one attached to each yardarm; these are used to pivot (brace) the yards around the mast. This action (the verb) allows movement of the sails to catch the wind.
Brails - The lines used to pull the outer edge (leech) of a fore-and-aft sail forward to a mast. These lines are used to begin to furl the sail.
Brig - A two-masted vessel, square-rigged on both masts (as is the Lady Washington).
Bulwarks - The sides of a ship above the upper deck.
Bunt - 1) The middle part of a square sail. 2) The line(s) attached to the middle of the foot of the sail used to haul the bunt up to the center of the yard.
Cap - "A fitting or band (on the Lady, a big chunk of wood) used to connect the head of one mast to the lower portion of the mast above; also at the outer end of the bowsprit to support the jib-boom." (Underhill)
Capstan - "A cylindrical revolving device used for hauling a cable, especially the anchor cable." (Uden & Cooper) A capstan rotates around a vertical axis, as opposed to a windlass, which revolves around a horizontal axis.
Cast off - To untie or loose a rope or line.
Chantey also Chanty or Shanty - A shipboard song, heard primarily on merchant ships during heavy work, such as turning the capstan or hoisting a sail, to help coordinate the men's efforts and to pass the time. A designated chanteyman led the singing, and the crew joined in, the cadence varying according to the type of work being done. The custom dated from the 16th century. The word comes from the French chanter, "to sing". (King, Hattendorf & Estes, 1995)
Chip Log - An old style speedometer. A piece of wood, shaped like a sector of a circle, was weighted on the arc to make it float upright and therefore provide resistance in the water. It was dropped off the stern of the ship attached to a log line which was marked with knots at specified intervals; the line was allowed to run free for a measured length of time, determined by a sandglass. "The length between knots had to be the same fraction of a nautical mile (formerly 6080 ft.) as the sandglass was of an hour" (Uden and Cooper); the number of knots that had run out in that time corresponded to the ship's speed in nautical miles per hour, or "knots." The line was then rewound on a free-rolling spool for later use. On the Lady's log line, the knots are eight fathoms apart; her sandglass runs for 28 seconds.
Clew(s) - 1) The lower corners of a square sail, "and the after lower corner of a fore-and-aft sail." (Underhill) 2) The lines attached to those corners and used to haul the clews upward to the yard for furling.
Course - 1) The lowest yard on a mast. 2) The large square sail that hangs from that yard. The Lady Washington has one course on her fore-mast. The correct way of referring to it would be as the "fore course." Unlike the other square sails on a tall ship, a course is loose-footed, with sheets leading aft, and tacks leading forward. A course does not have reef lines; rather, it has leech lines.
Douse - The entire action of getting a sail out of the wind and furling it.
Ease - To let out a bit of line under control.
Fast - Secured (said of a rope or line) so as to be unable to shift.
Fathom - A measure of distance equal to six feet.
Feet - In the context of "comes onto her feet." A vessel becoming upright after heeling to one side or another.
Foot - "The lower edge of a sail." (Underhill)
Fore - 1) The entire area toward the bow of a vessel from amidships. 2) The fore-mast.
Fore-and-aft - Lying in the direction of the ship's length.
Fore-and-aft Rigged - "Sails that lie in the direction of the ship's length and are set abaft the mast." (Uden & Cooper)
Fore-mast - "The mast nearest the bow in all vessels of two or more masts where there is a larger mast abaft it." (Underhill)
Fore-topmast-staysail - On the Lady, the inner of two triangular fore-and-aft sails, carried on a stay running between the fore topmast and the bowsprit (the other being the jib).
Forward - "A position near or towards the bow of a vessel." (Uden & Cooper)
Forward-leading - Said of a line that leads from its point of attachment towards the bow of the ship.
Furl - To tie a sail in a bundle to a spar.
Gaff - The spar to which the head of a fore-and-aft sail is connected.
Gaskets - The lines used to secure a furled sail to its yard.
Gear - All of the lines used to haul a sail up to its yard. These include clew lines, bunt lines, reef lines, and leech lines.
Glass - In the days of tall ships the barometer was a glass vessel with a thin stem. The fluid in the glass (in most cases water) would move up and down the stem as the pressure of the surrounding atmosphere changed. These movements were used to predict changes in the weather.
Halyard or Halliard - Evolved from "haul yard. "Line "by means of which a sail, yard, gaff, flag, etc. is hoisted." (Underhill)
Hand - A member of a ship's crew.
Handsomely - A rate of action. In this case, carefully and gradually.
Haul - To pull on a line.
Head - 1) The upper edge of a square sail. 2) The upper corner of a fore-and-aft sail. 3) The top portion of a mast. 4) The bow of a vessel. 5) By extension, the latrine, so named because of its usual position at the "head" (4) of the ship.
Headsail - "Any sail set forward of the fore-mast." (Uden & Cooper)
Heave - To throw (an object or line).
Heave to - To set the sails of a vessel so that their driving force is in opposition. This allows a vessel to stop or slow while her sails are still set.
Heel - To lean to one side under the pressure of wind. This is common in a sailing vessel.
Helm - The handle that provides control of the rudder. On the Lady Washington, this corresponds to the tiller; on other vessels it could be the ship's wheel.
Helmsman - The person whose job it is to steer the vessel.
Hoist - To lift or raise, such as a sail or a flag.
In Irons - A condition in which some sails are full of wind and some are aback, rendering a ship unmanageable.
Jib - On the Lady, the outer of two fore-and-aft triangular sails, carried on a stay running between the fore-mast and the jib-boom (the other being the fore-topmast-staysail).
Jib-boom - "A spar extending the bowsprit and on which the jib is spread." (Uden & Cooper)
Knots - See chip log.
Lay - 1) As a command, it means to go in the direction indicated, e.g., "Lay aloft!" (go up) or "Lay alow!" (come down). 2) Of a line or rope, it refers to "the direction in which the strands are twisted" (Colcord). These two definitions, out of a host, are most pertinent to the Lady.
Lee - The side of the boat away from the wind.
Leech - 1) The vertical edge of a square sail. 2) The line(s) attached to that edge and used to haul the leech upward to the yard for furling. On the Lady, leech lines are found only on the course (rather than reefs [def. 3], as the course has no reef-points).
Leeward - On or toward the lee side of a vessel.
Line - What most rope is called on a boat. A particular line generally derives its name from the object it affects; e.g.., leech line.
Loose-footed - Said of a sail the clews of which are not drawn down to a yard below it, but rather are controlled by tautening and belaying the sheets and tacks attached. On the Lady, such sails are the fore course, main staysail, main topmast staysail and spritsail.
Luff - 1) To steer close to the wind. 2) The rippling effect on a sail caused when, in this condition, the sail begins to spill its wind.
Main(mast) - The largest mast on a sailing vessel. Many objects take part of their name from the mast they are connected to or affecting; e.g., mainsail or main braces.
Mainsail or Mains'l - On the Lady Washington, a large fore-and-aft sail bent onto the main mast. It is spread between a boom and a gaff aft of the main mast.
Mast - The upright spar that supports yards and sails.
Masthead - "The topmost part of the mast." (Uden & Cooper)
Moor - "To secure a ship or boat by anchor, cable, ropes or chains." (Uden & Cooper)
Outhaul - The line used to haul the lower outer corner of a fore-and-aft sail out to stretch it along a boom; on the jib the corner in question is the tack, and on the mainsail it's the clew. (Underhill)
Pin Rail - A rail fastened along the inside of the bulwarks of a vessel and pierced to hold belaying pins (see belay).
Pitch - A ship's "ability to rotate about her transverse horizontal axis, or to put it more simply, tilt forwards and backwards." (Uden & Cooper)
Poop Deck - A raised deck on the aft end of a sailing vessel.
Port - The left side of a vessel facing forward.
Quarterdeck - "The after part of the upper deck before the poop...The quarterdeck was normally reserved for officers, and only they could walk the quarterdeck." (Uden & Cooper)
Ratlines - Part of the standing rigging. The lightweight lines, running horizontally across and secured to the shrouds, that seamen stand on to climb aloft.
Reef - 1) "A part of the sail that can be taken in, rolled up and secured by reef-points." (Uden & Cooper) 2) To lower or lift that part of the sail part way and then secure it as described. This is used to decrease the amount of sail that the wind affects. 3) The line attached to the side of some square sails that hauls up the side part way to aid in reefing and/or furling.
Reef-points - Short lengths of line passing through eyelets in a sail in one or two rows. "Used for tying the reefed (def. 2) portion to the yard." (Underhill)
Rig - 1) "The classification of vessels according to the number, shape and position of spars and sails." (Colcord) With two masts, square sails on both, the Lady Washington is a brig rig. 2) "To rig a vessel is to fit her with masts, spars, sails and running and standing rigging...also used for setting up a device...e.g., to rig a lifeline, a tackle, etc." (Uden & Cooper)
Roll - "The motion of a ship about its horizontal fore-and-aft axis...more simply tilting from side to side." (Uden & Cooper)
Rolling and Truss Tackle - Lines which secure a yard from undue movement when not being used for sailing. Rolling tackle inhibits movement of the yard from side to side (as the ship rolls); truss tackle prevents movement forward and back, or toward and away from the mast (as the ship pitches). These lines are cast off for sailing.
Running Rigging - All of the lines that are put in motion to sail a vessel.
Sheet - 1) The line connected to the clew of a sail that hauls it out for use, either to the yard below it or (on the course) to a point aft on the deck. 2) In the case of a fore-and-aft mainsail, the line used to control the angle of a boom relative to the vessel.
Sheet Home - 1) To haul the sheets of a sail all the way through their guiding blocks at the yardarms of the yard below, up to the clews, until they can go no further, so the sail may be used. 2) On the course sail, this means to haul on the leeward sheet until the sail is the optimum shape.
Shrouds - Part of the standing rigging. The lines or cables, running aloft from the deck to points on the masts, used to support a mast from side to side (port to starboard).
Smartly - A rate of action. In this case, quickly.
Spar - The general term given to all of the poles used for masts, yards, etc.
Spritsail - A small, loose- footed square sail, supported on a yard (the "sprityard") carried under the bowsprit.
Square-Rigged - "Having the principal sails extended on yards slung athwart the masts." (Uden & Cooper)
Standing Rigging - The lines or cables used to support and hold a vessel's rig together-shrouds, stays, etc.
Starboard - The right side of a vessel facing forward.
Stays - 1) Part of the standing rigging; lines running aloft from on deck to points on the masts, "used to support the masts in a fore-and-aft or thwartship direction." (Underhill) 2) [Stay, verb] "To put a sailing vessel in a position to tack or go about...when she fails to react to the helmsman's intention she is said to 'miss stays'." (Uden & Cooper)
Staysail or Stays'l - A triangular fore-and-aftsail carried on a stay (rather than a yard).
Stern - "The rear part of a ship." (Uden & Cooper)
Tack - 1) A line connected to the clew of the course sail that pulls it forward. 2) The action of turning a vessel so that her bow crosses the exact direction the wind is blowing from. 3) The direction of travel of a vessel. 4) The lower corner of a fore-and-aft sail closest to the joining of the mast and boom. In the case of a sail that runs on a stay, the lower corner that is secured both to the stay and the stay's connection point.
Tall Ship - A tall ship, by definition, is a sailing vessel whose masts are in segments, made up of several timbers in order to give strength, and to make each mast more manageable for partial removal and repairs. The Lady Washington is a tall ship because her masts are each in three sections--lower, top and topgallant--joined by caps.
Taut - Tight, with no slack.
Tiller - "The horizontal bar joined at one end to the head of the rudder and providing the lever with which the rudder is moved." (Uden & Cooper)
Top - 1) A platform at the upper end of the lower (lowest) mast section. 2) The mast section next above the lower mast and the top platform. 3) The yard supported by that mast. 4) The second lowest square sail. It is stretched between the top yard and the course yard.
Topmast - See top, def. 2.
Topgallant - 1) The mast section next above the topmast and the highest mast section on the Lady. 2) The yard supported by that mast. 3) The third lowest square sail (and the highest sail on the Lady Washington). It is stretched between the topgallant yard and the top yard.
Topsail or Tops'l - See top, def. 4.
T'gallant or T'ga'n's'l - See topgallant, def. 3.
Watches - Division of the ship's company into groups for duty on deck, typically serving in rotating time periods of from two to four hours.
Way - The movement of a vessel under control.
Weather - In the direction from which the wind is blowing.
Windlass - "A cylinder on an axle, turned by a crank or brace [or, on the Lady, by direct manpower], useful for hoisting and hauling." (Uden & Cooper) A windlass revolves around a horizontal axis, as opposed to a capstan, which rotates around a vertical axis.
Yard - The spar at right angle to a mast that the head of a square sail is connected to. The yard can pivot (be braced) around the mast. At rest (braced square) the yard runs athwartships. Each yard takes its name from the section of mast that supports it, and the sails take their names from the yards.
Yardarm - "the outer ends of a yard." (Underhill)
Yaw - The movement of a ship about its vertical axis, i.e., a swinging of the bow from side to side.


Colcord, Joanna C. Sea Language Comes Ashore. Cambridge: Cornell Maritime Press, 1974)
King, Hattendorf and Estes. A Sea of Words. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1995.
Uden & Cooper, Grant and Cooper, Richard. A Dictionary of British Ships and Seamen. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.
Underhill, Harold A. Sailing Ship Rigs and Rigging. Glasgow: Brown, Son and Ferguson, 1978.

This Glossary was originally compiled for The Lady Washington Home Page by Mark Olson and Andrea Aldridge. Copyright 2012 by Creative Enterprise Studio. Special thanks to Andrea Aldridge for her informational support and editing.

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