B Flag

The single-letter signal means, ‘I am taking in, or discharging or carrying dan¬gerous goods’. The flag is a plain red swallow-tail and you will see it on vessels carrying petroleum or explosives. In the phonetic alphabet the word is Bravo. The Morse code is – ••• , but note that while most single-letter signals may be made by any means, a long and three shorts on a ship’s siren means she is being towed. You should hear it immediately after the long and two shorts (letter D) sounded by the vessel which is towing her.


An inner forestay.


Back, to (1) The wind backs when it shifts anti-clockwise – for example, when it shifts from North to West. When it shifts clockwise it is said to Veer. Back, to (2) A sail is backed by sheeting it to windward, or by pushing the boom up to windward when it is a boomed sail. (And see Aback.)

Back splice

A back splice is used to finish the end of a rope so that the strands will not become unlaid. The strands are separated for a suitable length, formed into a Crown knot, and then tucked back into the rope against the Lay.

Back Water

In rowing, to use the oars in reverse, so as to slow the boat or drive her astern.


The changing of the wind direction anticlockwise.


A wire stay running back from the mast to the after end of the boat, and so preventing the mast from falling forward. Like Forestay, backstay’s mean¬ing is clear enough, but confusion can arise from the use of other words, such as preventer, or Runner. Preventer is not much used nowadays but at one time was quite often used for ‘Preventer backstay’, a stay brought into use to prevent topmasts of gaff-rigged vessels in particular from falling forward. ‘Preventer’ can also be properly applied to any rope or wire which is rigged to prevent something shifting. The word Runner is really a short form of Running backstay, by which is meant one which can be slackened or tautened as required. With Bermudan rig there is no need to slack off the backstay, but with gaff or gunter rig a standing stay would foul the gaff or yard as it swings across from one tack to the next. Thus the runners have to be set up on the windward side on each tack, and eased on the leeward side. That may be done with tackles, winches or with the Highfield lever.


A sail backwinds another sail when it turns the wind on to its leeward side. With the type of boat that most of us sail, it is the Staysail (or Jib if you prefer) which may backwind the mainsail when both are close-hauled. When it happens, the luff of the main goes floppy and fluttery as the wind coming off the staysail strikes it on the ‘wrong’ side.


Bow badges are like cap badges, only bigger. Of carved wood, and hand¬somely painted (usually to represent the Burgee of the owner’s yacht club), they are fitted one to each bow of his yacht’s Tender instead of to his hat. Very fine they look too, and a very justifiable piece of one-upmanship. ‘Quarter badges’, on the other hand, are at the other end of the boat and are very rarely decorated. Even so they may be decorative, though their function is to protect the after end of the hull, especially the corners of the transom which tend to suffer in harbour manoeuvres.


Sometimes called Bags 0′ wrinkle, are bunches of old rope yarns made up in the same sort of way that women make soft balls for infants from ends of wool. Baggywrinkle is lashed to shrouds or backstays to pad the mainsail at those points where the sail would chafe.


Both noun and verb. Though most commonly used as a verb nowadays, the verb is derived from the noun which is the bucket or scoop with which bailing is done. Most people nowadays say Bailer when they mean the noun, though that might better have been reserved to the person who is doing it. Need I say that ‘to bail’ is to remove water from a boat with a BaiLIncidentally, and for those who are amused by such things, the French sailorman’s word for a bucket is une baille. A small open boat and her bailer should be inseparable. Tie boat to bail with a suitable cord. (See also self-bailer)


This is the quality of a boat under sail which relates to her tendency to sail a straight course unaided. Most sailing boats are unbalanced or out of balance at some time or other: that’s to say, if the helm is left free the boat will no longer hold her course. Normally it is considered desirable for a sailing boat to be slightly out of balance, so that she is always trying to luff up towards the wind, but being restrained by the pressure of the helm (Weather helm). A well-balanced boat is one which requires only a small helm angle to keep her on course. That implies only a small tiller load too, but the two are not necessarily linked, since a Balanced rudder may require only slight muscular effort even at large angles. Much effort and argument have been expended in the search for hull forms which will show good balance, the problem being to design a shape which behaves well when heeled. A sailing boat’s waterline plan is symmetrical when she is upright in the water, but when she sails she heels, and the waterline then becomes distorted, showing a bulge to the leeward side. Among the most famous, and many would say most successful, techniques for designing a balanced hull was Admiral Turner’s Metacentric Shelf theory. But it is evident that the rig also has its influence on balance, as is evidenced by the situation of a boat running before the wind with mainsail squared out. That is a notably unbalanced condition, yet the hull is upright. Except when running under a spinnaker, the sail thrust of a modern yacht is always to leeward of the centreline of the hull. C]osehauled and heeling to an angle of twenty degrees, the sail thrust is about as far off the centreline as it is when running with the mainsail squared off. Thus the designer’s true task is to balance the aerodynamic and hydrodynamic forces against each other. The wind force also has a component, acting to leeward – in effect tending to drive the boat sideways – while the keel provides a resisting force in the opposite direction. These two can form a couple whose tendency is to turn the boat’s head away from the wind – thus counteracting hull and sail forces which tend to turn her to windward. (Please see Centre of effort, and Metacentre.)

Balance Lug

A four-sided sail, commonly used on small sailing din¬ghies, having a boom at the foot and a yard at the top. The ‘balance’ comes from the fact that the forward part of the sail (and its spars) projects ahead of the mast. The halyard is attached about one-third of the yard’s length form its forward end, and the Downhaul or Tack is attached to the boom at about a quarter of its length. Sail and spars remain always on the same side of the mast. The yard is held close to the masthead by the halyard, but the boom may sag away more than seems desirable unless a Grommet or lashing is used to hold it in, though by tradition the boom is held only by the downward pull of the tack tackle. The balance lug has its devoted enthusiasts er am one of them) because it is so handy. No jib is used with the sail, which is excellent for both running and beating – the sail area forward of the mast keeps the after end of the yard up to windward and virtually eliminates twist. For a working dinghy, whose rig must go up or down quickly, it is ideal, though the yard and boom may come down too quickly for comfort if you don’t rig a double Topping lift or Lazy jacks to keep the gear above your head. (Please see Lugsail.)

Balance reef

Only those with a gaff mainsail will find this reefing mode of any value. It reduces the four-sided sail to a three-sided one by means of a reef band, with points, extending from the throat of the gaff to the clew at the boom-end. Thus, when reefed in heavy weather, the whole of the lower, front corner of the sail is furled up, and the gaff may lie almost vertically against the mast, rather like a gunter yard.

Balanced rudder

This is a rudder which has some of its area ahead of its pivotal axis; about fifteen per cent or one-sixth is very often satisfactory, and will usually achieve the purpose of taking a large part ofthe load off the tiller. This proportion is sufficient, since the centre of pressure of a rudder (like that of a sail) is about twenty to twenty-five per cent back from the leading edge, and it is desirable to have this centre aft of the pivot axis so that there is still some load in the tiller for the helmsman to feel.


Weight carried low in the vessel to aid stability. In most modern craft the ballast is integral with the boat, and consists of lead or iron bolted to the keel, or perhaps filling a hollow keel moulded in resinglass. Such a keel is known as the Ballast keel to distinguish it fromthe structural Keel. In the past, ballast was often of stones, and was simply laid in the bottom of the boat, and some modern craft still follow the same principle, which is appropriate to beamy boats of shallow draft. But in less beamy boats the aim is to get the ballast as low as possible so as to maximise its effectiveness as a righting force. If the draught is fixed at some con¬venient limit, then the more dense the ballast material the lower it cim be, and the less the weight that will be needed. That in turn is valuable, since a lighter boat may often be a faster boat. Lead, being very dense, makes excellent ballast, and has the advantage that it does not rust. Iron is not quite so dense, and thus not so good, concrete is even less dense, and although it is cheap and convenient it must be made heavier by embodying scrap iron in the mix. The result can be a good balance between effectiveness and economy. Water, because of its rela¬tively low density, is of little value for ballast in sailing craft though, like any other heavy items, it should be stowed as low as possible in the boat. On the other hand water is useful as Trimming ballast in fast power boats because it can be collected or discarded with great ease. Tanks may, for example, be fitted in the bows of a power boat where they may be filled with water if she is running with the stem too high and her stern tucked down and dragging. Forward-facing scoops may be enough to fill such tanks.

Ballast ratio

The weight of a boat’s ballast as a percentage of her design dis¬placement. The figure provides a useful comparison between boats of the same hull form, but not where hull forms are different.


A term applied to a light-weather sail which is cut full and rounded. At one time balloon jibs and balloon topsails were quite common,•but nowadays the spinnaker is the real balloon sail, and the word balloon is dropped, since Spin¬naker alone normally implies a balloon-shaped sail.


(1) By seamen and hydrographers, this word is used for a locality where the sea bottom is raised, so that the water is shallower than it is roundabout, yet still deep enough for navigation. The Grand Banks, south and east of New¬foundland, are one famous example. Nonetheless, skippers should be aware that some shoals which bear the name ‘bank’, do in fact dry at low water. (2) Yes, everyone knows what the word means when a river bank is men¬tioned, but just in case, please allow me to remind you that the right bank of a river is the one on your right when going downstream. BUT the right bank of an estuary or sea creek, or channel is the one on your right when going in the direc¬tion of the flood stream. A good way to work up a thirst is to start an argument over the point at which the change-over takes effect. Just don’t ask me …


A shallow region just outside the mouth of a river or creek, formed by silt deposited by the ebbing tide. The very last lap of a sea passage, the crossing of the harbour bar, may very often the most dangerous period of all. That is especially the case when the tide is ebbing and the wind is onshore – very rough and dan¬gerous seas are then likely to form, and even break, on the bar.

Barber hauler

A control line which adjusts the angle of a headsail sheet. Can be used in either a horizontal or vertical plane. Most often used to bring the sheeting angle inboard in light airs. Named after Californian racers Manning and Merrit Barber.

Bare boat charter

Not so bare as it sounds. The term, originating from the western side of the Atlantic, means that the boat is offered for charter, fully equipped, but without crew or consumable stores.

Bare poles

With no sail set. In storm winds a boat may run at two or three knots simply under the pressure of the wind upon her mast, rigging and superstruc¬ture.


Shell-fish which attach themselves to the bottom of your boat in large numbers and cut your speed by a quarter. Usually they form hard, conical cup-shaped shells, glued firmly by their broad base to any solid under-water object. Another barnacle species, the goose-necked barnacle, has a long flexible stalk, one end of which is attached to your boat, while the other carries the shell. Neither kind harms the structure of the hull, but either creates a tremendous drag when present in large numbers – and they do seem very sociable. Apart from beaching and scraping or scrubbing them off, they are kept at bay by Anti-fouling paints which kill them while in their free-floating larval form, when they are of microscopic size.


A barometer which draws a continuous graph of the atmospheric pressure changes. A very valuable aid to forecasting, but don’t despair if you can’t afford one – read your barometer at regular intervals (at least four times a day) and plot the readings by hand. Use graph paper, or make up your own scale. The result will be very revealing.


Barricos apart, the word has significance on a modern small yacht, since it is the part of a winch or windlass around which you turn the rope. And few small craft are without some sort of winch these days.


Now outmoded by the unromantic jerrycan. The word is Spanish and means a keg. No doubt our lads picked it up from the Dons in the days of Drake and his cuIlies, but they can’t have been very nimble with their tongues, because in English the word is pronounced Breaker. Breakers in fact seem always to have been water-barricos, never wine or rum barricos. Anyway, it’s useful bit of one¬upmanship to talk about them nowadays, and you will be marked down as a real sea-dog if you keep your outboard petrol in a two-gallon barrico.

Bathing platform

A low-level platform at or near the stern of a boat.


Bathymetric maps show a contoured plan of the seabed. They have become a common feature in electronic charts as a way to view depths.


A flexible strip of wood, metal or reinforced resin, which is used to stiffen a sail. The batten is slipped into a batten-pocket, and usually extends only a foot or two forward of the leech of the sail. But many catamarans, and a few monohulIs, have fully battened sails which extend all the way from luff to leech. The Chinese lug is a sail which is assembled around full-length battens, often with separate panels of cloth laced between each pair of battens.

Batten car

A ball-bearing car, on a track running up the mast, which holds the forward edge of a batten to the mast.


An English East-coast fishing boat now rarely to be found, though a few are preserved as yachts or as diesel-powered workboats. The bawley had modest draft, with a long straight keel, and was beamy with straight stem and raked transom. The deck was surrounded with bulwarks, and the tiller worked through the top of the transom. You, dear reader, are not likely to be offered a bawley nowadays, but many yacht designs have been inspired by the type, and you might be offered something in the bawley tradition. Maurice Griffiths developed many bawleyish yachts, and you could find out a bit more in his book Dream Ships.


A fixed navigational mark, sometimes as a warning of shallows, and sometimes as a reference-point of which you may take a bearing. In the latter case it would be called a Day-mark if unlit. Some beacons carry lights, but many are unlit, and they vary from simple bean-poles stuck in the mud (also known as Withies) to elaborate lattice girders of steel. A radio transmitter, whose purpose is to provide a fixed point on whose transmissions you can take a bearing, is called a Radio (or RDF) beacon.


(1)A thwartships structural member which extends from sheer to sheer and holds the sides of the ship, either apart or together according to cir¬cumstances. Beams also support the decks, and may support the side-decks between sheer and cabin sides. A vessel On her beam ends is heeled to ninety degrees, with her beam ends at water level, and is thus in a bad state. (2) The mid-part of a vessel when used as a reference point. Before the beam means forward of the middle of the ship; Abaft the beam, the other end. On the beam indicates a position out to one side of the vessel (see Abeam) and a Beam wind is one which comes more or less broadside on. Nonetheless, Beam in this sense is never an actual part of the boat herself. (3) The maximum breadth of a boat – one of the principal dimensions in her specification.


In a wooden hull, the ends of the deck-beams are support on a tim¬bers which run the length of the hull on each side. These beamshelves are fitted inside the Frames or Timbers. Their function is purely structural, in no way like any ordinary domestic shelf, except that both may collect dust.


To lie in a certain direction from the observer. ‘The harbour mouth bears due North, but it won’t be safe to enter until it bears 350 degrees.’

Bear away

To bear away is to turn the vessel’s head away from the wind, and that is done by bearing up on the helm. In other words the tiller is moved ‘up’ towards the windward side of the boat, that being normally the high side. So one bears up to bear away. The opposite manoeuvre, to luff up, is done by ‘putting the helm down’. Language is not logical, and I have never heard anyone say ‘bear down’ as the opposite of ‘bear up’.


The direction in which an object lies in relation to the observer, and normally stated in relation to the compass. It is important to remember that bearings are always stated from the position of the observer. If the arc of a shore light is given as between North and East the meaning is not that it shines to the North-east quarter, but just the reverse. It is visible to an observer looking anywhere in the arc between North and East. In other words the observer must be in the South-west quarter. In coastal pilotage, bearings are taken of fixed objects with a Bearing compass, normally held in the hand in small craft. Such a bearing yields a Position line leading from the object to the observer. Similarly, a bearing may be taken of a radio beacon with a suitable radio receiver, and a similar position line results.


To sail to windward close-hauled. Some writers have taken the view that to beat is the same as to tack to windward, namely to make a zig-zag track with the wind close-hauled first on one side and the on the other. I believe a beat may be entirely on one tack, and that successive beats on alternate tack are best described by the commonly-used term ‘Turning to windward’. (And see Tack.)

Beaufort scale

A scale of wind speeds devised by Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer of the Navy, 1829-55. Although it is customary to talk of a wind of ‘Force 4’, meaning the Beaufort number, the scale is strictly one of wind speed, and not of wind force.


Originally a short length of rope with an eye in one end, which was used to secure sails or spars. Later, merely the eye or small closed loop itself. Later still, and this is the sense in which we today use it, the eye in the tail of a block. Every block has an eye at its upper end, and that is normally called the Eye, but where there is an additional eye at the tail it is called a becket. (See Bight.)


A wooden chock with one or two holes through which a rope is passed. Almost always the chocks fitted to the sides of the boom, at the after end, through which reefing pennants are passed in order to bring the cringle down to the right point when reefed. (Block with two holes looks like letter B, see … )

Before the wind

Sailing with the wind astern, Running. Running free. With the wind free.


See roller reefing.


To make fast a rope or chain to any fixed object, usually a cleat or a bollard. Halyards, mooring ropes, painters and so forth are belayed. The word is also nautical jargon for ‘Kindly cease what you’re doing’. Yachtsmen who want to give the right atmosphere may use it to correct a slip of the tongue. Instead of ‘No I tell a lie’, they may say ‘Belay that, it was Force 9, not Force 7 … ‘

Belaying pin

A stout pin, perhaps better described as a short bar, arranged so that ropes can be belayed to it. Several such pins may be arranged side-by-side in a single timber which then becomes a Pin-rail, or more picturesquely a Fife-rail.

Bell buoy

Sounds like a page in a hotel, but at sea is far less chirpy, though equally useful. Simply a navigational buoy with a bell which sounds as the buoy rocks to the seas, so that you can hear it even when fog obscures it. (Please also see Buoy)


The fullness or bulgyness of a sail. Also used as a verb of a sail which swells out full and round, especially when you had wished that it would not so do.


In the cabin, and not on deck or in the cockpit. In a boat you don’t ask gran to ‘go inside’ when it starts to rain, you tell her to ‘get below’


Both verb and noun, but mainly verb. In ordinary language, to tie. A halyard is bent to a yard, a warp to an anchor, or one rope to another. Although Bend is also a noun as in Sheet-bend, it is not otherwise much used in place of the ordinary knot. In fact, knots are generically known as Bends and Hitches, among which are the Reef knot, the Clove hitch, and of course the Fisherman’s bend. Each knot must be called by its proper name, but in general conversation use Bend as the verb and Hitch as the noun. For example, ‘Bend on the dinghy painter, old man, use any hitch you like’. (See Knots.)

Bendy rig

Many modern boats have masts which can be made to curve by adjustment of the rigging, and as the mast is bent so the form of the sails changes. For example, if the head of the mast bends aft, the middle must move forward, pulling the cloth of the mainsail with it. Thus the sail is flatter and more suitable for stronger wind that it was when the mast was straighter. A bendy rig is usually chosen by racing owners who want to squeeze the utmost speed from their craft: cruising owners rarely bother.


Aground and forced to remain so because tides are ‘Taking off ” or moving away from Springs toward Neaps. Successive high waters are then lower and lower, until neaps itself when they begin to get higher again.

Bermudan rig

Or perhaps Bermudian. Some say it is as wrong to say Bermudan as it would be to say Canadan. Nonetheless, I believe that most people in Britain say Bermudan when they speak of sails, and the kind of sail they mean is a plain triangular mainsail, without gaff or yard. This is the norm for yachts nowadays. The luff of a Bermudan mainsail is held close to the mast, either by slides running in a track, or because the Luff rope itself runs in a groove formed in the after edge of the mast. Modern Bermudan sails tend to be tall and narrow (high Aspect ratio), and require tall masts, which in turn require sophisticated staying. So impressive was the array of wires that the rig when new was dubbed Marconi by allusion to wireless masts, and that term is still sometimes used. Jib-headed is an adjective defining the triangular mainsail, deriving from the time when mainsails normally had gaffs, and a mainsail in the form of a simple triangle (like a jib) was a novelty. The low aspect ratio triangular mainsail is also called the Leg o’mutton, by reason of its shape, but that is a term not much used nowadays. For completeness, this is an opportune moment to mention the Shoulder of mutton, which is very nearly triangular, but has a very short gaff. One is even less likely to come across this term in real life.


(1) Effectively a shipboard bed, or place where you sleep. (And see Bunk.) (2) A position among the crew of a boat. To find a berth aboard a boat is to become a member of her company, whether or not you actually get a sleeping berth. (3) A space in dock or harbour which may be occupied by a vessel. Also as a verb – ‘May we berth here?’ or ‘Please berth your boat alongside that barge.’ A Mudberth is a hollow in the shore where a boat may lie for the winter.

Berthon boat

A folding dinghy invented by the Rev. E Berthon in 1851. The boat had longitudinal ribs in the form of arcs running from stem to stern, the upper¬most pair forming the gunwales. The whole was covered in canvas, and the ribs were arranged to swing down to meet the keel, making a flat package correspond¬ing to a longitudinal section of the developed hull. It is many years since I have seen one, but I live in hopes that they will be revived – with modern materials it would be easy to make a very effective collapsible dinghy after this fashion. (Actually, a ‘modern’ version has been on the market in France in recent years, but it’s too heavy for my taste.)


(1) An open loop in a rope, wire or chain. Anything, such as a sail, which hangs in a deep V-shaped curve is forming a bight. And see following: (2) A bay, and especially a deep V-shaped one.


In boatbuilding and design, the bilge is the part of the hull where the bottom turns upward to form the side. On the other hand, in the use of boats the bilge (or Bilges) is the whole space in the bottom of the boat under the cabin and cockpit soles. It becomes the part between the two bilges as fIrst defIned above, and is the space where Bilge-water collects, to be pumped out by means of a Bilge pump. In talking about the shape of a hull, the form of the bilges is very signifIcant. A flat-bottomed boat with vertical sides, like a barge or narrow-boat, would be said to have extremely Hard bilges. ‘Firm’ would be another term, though ninety¬degree bilges are of course rare. The sharper the turn of the bilge, the more acute the angle between bottom and side, the Firmer the bilge is said to be. If the angle is obtuse or shallow, then the bilge is said to be Slack or Soft. (See Chine.)

Bilge keel

A keel fitted near the bilge – that’s to say not on the centreline of the hull, but outboard on the bottom. Small dinghies may have shallow bilge-keels (often with handholds in case of capsize) fItted actually at the bilges, but the bilge-keels of cruising boats are farther inboard. Naturally, bilge keels are fItted in pairs, one each side, and thanks to efforts of Maurice GriffIths, Robert Tucker and other designers they have become an accepted form of underwater surface and ballast for cruising yachts. For the same total underwater area as a single-keel they draw less water, and they allow the boat to stand upright when she takes the ground. They often help to minimise rolling, but other things being equal, a boat with two keels must be expected to be marginally slower than one with a single keel. Since the draft is less, the centre of gravity of the ballast masses in the two keels cannot be so low as that of a single keel, so the boat must either carry a greater mass of ballast or have more beam, or fIrmer sections. Theoretical arguments aside, a bilge-keel cruiser can meet all that an owner is likely to require in stability, weatherliness, manoevrability and so forth. The designer, on the other hand, must take care in providing for the attachment of heavy keels at parts of the hull where there would normally be no strong backbone. Some designers do not ballast the bilge-keels but maintain a shallow ballasted central keel, and use the bilge keels simply to provide underwater area. In such a case the structural problems are simplifIed, but there must be more underwater drag. (See Twin keels.)


A housing for the steering compass. Usually an upstanding pedestal with the compass housed in the top, but may be less ambitious in the average family boat. (Was Bittacle in bygone times.)


To make fast a warp, anchor cable, etc., to a cleat, samson post or other fItting on a boat – but not to a bollard ashore. Originally alluded to bitts but now used of cleats etc.

Bitter end

The inboard end of an anchor chain, so called because it must once have been attached to the Bitts, though nowadays it would be fastened to an eye¬bolt in the chain locker. At least it should be, otherwise the chain may go out with a run and you may lose the lot. Many small boats carry only a modest amount of chain cable and may need to bend on a warp if anchoring in deep water. At such times it is desirable to be able to free the bitter end quickly.


Stout posts or vertical timbers, arranged in pairs, sometimes with a crossbar, to which mooring ropes can be belayed. In past times the two posts located at the inboard end of the bowsprit. As well as serving as mooring bollards, Bitts are also cast in bronze and the like, and bolted to the deck as mooring bollards. Truth to tell, when it comes to these metal fIttings I wouldn’t know when to call them Bits and when to call them Bollards – but I don’t suppose that anyone else is better off… (Bitts is the singular, but like scissors and trousers it takes a plural form in language.)

Black ball

A common form of ‘shape’ as prescribed by the Collision Regulations. May be a hollow metal ball, an inflated plastic one, or two discs slotted so that they can be assembled at right angles. The colour is black, and the standard size is not less than sixty cm diameter (which is minuscule in ship terms), though craft of less than twenty metres length may show smaller balls. A single black ball is hoisted forward to indicate that a ship is at anchor. Two black balls in a vertical line show that she is ‘not under command’, and three in a vertical line show that she is aground. A black ball at the masthead and one at each yard-arm indicate that a vessel is minesweeping

Black bands

Bands painted on the masts and booms of racing boats to indicate the maximum extensions of the mainsailluff and foot. During a race, neither head, tack nor clew may be set beyond their black band, so no underhand advantage is to be had by stretching a sail beyond its prescribed area.


The flattened or ‘palm’ end of an oar or paddle. The underwater area of a rudder.

Blade jib

A high aspect ratio jib for heavy weather – usually made of aramid fibres and used on racing yachts.

Blanket, to

Not surprisingly, this means that something slows the wind as it approaches your boat. The ‘something’ can be a passing ship, a tall building, or the wicked skipper of a competing yacht who manages to place his boat upwind of yours. You then get his ‘dirty wind’.


A pulley in landsman’s language. The outer part of the block is the Shell, and the wheel that turns inside is the Sheave. A wooden block has a strop of wire or rope passing round the shell and lodging in a shallow groove called the Score. The strop has an eye at its upper end, and may have a second eye at the tail (or arse), which is then called a Becket. Wooden blocks may be metal-bound for extra strength. Modern shells are made of a variety of reinforced plastics, or simply of metal. The shell in such cases is often nothing more than a fairing over a load¬bearing metal skeleton. The opening in the shell through which the rope runs is the Swallow or Throat, and the smaller opening at the tail-end is the Breech. In choosing a block it is important to get the right type of sheave for wire or fibre rope, since they differ.

Blue Peter

The code flag for letter P, consisting of a rectangular blue flag containing a white rectangle. (See P.)


British Marine Federation. Trade association for the leisure marine industry.


As a noun it means a Tack or Leg when turning to windward. Going to windward involves successive boards, to port and starboard. When you are making a board, you are never on starboard or port board, nor on starboard or port beat. ‘We beat to windward all the afternoon, making long boards on starboard tack, and short boards on port tack.’ As a verb: well, obviously, to go aboard ….


Vehicle for moving across the surface of the water


Ah, here’s a tricky one. I wish I could dodge it. Properly, a small open craft – yet the likes of you and me all own ‘boats’ even though they may be seventy-five feet long (not mine or yours) and with several cabins. Other people may properly call your boat a Yacht, but you would never talk about ‘my yacht’ because that would mark you down as bogus, perhaps even a bounder. Boats may be sailing dinghies, ten-ton cutters, twin-screw motor yachts, twelve-metres, and (in the Navy) damn great submarines. Of coarse we don’t own ships, yet in conversation it is quite conventional to use that word of boat. ‘When I went down to my boat last weekend the whole ship was reeking of diesel oil…’ Or, of somebody’s five-tonner, ‘She’s a trim little ship she is’. But we all know she’s not really a ship.


A long pole with a hook at the end which can be used for picking up a mooring buoy or booming out a jib. There is a similar device which has a spike at the end as well as the hook, and it’s a pity the police don’t confiscate such offensive weapons.


A square-section copper rivet which is driven through a slightly under-sized hole in timber parts, and clenched over a Rove.


See Osmosis.


The stay which braces a Bowsprit down to the Cutwater, or some point low on the stem. A bobstay may be made of solid rod, of chain, or of wire rope. With chain or rope a tackle is sometimes fitted so that the stay can be slackened off when at anchor so as to obviate the stress and the grating sounds as the cable bears on the bobstay. But a strong chain stay covered with plastic piping is a simpler solution. The stays which brace the bowsprit laterally are called Bowsprit Shrouds. If the word shrouds alone is mentioned then it will refer to mast shrouds unless the context very obviously relates to a bowsprit.


An iron post, usually waisted below the head, upstanding from the quayside, to which boats make fast their mooring cables. Or a similar, but smaller device on the boat.

Bolt rope

A rope sewn along the edge of a sail to take the principal stress when the sail is hauled tight. If along the Foot of the sail it may be called the Foot-rope, if along the Luff, the Luff-rope. In dinghies and some of the smaller cruising boats the luff-rope of the mainsail engages with a groove formed in the after face of the mast, and so holds the sail in place.


Connecting underwater metal equipment to a sacrificial anode to prevent galvanic corrosion.

Bone in her teeth

The bone is the curl of white water under the stem of a boat making a good pace through the water. The expression is used of sailing boats only, and implies that she is seen to be making a fair speed.


An extra piece of cloth laced to the foot of a sail to increase its area. Mostly used by square-riggers hurrying to get their freight home; only a few per¬ceptive owners bother with them nowadays. When things get really desperate, a drabbler can be laced to the foot of a bonnet. The Watersail is somewhat similar, and is usually laced beneath the mainboom when running.


Principally a spar at the foot of a sail to give control. Almost all mainsails have a boom nowadays, and a few staysails have them too. On a staysail the ad¬vantage is that you can go from tack to tack without having to adjust the sheet. Some foresails have something akin to a short boom, called a Club.

Boot top

The part of the hull along the waterline. Boot topping is the band of paint often applied along this line. Usually just a few inches deep, it separates the bottom paint from the Topsides.


Properly boatswain (swain meaning a servant or attendant) but pronounced bosun and now commonly so written. We don’t have bosuns, but we may have stowage space which we choose to call the Bosun’s locker. In it will be stored rope, shackles, blocks and similar rigging components.

Bosun’s chair

A seat, fitted with slings so that it may be shackled to a halyard to take a man aloft.

Bottle screw

Please see Rigging screw.

Bottom boards

Boards fitted in the bottom of a dinghy with the dual aim of spreading the load fairly over the frames, and of keeping your shoes out of any accumulated bilge water. (See Grating.)


(Rhymes with cow.) A boat has a bow on each side, and the whole forepart from the point where the sides begin to curve in towards the stem is nowadays known as the Bows. An object sighted ‘On the bow’ lies away from the ship and in the arc from dead ahead to forty-five degrees aft on either side (forty-five degrees is the same as four Points). All manner of combinations arise with Bow, such as Bow-rope, Bowsprit, and so forth which are self-explanatory. But the knot called a Bowline is not to be confused with a Bow-line, or a line leading from the bow. The knot is pronounced bo-lin, so there is no problem in speech, though there is often a problem about pronunciation of Bowsprit, for which the Oxford English Dictionary prefers ‘bo’. Though I have not bothered with many etymological ex¬planations in this book, its purpose being other, it is perhaps worth remarking that the OED gives the origin of the nautical word bow as deriving from words mean¬ing shoulder. If the stem of the vessel is conceived as the head (and in the past, stems were embellished with heads and figureheads), then it is obvious that the shoulders are a little farther aft. And before we finally get shot of this matter, I myself find it interesting that the bough of a tree also derives from those ancient words meaning shoulder, a tree’s shoulders being where its arms emerge.


A motor driving a propeller near the bow that operates laterally to move the bow one way or the other to help with manoeuvring

Bower (anchor)

The bower anchor is the boat’s principal anchor, kept at and lowered from the bows. The secondary anchor is the Kedge, which is lighter, and may be stowed aft whence it can be taken off in the dinghy, dropped over the stern, or used as may be desirable. On larger vessels two bower anchors may be carried, in which case they may be known as the Best and the Small, though in a yacht it is more likely that they would both be of the same weight.


Pronounced bo-lin, it is the knot for making an eye or a loop in a rope’s end. It is one of the very few knots which a boat-owner needs to know and is illustrated here. The merit of the bowline is that it is easy to make and easy to un-make; it does not jam. A Bowline on the bight is the same knot formed in a doubled end of the rope (bight), and thus forms two closed loops. A bowline reduces the strength of the rope by about forty per cent.


Often to bowse-down. To make the final tightening of a rope, such as a halyard. To gain and make fast the last fraction of an inch. (See Swig.)


A spar projecting forward over the stem of a boat with the purpose of lengthening the sail-setting base. A Reefing Bowsprit is one whose inner end may be unshipped so that the spar can be slid aft and inboard for convenience in harbour (and possible to save fees in a marina where the charge is by length). A Steeving Bowsprit is one that can be hinged up, sometimes even beyond the verti¬cal. A Standing one does neither. Many stubby short-ended cruisers can gain in performance and interest from the addition of a bowsprit to carry a jib ahead of the staysail. A sail set on the end of a bowsprit is not easy of access, so it should stow by roller furling, or its tack may be fitted to a hoop or some other simple sliding device so that it can be drawn in to the stemhead when desired. (See Bum¬kin.)


A rope used to control the yard of a squaresail. There is a brace for each end of the yard. The lower corners of the sail ( the Clews) are trimmed by sheets.


Lines leading from the leech of a mainsail to the mast and thence down to the deck. Each line is double, passing on both sides of the sail, so that when they are pulled the whole sail is gathered to the mast. Thames barges with their heavy, boomless, spritsails are the most noted users of brailing, but some owners have found the technique useful on smaller craft. If the sail has a boom, the clew must first be cast off, of course. To brail is the verb.


A brass eye, or eyelet, such as those in awnings or sails. Consists of a brass ring and a hollow brass rivet, whose flange is turned over the ring with the aid of a punch and die. Some sailmakers call them Turnovers.

Break out

(or break ground) Modern anchors, such as the CQR or Bruce, achieve a very high holding power in relation to their weight by burying themselves in the bottom. Subjected to a horizontal pull, such an anchor may burrow several feet below the ground, and it has ultimately to be pulled out. This is the process of breaking out, and it may take a good deal of time and effort. If there is any sea running, then the boat herself may be made to help. The idea is to shorten the chain when she drops into the hollow of a sea, and to make it fast quickly before she rises to the next. Alternatively the chain may be got as short as possible and the boat then driven ahead under the power of either sails or engine. A third method is to ‘clap on a handy billy’ as the saying goes, a handy billy being a block-and-tackle arrangement one end of which is hitched to the mast, for example, and the other to the anchor chain. The final method is to buy a windlass – best of all, an electric one if you can.


A water-tub, or Barrico. Or in the ordinary sense of a breaking sea.


A small upstanding ledge or coaming across a deck or coachroof whose purpose is to deflect water coming from forward so as to keep it away from the cockpit.

Breast hook

A natural crook of timber, shaped like a broad V, which is fitted behind the stem of a wooden boat to link the two carlins, or a pair of Strakes or Stringers.

Breast rope

One of the six basic ropes used to moor any boat alongside a quay, a pontoon or another boat. They consist of three pairs, and the breast ropes are the two which run more or less at a right angle between the boat and the wall, one forward and the other aft. Breast ropes must be slack enough to allow for any rise or fall of tide. Even where there is no such movement (as when one boat is moored alongside another) the breast ropes should not be too tight. (See Warps and Springs.)


The opening in a block between Sheave and Shell which is not big enough to pass the rope. On the opposite diameter of the sheave is the Swallow, and that of course, is big enough to pass the rope.

Breeches buoy

A man-lifting harness consisting of a circular lifebuoy with canvas ‘knickers’ into which you put your legs. In bringing people ashore from a stranded boat, for example, the breeches buoy runs along ajackstay set taut from ship to shore.

Breton Plotter (also Portland Plotter)

A transparent plastic charting aid with an adjustable compass rose that allows you to enter variation to obtain courses directly in magnetic north.


A transverse structure at the forward end of the cockpit in many a small modern sailing cruiser. You step over it en route from cabin to cockpit., and it may house the engine or just be a stowage space. Big ships have a bridge where an officer may often be on duty when the ship is under way …


No, not brass, not stainless steel, nor chromium plate. This is the sailor’s term for varnished timber parts above decks. Brightwork is kept bright by removing salt crystals with fresh water – in fact a seaman makes it a before¬breakfast task, using the pure distilled water provided by the night’s dew.

Bring up

To bring a vessel up is to anchor her. The term is also sometimes used of mooring to a quay or another boat. Not unlike ‘pull up’ in motoring.

Bristol fashion

In tip-top, shipshape condition. Dates from the days when the seamen and shipwrights of Bristol had a reputation for excellence.


A vessel broaches-to when she slews broadside to wind and sea, taking a will of her own and overriding the helm. It is a phenomenon which occurs when a boat is running before the wind in heavy weather. For many years it has been held that the correct procedure was to slow the boat down in extreme conditions, by trailing large bights of heavy warp astern. But Adlard Coles in Heavy-Weather Sailing (Adlard Coles) put the view that modern yachts might do better to keep sailing as fast as possible in order to make the rudder effective. The emphasis is on ‘modern’, since boats of the past had straight stems and long keels and the forward underwater area naturally tended to dig in and slew the ship. Modern vessels tend to have their keel area well aft, with the forefoot cut away into a long gentle slope, and therefore to have more of an underwater weather¬cocking character.

Broad reach

A point of sailing when the wind is abaft the beam, but less than dead astern. (See Reach and Large.)


Copper-based alloys, among which Silicon-bronze and Aluminium¬bronze are suitable for use in seacocks and other vital parts which must resist corrosion. Manganese bronze on the other hand is just a fancy name for brass which is good only for cabin fittings and the like.

Bruce anchor

This anchor has good holding power and stows neatly at the stem-head. It has three curving Flukes or palms, and acts by burrowing into the bottom.

Brummel hook

In the US of A this is the kind of inter-locking pair of C-shaped hooks which is known in Britain as an Inglefield Clip.


Boat Safety Scheme. A mandatory certificate on most British inland waterways vessels

Bulb bow

A Forefoot with underwater bullet nose, whose purpose is to reduce wave-making drag.

Bulb keel

A keel with an additional cylindrical or torpedo-shaped ballast weight along its bottom edge.


A vertical partition running fore and aft or athwartships, but usually the latter in small boat parlance. The main bulkhead is the after end of the cabin, separating it from the cockpit.

Bulldog grip

A saddle-shaped steel clamp which, when assembled with a U-bolt and nuts, can hold two wires together. Every small craft with wire rigging should have a supply of Bulldog grips of the matching size on board. If an eye is to be made in the end of a wire, the end is brought round a thimble and clamped tothe standing part with two grips. The saddle-piece must go against the standing part, since the U-bolt would tend to cripple it.


A wooden block or thimble, bored to take a rope and to act as a block (without sheave) or as a fairlead. Bullseye fairleads are nowadays more likely to be made of Tufnol or nylon, but the latter is quickly worn away by a rope, prob¬ably due to softening by heat of friction.


(or bulwarks) Raised woodwork running along the side of the deck to act as a wall so that gear or people are not washed overboard. They also keep the wind off for sunbathing.


A floating shop. Not often seen nowadays, but would be welcome around popular anchorages with newspapers, ice-cream, bootlaces and the like.


A short fixed spar extending aft over the stern of the boat to provide an attachment point for the backstay. On a short hull this allows the boom to be longer and the mainsail to be larger. The similar thing at the other end of the boat is a Bowsprit.


A fixed, built-in sleeping berth, properly of partly boxed-in design. A settee-berth is not really a bunk, nor is a canvas fold-up pipe-cot. Still, they can’t hang you for calling them bunks if you like -lots of people do.


The middle part of a sail.


A worsted material of rather open weave used for making flags. And the word is also used for flags collectively as in ‘Let’s string up the bunting, it’s the Queen’s birthday.’


A floating mark, anchored to the bottom. Usually a hollow vessel of steel, glass-reinforced resin, or moulded plastics, it is likely to serve either as a marker for a laid mooring, or as a Navigational Mark. Navigation buoys may be lit or unlit, may carry a radar reflector or even a radar transmitter responding to the emis¬sions of a ship’s radar, and may come in a wide variety of shapes and markings. For details see almanacs or pilot books. (See also Bell Buoy.)

Buoy hopping

Pilotage by picking your way from buoy to buoy, reading the name of each and identifying it on the chart before setting off in search of the next. A rather amateurish (but reassuring) way to find one’s way about, and usable only in well-buoyed areas.


The power to float, inherent in a body whose density is less than that of water. The word is often used to define a buoyant material or construction, as in ‘This dinghy is well equipped with buoyancy’, meaning that she has a number of buoyant bags or tanks fitted. Speakers, and even writers, often show confusion about the action of such buoyant compartments in a dinghy. As long as a dinghy is floating by reason of her own displacement, such compartments simply add weight which, although very slight, tends if anything, to weigh her down. It is only when the dinghy is swamped that these sealed volumes show any benefit.


A small triangular flag flown at the masthead usually to a design and colour peculiar to the owner’s club. The burgee serves to indicate wind direction. A swallow-tailed burgee is flown by the Commodore of a club.


A saucer-shaped copper washer which is slipped over the top of a copper boat-nail before the end is riveted. In England the same thing is known as a Roove


A general term for a wired system for exchanging electronic data or power. Data buses typically consist of a backbone cable with droppers to individual instruments or switches, while a power bus is usually a bar wired directly to a battery terminal, with multiple terminations to allow several devices to be connected.

Bus bar

A strip of metal used to distribute battery power to multiple devices


An underwater bulge in the after end of a (usually) sailing boat’s hull. This swelling of the sections at the Run helps to diminish drag due to wave¬making.

Butt strap

A Butt joint is ajoint made by two planks (e.g.) joined end to end. The Strap is a third piece of wood bridging the joint (usually on the inside) and glued and screwed (or clenched) to the two principal pieces.

Buttock lines

Fore and aft vertical sections of a hull on a drawing. The shapes which would be revealed if the hull were sliced parallel to the centreline on a bacon slicer. (See Lines, Waterline and Sections.)


The underpart of the after end of the hull, where she turns up from keel towards the transom or counter.

By the head

A boat is said to be by the head when she trims bow down, in other words, with too much weight forward.

By the lee

The condition of a boat running, which has the wind off-centre and to the same side as that on which the mainsail is boomed out. A condition in which a gybe is therefore imminent.

By the stern

Trimmed too heavily aft. More common in small cruisers than ‘by the head’ since the weight of people and gear tends to collect aft, and because heavy outboards also thrust the stern down if not set at the correct angle.