Boats, Yachts, Lines, Ropes and All That

First published in several Maryland newspapers, 2/23/90  

Boats, Yachts, Lines, Ropes and All That 

by Tom Dove

“Would you call that a yacht or a boat?”, the nice lady asked. “Is that a boat or a ship?”, the tourist inquired. “What do you call that string over there – a rope or a line?”, the sailing guest queried.

Boating has one of the most colorful and extensive vocabularies of any field of human endeavor, evolving as it has over hundreds of years. For instance: A rope seldom is a rope. Once a piece of rope has a specific use aboard a vessel, it is generally called a line, just as a generic phrase spoken by a young man to a young lady is a line.

A boat is secured to the pier by docklines, each with an individual title: bowline (pronounced “bough” line, not “beau” line), sternline, springline or breastline, depending on the point of attachment to the vessel. A bowline (pronounced “beau” line) is a knot and not a rope at all. Is that not (not “knot”) perfectly logical?

If that same piece of rope is attached to the bow of a dinghy, (which is merely a small boat propelled by oars, sail or small motor) it becomes a painter. You thought a painter was someone who applied liquid coatings to surfaces, didn’t you?

If that rope raises a sail, it becomes a halyard (sometimes spelled halliard). If it pulls the sail down or out on a mast or boom, it becomes a downhaul or an outhaul – that is, unless it pulls the sail through a little hole near its forward corner. Then it’s a Cunningham. Who could escape such clear logic?

Or that same rope might tie the sail up around the boom. Then, it’s a reef point. If it holds the boom up off the deck, it’s a topping lift. If it pulls a genoa lead inward, it is a Barber hauler, but has nothing to do with getting your teenage son to get a haircut.

If a rope adjusts a sail’s position, it becomes a sheet, of course. Thus, sheets are used to trim sails on boats and not to cover berths, and that’s no bunk.

There are pendants and pennants, pronounced the same. A pendant is a short line (that’s right, a piece of rope – you’re catching on now) that attaches a corner of a jib to the boat, unless it is a short line that attaches the boat to its mooring buoy.

A pennant is a flag. That is, unless it is a frayed piece of rope that makes the boat look unkempt. Then it is an Irish pennant. My wife, a fair colleen of the Emerald Isle, gets her Eire raised by that phrase.

Enough of the lines. Perhaps you should do as one of my racing friends does. He simply calls them all “strings” to irritate the traditionalists in the fleet. 

Sticks have fancy names, too. If a stick is stuck into the top of the boat and holds a sail, it is a mast. A horizontal stick attached to a mast is a boom, probably named for the resonant sound it makes as it ricochets off a sailor’s head.

A stick that supports the top of a quadrilateral fore-and-aft sail is called a gaff. To a fisherman, a gaff is a hooked pole that can be used to retrieve fish close to the boat. It would be a gaffe to call it anything else.

Some skippers refer to the main cabin as the saloon while others call it a 
salon. Saloon is the proper English term – salon is a Madison Avenue invention. 

A boat is a vessel that is small enough to be hoisted aboard a ship. How’s that for a self-contained definition?

Finally, there is the mystery of what constitutes a yacht. As a general rule, if someone else refers to your boat as a yacht, it probably is, at least to that person. Etiquette dictates that you do not refer to your own vessel as a yacht unless it is so big or so ostentatious that the term clearly applies.

There is an interesting exception. Any sailing vessel in a race is a yacht, by definition of the racing rules. Thus, a 10-foot dinghy that is normally carried aboard a 35-foot motorboat is a yacht when she is racing against other 10-foot dinghies while the “mother ship” probably should be called a boat.

Get a nautical dictionary and put some of those neat words together randomly to make phrases to drop at the next party. For example:  “I belayed my pennant to the topsail saloon halyard.”  “The waves broke clean over the springline downhaul.” “We were six days out of Norfolk when the painter overhauled the reef points and fouled the bilge.” 

You certainly will impress someone. 

— The End —

Each part of this ship has a unique name. Be thankful that modern sailboats are simpler.