Nautical Terms and Naval Expressions: Seamanship Edition Part 1

By Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

Basic seamanship is the foundation for a Sailor’s life at sea. Whether it’s line handling, understanding basic navigation, or just knowing your way around the decks of a ship—understanding basic seamanship plays a role in keeping Sailors organized, oriented and SAFE. In this series of infographics, we will explore the meaning and history behind a few seamanship terms:

Fore

No surprise here, but the term fore refers to the front, or forward, part of the ship. This is the area where the bow is, the point of the vessel that is usually most forward when underway. Think: before, forward, or foreground.

Aft

As you’d imagine, if there’s a term for the front of the ship, there has to be one for the back, and that term is aft. If someone sends you aft, you should make your way to the rear of the ship where the stern is. Think: after, aftermath, or afternoon. When someone uses the phrase “fore and aft,” he or she is referring to the entire length of the ship from bow to stern.

Port

When you’re on an airplane or bus it’s pretty easy to tell left from right because there’s usually a center aisle with seats on either side. On a ship, however, there isn’t typically a convenient center aisle to differentiate between the left and right sides of the vessel. So, if you draw an imaginary line down the center of the ship while facing the bow, the left side of the vessel is referred to as the port side. Back in the day, the port side was referred to as larboard, derived from the term load board because the ship was loaded from that side. However, over the noise of the wind and the waves, larboard sounded too much like the term starboard—the right side of the ship. Confusing these two terms could cause a serious shipwreck. So in 1846, the term port was adopted.

Starboard

Starboard refers to the right side of the ship (when facing forward). The term may seem obscure, but it is actually derived from the term steerboard. Before the rudder was invented, the steering oar was carried and operated from the right side of the ship, so it made sense that this side of the vessel was called the steerboard, as opposed to the left side, or load board, where the load was carried.

Anchors Aweigh

This phrase may instantly have you humming the official song of the U.S. Navy in your head, but the phrase is actually called out when the anchor has been pulled up and the ship is free to sail on its own. The word aweigh is derived from the Old English term woeg, meaning “to raise.” Why is this an important part of seamanship, you ask? Well, if the ship set sail before the anchor was aweigh, a dragging anchor can impact the safety of other vessels in the vicinity, cause a collision with another vessel, or catch an underwater cable or pipeline causing serious damage.

Steady As She Goes

This navigational command is usually given by the officer on duty to the helmsman indicating that he or she wishes to continue on whatever course the compass is pointing at the time the command is given. Often times, this command is given when the officer on duty wishes to proceed in a direction that is slightly short of the intended course.

Fathom

The term fathom has roots in Dutch, Latin, and Old English words and is basically a unit of measurement, roughly six feet, taken when one stretches his or her arms wide, as if giving a hug. In fact, the Old English word faethm, means “to embrace.” It is now used as a nautical unit of measurement equal to exactly six feet.

Like this infographic? Explore our entire series of Nautical Terms and Naval Expressions infographics to learn more about your U.S. Navy’s heritage!