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Junior Seamanship: Terminology, Safety and Navigation Basics

Written by: John Maguire

Getting on a boat and sailing sounds like a difficult task: You need to learn the terminology, and you also need to learn the skills and rules required for the task. In the end, though, you can travel to any far-off destination you want, go fishing on your own schedule, and enjoy the wind in your hair. It just takes a bit of study to get started with this fun and unique skill.

Safety Basics

The number one way to keep yourself safe on the water is to know the navigation rules. These rules govern how to make your ship safe, how to move through the water without hitting other boats, and generally how to be safe while you're on the water. The rules include not only what signals are required but how to move when another boat is near you. If you and another ship are headed for a head-on collision, it's very useful information to know that both of you should be shifting to the right. If one of you didn't know the rules and shifted to the left instead, you'd be in trouble!

Of course, safety gear is a must on a sailboat. This includes personal flotation devices, which should be be worn at all times, as well as fire extinguishers and lights. Being vigilant and aware of your surroundings is also key to safety on the water.

Basic Boating Terminology

The first group of terms that you'll need to know before becoming a seafarer pertains to the parts of a ship. Some of the most common terms to keep in mind are:

  • Directions on a Boat: The front of a boat is called the bow, the rear is called the stern, the left side (when standing at the back of the boat facing forward) is called port, and the right side is called starboard. These unambiguous directions make it easy to figure out which area people are talking about on a boat.
  • Leeward and Windward: Leeward is the direction opposite to the way the wind is blowing. Windward is the direction in which the wind is blowing. Knowing the way the wind is blowing is important for sailing.
  • Tacking and Jibing: These are maneuvers you can take at sea that involve turning through the wind.

Knowing the terminology before you start to cruise is important, especially since most websites and guides to sailing techniques will assume that you know these words and use them liberally.

Navigation Basics

When you think of a compass, do you think of the round devices with a needle that you hold in your hand? A marine compass isn't quite the same thing. It's designed to be used on the waves, so it's filled with water to keep it steady. It also includes lines on the side, such as the "lubber line" that tells you which direction you're actually moving in. The boat isn't always moving the way the nose is pointed!

Once you're used to the compass, navigating is mostly a matter of reading charts and measuring how far you've moved. Another tactic that's useful for manual navigation is using parallel rulers, which can be used to find the exact compass direction that a waypoint is located in in relation to yourself.

It's likely that you will be able to chart a course electronically, especially on a modern boat. However, electronics can fail. Knowing how to navigate manually can be a lifesaver if your electronic navigation equipment is destroyed or stops functioning.

Beacons and Buoys

You're not out there alone; the ocean is dotted with lights and buoys that are designed to help you navigate. Knowing how to read them is a necessary skill for boating. For example, when returning to port, all red buoys should be on the right side of your boat. This is known as the "red, right, returning" rule. Be aware, however, that this is a U.S. rule and may not always be true internationally. If a channel splits into two, then you may see buoys with both red and green on them. Follow the top color as you would normally to enter the primary channel, and do the opposite to cruise into the secondary channel.


Knots are their own unique area of study. Often. on larger ships, a sailor will have to moor their ship using 16 different ropes, tying each one. The most popular knot for mooring a boat to a dock is the cleat hitch. The bowline knot is useful both on boats and everyday; this is how you tie a knot that includes a sturdy loop for general use, and it's easy to untie.

Docking and Anchoring

Docking your boat only takes a few steps but has to be carried out with precision for the sake of safety. There are two different ways to dock, depending on the wind and which way it's blowing. If it's blowing at your back, simply pull in slowly and let the wind drift you to where you need to be. If the wind is in your face, you must approach at an angle and swing quickly to dock.

To anchor a boat, first, you must choose the right anchor based on your boat, location, and conditions. Then, lower the anchor slowly and carefully from the bow, and slowly reverse until the anchor is set. Don't forget to reverse hard once it's set to be sure.


Even if you're just out for a nice cruise, you have to be aware of what to do in case of an emergency. The most common emergency is a collision. This is why you have to know the rules of navigation: to help you avoid dangerous collisions.

Falling overboard is another common emergency. This is why always wearing a life vest is important. The driver must always be prepared to swing around quickly and stop in case of a person overboard. The driver should also always be wearing a kill cord so if they fall overboard, the boat will automatically shut off.