Nautical Terminology – Explained

We look forward to helping those new to Sailing Terminology learn something new, but also for those experienced followers to pass on the benefits of their experience too.

So whether you are Dame Ellen McArthur (it would be great if you have made it to our humble pages!) or a first time novice, we welcome your contributions.

A sextant and dividers on a chart.
The Sextant A symbol of nautical learning
Man on the bow of a large sailing yacht with yachts in the back ground.
Man on the bow Large sailing yacht with yachts in the back ground.

Bearing Away

Giving Instruction

There are generally two directions you can steer a yacht, to port or starboard. Or left or right as you face the bows (the front on the boat).  Sometimes sailors like to make it a little more complicated! Rather than ask a helmsman (the person driving) to go left or right, or port or starboard, it is better to reference the instruction to the wind. This does makes sense.

The wind, if it is not directly ahead of you or directly behind you, is to one side or the other. If a navigator wants you to go closer to the wind he or she would call for you to luff-up.  If they instead wish you to turn away from the wind, they would use the term ‘bear-away’.

Bearing Away – Tricks.

We now know that this is turning the boat away from the wind and can be to port or to starboard.  Sometimes, especially for novices, the direction of the wind can be uncertain.  Some boats have wind instruments to help you, but it can be confusing at first and there is the possibility the wind is directly behind you, where would bearing away be then!

If you are asked to bear away, if the boat you are using has a tiller (a long, normally wooden, stick), pull or push it to the side opposite the mainsail.  If the boom is over the port hand side, pull the till over to starboard and vice versa. In doing this, you will bear the yacht away from the wind.  If you have a wheel, then turn the wheel ‘towards’ the boom.


Please leave a comment if you found this useful or you have anything to add.  We promise to respond to every remark.

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Showing 9 comments
  • TK

    An instruction to bear away is pretty useless unless it’s accompanied by a ‘quantity’. Bear away ten degrees, for example. Just asking somewhere to bear away might result in an unplanned gybe, unless a limit is set.

    • Christopher Lait

      Hi Ken, We couldn’t agree more. This and other nautical phrases are really of little value on their own. Like all languages, learning the words is one thing creating useful sentences is another. We hope this article takes you one step closer. That said it’s no replacement for attending a recognised sailing course where you can take your new found terminology and turn it into real action!

      Another way is to charter a yacht with a teaching skipper. Get a good one and you will learn all these great sailing terms, and get a chance to practise them. Thank you for your comments!

  • Chris Evans

    i agree with the comment about degree of bearing away or easing, however iny experience, the instruction must always be made with an awareness of the skill level of the helmsman or more importantly the severity of the situation. Cruising in light winds in clear sea one can be less specific- but in a dangerous situation very specific and accurate orders must be given to the helm. Because of this, clarity and unambiguous instructions are the responsibility of the Master, couple this with a pre sail briefing that makes clear what is required

    • Christopher Lait

      Hi Chris, Thank you so much for your comments! We wholeheartedly agree, the lexicon of sailing is just one aspect – modifiers and the experience and skill of the helmsman or helmswoman to react to them are key to safe navigation too. I am sure you would agree with me in saying the whole mix of skills required for safe sailing are so vast, and nuances so subtle, as to make it the most absorbing and fascinating activity.

  • David Hellar

    my helms person is my wife. You best speak in the language she understands.
    I found terminology varies. You say bear off, they say head down. We have found that if you want to change bearing, the person calling for the change should know where they are heading to begin with and therefor should call out the new heading in degrees. Not just bear off 5 degrees but bear off to 245. If your not aware of your present heading, keep your mouth shut and learn befor you speak. This rule works in any language

    • Christopher Lait

      Ah, well David, we couldn’t possibly comment on how you and your wife – special rules do apply here! If you exclusively sail together then your system only has to work for you guys.

      More generally we do agree you should talk to someone in the language they understand, and avoid jargon; but better to teach them the universal version alongside common vocabulary. That way your wife will understand instructions given by other sailors and be in a position to know how to give them to helmsmen taught by others. That said, the examples you offer seem to be pretty nautical to us 🙂

      Again we agree that bear away, head up, luff up 5 degrees in not as simple as giving a new bearing and your comment is perfectly sensible approach. We know as experienced sailors that we should be aware of choice of words and some degree of standardisation would be nice. Your comment, for me, is less about terminology and more about being simple, concise and effective – which we agree your system is.

      However, that’s not the end of the story. Giving bearings are not the only way to instruct a helm under sail and to apply that restriction would be a serious limitation that would decrease your options. For example, when your course is to wind, it is better to ask a helm to steer their “best course to windward” and a bearing would not be as efficient (amongst other things because novices are notoriously poor at following them as they become focused on the compass). “Bear away 15 degrees by pulling the helm towards you to a course of 315. The crew will easy the sail as you turn. Stand by to easy the main and foresail.”

      There other scenarios too – maybe you’re on pilotage where you are not using bearings – “leave the Red Lateral buoy to starboard” or “keep to the 5m contour around this headland”. In all these cases, bearings are not the best solution.

      This is why we think you should teach terminology to novices alongside any language or system you believe to be safe and effective. It would be unthinkable that an experienced sailor would not have phrases like Bearing Away at his disposal, or find out that new sailors were not being encouraged to learn the common nautical terminology.

  • Henry

    What if there is no wind? dead calm? Then what is your reference point?

    What if a sail boat is in irons? How do you bear away in that situation?

    What if tidal current is moving the boat?

    How do you bear away from a dock if the wind and waves are pushing the craft into dock?

    I think it is also important to mention and include that any vessel can not be steered or bear away or towards something unless water is passing by the rudder. There needs to be a force (a power source such as engine, wind, waves to propel a boat forward) to create momentum) otherwise the rudder has no turning capability or impact.

    • Christopher Lait

      Hi Henry, Some really good points which I would like to deal with individually.

      If you are becalmed, and you have no steerage (the ability to direct the boat in any direction), then you don’t have any control over which way you go, then wind-based direction terminology is rendered impractical.

      If we had a engine we turn to the compass to assist. It is rare to have literally no wind. In yacht races, skippers and tacticians often use cigarette smoke to show them the direction of the slightest zephers. Others use old fashioned cassette tape.

      If you are in irons (head to wind), you will naturally bear away one way or the other. You can influence this using the helm. On a light dinghy it’s essential, on heavier boats, you might not have any control over which way you come out. But you will bear away one way or the other!

      If the tide is moving the boat, it will almost always create some wind you can use. When racing, when you choose the tack where the tide takes you into the wind, we call it lee-bowing and will give you extra apparent wind over the other tack. In this case, the bearing away will be to the apparent wind, a vector addition of the wind created by the boats speed, the wind created by the tide and the natural wind (if near the coast will in itself be a vector addition of the gradient wind and the shore breeze. Sounds complex! In reality, the wind changes a lot, especially when it’s light enough to be affected by the tide, but you will still have the reference to bear away from. In fact, when it’s moving around, it’s even more valuable as a reference compared to giving bearings.

      How to bear away from the dock? This indicates you are being blown off (as you would have to luff up if you were being blown on). If there is no tide you can normally just slip your lines and you will drift away from the dock. As the bow will move slightly faster, you will find it noses you out quite nicely. That said, we think there is better terminology to use when manoeuvring in close quarters using the wind, but knowing bearing away might help.

      The last point about water under the rudder is very true. In this situation, no amount of terminology, including knowing and understanding ‘Bearing Away’, will help you!

      Thank you so much for getting involved, we really appreciate your engagement, we imagine many others have been helped by your comments.

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  • […] In sailing terminology, the expression luffing refers to a sailing vessel is steered towards the wind. I am going to “luff up” or “I am luffing up”. It’s the opposite of bearing away. […]

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