Racing terms

Racing Terms: Glossary for Newer Sailors

If you didn’t grow up sailing, how long did it take you to figure out what sailors mean when they say “put the bow down?” After hearing from newer sailors that the language of racing is hard to decipher, we decided to create a glossary of racing terms and phrases.

We chose racing terms and phrases that are likely to be obscure to newer sailors. To keep the list manageable, we did not include basic sailing terms, words defined in the racing rules, or racing terms applicable to big boats.

Our list is generally organized alphabetically, with a few related terms clustered.

Racing Terms and Phrases for Newer Sailors

TermSynonymDefinitionMore Info
Angle of attackAngle of incidenceThe angle between the apparent wind and the chord line of the sail.Learn more
Apparent wind The direction and speed of the wind as measured from a moving boat.Learn more
Bail out Tacking away from other boats to obtain clear air. Often used for starting situations. 
Barging In starting, a boat that sails on starboard tack down towards leeward boats on starboard to try to create room. Barging violates Rule 11 of the Racing Rules of Sailing.Learn more
Bladed outFlattenedA sail that has been made flatter (less camber) with the use of sail controls. 
BlockerStarboard blockerTactical positioning to windward of a starboard boat. Decreases the chance that a port tack boat will establish a lee bow position.Learn more
Boom vangKicker, kicking strap (UK term)Block and tackle (or hydraulic ram on big boats) to control the horizontal angle (rise) of the boom.Learn more
Bow downLow mode, footSteering away from the wind slightly for more power,
By the lee Sailing downwind with the wind blowing over the leeward side of the boat.Learn more
CamberDepth, fullnessThe depth of a sail, measured from the chord line to the deepest point.Learn more
Chord lineThe chord line of an airfoil is the straight line between the leading and trailing edges
Connect the dots Strategy to sail from puff to puff while sailing on the lifted tack as much as possible.
Course Lines and TermsRhumb lineThe straight-line course from one mark to the next.See image
Course Lines and TermsLaylineUpwind: the line that lets you sail close-hauled to the windward mark (or a start/finish line mark) without pinching. Downwind: the line you would sail to a leeward mark at your optimum VMG angle.See image
Course Lines and TermsLong tack/gybeThe tack (or gybe) that lets you sail the most distance without getting to the layline. Sail the long tack first is a strategy rule of thumb.See image
Course Lines and TermsOverstoodA boat that has sailed past the layline and thus sails extra distance to the mark.See image
CoverLoose cover, tight coverTactical positioning to stay between your opponents and the next mark.Learn more
Cunningham Sail control to tension the leading edge (luff) of the sail. Sometimes incorrectly called downhaul.Learn more
Dip and tackTack and duckManeuver to escape being pinned by a boat close to windward, by bearing off to create separation, then tacking and ducking.Learn more
Draft positionDraft forward/aftThe point of maximum depth of a sail, measured in percentage of distance from the leading edge.Learn more
Ease, hike, trim Basic puff response technique.Learn more
Entry shapeThe profile of the leading edge of the sail, either flat or rounded.Learn more
Favored endLine biasStarting line: the end of the line that is further upwind. Finish line: the end of the line that is further downwind on an upwind finish.Learn more
Favored sideAdvantaged sideThe side of the course that gets you to the next mark faster, due to more wind, favorable shifts, less current, smaller waves, etc.Learn more
Feathering Allowing boat to head slightly closer to the wind during a puff. This is an additional component to the ease, hike, trim techniqueLearn more
FetchingLayingA boat that is sailing on the layline toward a mark. 
FootBow down, low modeSailing upwind at a heading slightly further off the wind than VMG mode.Learn more
Gain/lose bearingMake or lose gauge, making or losing treesA measure of gain or loss against another boat. With a hand-held compass, the change in the compass bearing from one boat to another over time. Without a compass, gains or losses can be measured by the change in the angle between the boats to a distant shore reference, such as trees. Learn more
Geographic shiftShore effectsWind shifts due to geographic features, such as nearby shore, points of land, obstacles.Learn more
HelmHelm balance, weather helm, neutral helm, lee helmHelm refers to the tiller. Helm balance refers to the pressure felt on the tiller when sailing in a straight line. Helm balance is often shortened to helm, as in weather helm, lee helm, neutral helm.Learn more
In ironsNo-go zoneBoat is stopped or moving slowly heading into the wind (the “no-go zone”).
In the grooveKeep it on the wind, pointSailing close-hauled with the sail trimmed in and the heading such that the sail is neither luffing or stalling. 
Ladder rungs Concept that upwind progress can be visualized as a series of lines (ladder rungs) perpendicular to the true wind direction. Also applies downwind.Learn more
LaneClear laneA path you can sail on one tack (either upwind or downwind) without encountering other boats or disturbed air.Learn more
Lee bowSafe leeward positionSailing upwind with a boat positioned just behind and to windward. The boat ahead and to leeward is advantaged, since the windward boat is not in clear air.Learn more
Leech shapeThe profile of the trailing edge of sail, either flat, open, or closed.Learn more
Leeway Distance or angle a boat drifts off course due to the sideways force of the wind.Learn more
Leverage A boat that is laterally separated from other boats is said to have leverage, and will gain the most from a favorable shift, but lose the most from an unfavorable shift.Learn more
Lift, header/knock A wind shift that allows you to change heading without changing sail trim. Upwind, a lift lets you sail closer to the windward mark and a header (knock) makes you sail further away from the mark. Downwind, a lift makes you sail further from the mark and a header (knock) lets you sail closer to the mark. 
Line sightTransitAn aid to judging distance to the starting line, by finding a shore reference that aligns with an end of the line.Learn more
Luff, LuffingBackwind, bubbling1) The leading edge of a sail 2) Heading up toward the wind (luffing up) 3) The bubbling or fluttering of a sail when sailing too close to the wind. 
Marshmallow A less skilled sailor. Some experts advise starting next to a marshmallow. 
Mast bend Bending the mast from a straight line, either fore and aft or laterally. Mast bend is used to shape the sail.Learn more
Mast rakeRake forward/aftThe fore or aft angle of the mast compared to a horizontal reference. Often measured by the distance from the tip of the mast to the transom. Mast rake affects steering balance and sail power.Learn more
Outhaul Sail control to tension the foot of the sail.Learn more
Pin a boat Sailing close to windward of a boat to prevent it from tacking. 
PinchHigh modeSailing upwind at a heading closer to the wind than VMG mode.Learn more
PressureVelocitySlang term for true wind velocity. 
Rigging termsStanding rigging, running rigging, shrouds, stays, sheetsLearn more
Roll tack/gybe Using weight to roll the boat, minimizing rudder use and accelerating after the sail crosses.Learn more
Sail in clear air Strategy to sail in wind that is undisturbed by other boats.Learn more
Sail the boat on its linesAngle of heelSailing with the optimum angle of heel. The design of the boat (its “lines”) dictates the optimum heel angle.Learn more
Sail the headed gybe Strategy to minimize distance sailed downwind by staying on the gybe that points you closer to the mark.Learn more
Sail the lifted tackIn phase, out of phaseStrategy to minimize distance sailed upwind by staying on the tack that points you closer to the mark. If you sail the lifted tack and change tacks when the opposite tack becomes lifted, you are in phase with the shifts.Learn more
Shifts – Oscillating Wind that is shifting back and forth around an average direction.Learn more
Shifts – Persistent Wind that shifts in one direction, either progressively, or one time during a leg.Learn more
Skewed courseUnbalanced legsA course in which the long tack is significantly longer than the opposite tack. A skewed course is not square to the wind. 
Slam dunk A boat on starboard tack (S) crosses just ahead of a port tacker (P) and then tacks as P is ducking her. If S does this right, she will end up with control, to windward and slightly ahead of P.Learn more
Spinnaker termsSymmetric, asymmetric, code ratings, sheet, guy, pole, dousingLearn more
Stalling Separation of air flow from the leeward side of a sail. Also, separation of water flow from a foil (centerboard, lee board, rudder). Stalling occurs when the angle of attack of the sail or foil is too large for the flow velocity. 
Tacking angle When sailing close-hauled, the angle between the boat’s headings on port and starboard tack. Normally roughly 90 degrees but changes by +/- 10 or more degrees in light and heavy wind.Learn more
Take a hitch Tactical maneuver to tack away from a boat ahead and then tack back to obtain clear air or more wind. 
Take heightSail more closely to the wind, as a result of extra speed. Not exactly the same as pinching, which is sailing closer to the wind but accepting a small loss in speed.
TelltalesShroud tales, luff tales, leech talesShroud telltales – ribbons or yarn placed on the side stays (shrouds) to indicate the apparent wind. Luff telltales (or sail tales, woolies, ticklers) – ribbons or yarn placed behind the luff of the sail to indicate airflow over the sail. Leech tales – ribbons placed on the trailing edge (leech) of the sail to indicate air flow.Shroud tales Luff tales Leech tales
Tiller towards trouble Expression to help new sailors sail in the groove.  Move the tiller toward the luff telltales that are fluttering. 
Traveler Control to change the sheeting angle of the mainsheet.Learn more
True wind The direction and speed of the wind over the water, as measured from a stationary reference. 
TwistTwisted, untwistedThe change in angle of attack from top to bottom of a sail.Learn more
Up in the lulls, down in the puffsSoak low, heat it upDownwind technique to maintain boat speed and maximize downwind VMG. Head up in a lull (heat it up) and head down in a puff (soak low).Learn more
Vang sheeting Tensioning the vang so that the boom moves to leeward but not up when easing the mainsheet in a puff.Learn more
Veer, backWind shift, righty, leftyVeer – a true wind shift to the right when facing upwind. Back – a true wind shift to the left when facing upwind. 
Velocity Made GoodVMGMeasure of the rate at which you are making progress directly upwind or downwind. Learn more
Velocity shift Velocity header/liftA change in the apparent wind direction due to an increase or decrease in the velocity (not direction) of the true wind.Learn more
VMG mode Sailing at the heading that maximizes the VMG, upwind or downwind.Learn more
When in doubt, let it outLet the sail breathe, ventilateExpression that reminds us to avoid over-trimming the sail. Applies in light air, in a lull, or when the boat is going slower than it should for the wind speed.Learn more
WindexWind vane, wind finderRotating wind indicator at the top of the mast.Learn more

Sailing Terms from – comprehensive list of terms, not limited to racing terms
Nautical Language – Expressions from Our Seafaring Roots – not limited to racing terms

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