Sailing/Nautical Terms


Aspiring Writer
Jun 29, 2006
Can anyone recommend any good websites, books etc. to help with sailing and nautical terms? I want to sound like I know what I am talking about when my characters are aboard boats!
My father swears by Alexander Cordell and the "Hornblower," books. Although covering a similar period they have much to say not only of the vocabulary but of conditions aboard such ships.
Depending on what period you're thinking of, most good editions of Melville's Moby-Dick have a good glossary of nautical terms, along with illustrations and diagrams to help with understanding the various parts of the ship and equipment, etc.

Also, if you'll simply put in "glossary of nautical terms" using a search engine, you'll find several entries. Here's one of those from Wiki:

Category:Nautical terms - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

But your best bets would be to contact an informational service of the Navy, a yachting club, or the library, and get the most authoritative they can suggest, and keep it handy....
I enjoyed David Gemmell's Troy series; there are a lot of references to ships and sea life in them, as book one, Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow, was set largely aboard a ship. To me, anyway, the nautical references sounded genuine and believable (Gemell and his wife always researched his timelines and settings thoroughly beforehand).
I have printed off the Wikipedia list - this was the first thing I did.

What I am looking for is information to do with sailing ships - I am OK with the basic terms but beyond this if I need to have a sea journey I would be stuck.

I guess the conditions onboard would be based along the descriptions in the Hornblower etc. books.
The Hornblower series is very good indeed, and great histrical fiction. It was my favorite series of fictional books to read in college.

But if you want to see the very best in nautical historical fiction then read the series concerning Captian Jack Aubrey by Patrick O'Brian.

It will give you an unequaled understanding of how nautical terminology was employed a'sea.

The advice about consulting your Navy is a good one (I'm assuming since this seems to be a UK site this might be the Royal Navy) but the Aubrey books will give you a feel for the best employment of the terminology, and not just the denotation of the terms.

You might also try consulting this book:


Of course these materials concern a time specific era of usage.
Go to the library for a book on ships that defines the parts(capstans, spinnakers, etc.).
For American naval terms, many older ones coming from 17th century English(no UK before 1707) terms, try Nautical terms and Phrases . This is a USN history site .mil and .gov sites are military and government sites respectively. This one is Dept. of the Navy so its .mil .
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Or, since your location seems to be in England, you could make a day trip of it and go to Portsmouth (or Bristol, I suppose). And pick the brains of everyone that works at the historic dockyard, as well as really crawl around old ships.:D:D:D:D:D

You Brits are so lucky in some ways! (grumbles about the trouble of boarding planes, getting through customs, messing around with hotels, and as always, $$$$) /nautical. html

(link needs repairing)

Also Alexander Kent books.
Hello! New to this site. Which of these books would be good for sailing ship battle tactics? I'm writing a fantasy screenplay dealing with galleons and want my captains to issue correct nautical commands for both normal ship functions and battle. Thanks!
Also... make sure you pick the right time period. If you're talking 15th century, you'll have different vocabulary to 19th century due to the different sailing technology. Equally, different cultures had different approaches.

I'd echo what @The Ace says - at least as far as the Hornblower and Alexander Kent books (didn't read Alexander Cordell). I read those when I was a kid (and after!), and loved them. In a similar vein, though slightly lighter (but historically accurate as regards the sailing bits, at least), there's Dudley Pope's Ramage books - and for those who want galleons, Pope also did a short series set in the 17th century West Indies - Buccaneer, Admiral, Galleon and Corsair. He did Decoy and Convoy set in WWII as well. As I recall, the Ramage books were pretty good for naval tactics, and details like moving the ballast around to improve the trim of the ship.

To be fair, reading good sailing novels is probably an excellent way to pick up ways of making your sailors come to life, in a way that reading textbooks wouldn't. Additionally, you can use the novels as jumping-off points to show you what you need to read up on. Plus, you'll enjoy it...

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