Common Phrases

  • There are many everyday phrases which we use without thinking about where they come from and many of them have origins in sailing. Here are a few, but I’m sure you can think of many more. Message us with any good one you can think of.

Above Board

Pirates would hide their crew below deck to trick other ships into thinking they were not a threat. ‘Above board’ came to symbolise honesty, as vessels who had their crew above board had nothing to hide. Today, the term means a situation or a plan that’s honest and in the open.


An ornamental figure prominently placed on the bow of a ship, with no real power or function.

Getting Hitched

A hitch is a knot used to join two ropes together.

Go With The Flow

Sailing in the same direction as the tidal flow will make the passage smoother and faster. It’s easier and more relaxing.

Hard and Fast

In nautical terms, the hard is the ground and fast means secured or fixed. So a hard and fast rule is fixed to the ground, unchangeable.

Three Sheets to the Wind

If your main sheet and both jibsheets are flying in the wind, your boat is unpredictable and out of control, much like a drunk person.

In the Doldrums

The common usage is stuck in a rut, not making progress This is used by sailors to describe a situation where there is no wind. There’s even a belt near the equator referred to as the Doldrums because it could be windless for weeks at a time. Not much use for a sailboat relying on the power of the wind to make progress. Hence, if we are in the doldrums, nothing seems to be happening, and we are going nowhere.

Loose Cannon

This expression originated from the mayhem caused on a ship when a cannon breaks free from its mounts during a storm or in battle. Nowadays, it is used to refer to someone unpredictable, spontaneous and potentially dangerous.

Hunky Dory

This phrase was coined by American sailors. It referred to a street in Japan called Honcho-dori, which was famed for providing.. ahem ‘personal services’ to lonely sailors.

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion

Bristol was a large commercial port for over 1000 years, but it was several miles inland and all large vessels would be beached at low tide. So all goods had to carefully stowed to ensure there would be no damage when she listed to one side at low tide.

Give Him Some Leeway

A captain of a ship allows for some leeway, which is when when a boat deviates from its proper course by tidal currents, wind, compass errors, etc. Likewise, we often give people some leeway to do things their own way, even if it isn’t exactly as we had planned.

Bottoms Up

This came from a time when sailors were tricked into joining the navy. An unsuspecting man was given a beer with a coin at the bottom of the glass. Once the poor man had hold of the coin, he was deemed to have accepted payment and was swiftly enrolled or press-ganged into the Royal Navy. As people began to wise up to the con-trick, they would say “bottoms up” and check for any hidden coins at the bottom of their glasses.


The yard arms were the horizontal timbers which the square sails hung from. In port, these yard arms could get caught in other ships rigging. The cock-up crew were supposed to bring the yard-arms onboard.

Learn The Ropes

The first thing you need to learn on a sailing yacht is what the ropes are for. Lesson one: they’re not called ropes.