Names of Parts of a Boat

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The parts of a boat have funny names to a landsman. Many of the names go back hundreds of years and their origins are often lost. Some make sense only if you know something of sailing ship construction in the 16th century. The names are very specific as well: Speak of the "port side, amidships," to a seaman, and he'll understand exactly where you're talking about because these phrases refer, in very few words, to particular places.

The Hull

A cruise ship sails the ocean at dusk.
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Webster's defines the hull of a vessel as, "the frame or body of a ship or boat exclusive of masts, yards, sails, and rigging." More directly, it's the part that floats.

Hulls can be made of wood, fiberglass, steel, aluminum, even concrete. They may be single hulls, called monohulls, or multi-hulls. Their bottoms and sides may be configured so that they lift up off the water slightly when power is applied--these are called planing hulls and the act of rising is referred to as "getting up on plane." They may be displacement hulls, which stay in full contact with the water, carrying heavier loads than planing hulls, at slower speeds. There are multiple variations on these two basic types, including hydrofoils, a displacement hull which rises up on "skis" like a water skier as their speed increases; and SWATH (small water-area twin hulls) hulls, which ride above the water on a single planing surface shaped like an aircraft wing below the water.

As you stand in the center ("amidships") of the hull, facing the front of the vessel, the left side is called the "port" side; the right side is the "starboard" side. You're looking toward the "bow," the pointy end, and behind you, the back end is the "stern." The distance from bow to stern is the length and the distance from side to side is the "beam."


A passageway on a ship.
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The flat surface you walk on is the deck. The "floor" is far below, the lowest flat structural surface inside the hull. The walls are called "bulkheads," the ceiling is the "overhead," the halls are called "passageways," and the stairs are "companionways" or "ladders."

A room may be a stateroom, if its quarters are for an officer or a passenger. For anyone else, it's a berth or a cabin. When you leave your cabin in the morning in search of coffee, you might go to the "head," or bathroom in less civilized environs. The name came from the practice of locating the toilet facilities at the "head of the ship." Make your way to the "galley," or kitchen, to berate the cook and find some coffee--sometimes called "a cup of Joe" supposedly named after Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, whose General Order Number 99 of 1 June 1914 banned liquor aboard American warships. (Reference 1)

If you're going to work, you might make your way "below" (downstairs) to the engine room where the vessel's physical plant--the engines, generators, pollution prevention systems and sanitary systems work their mechanical magic.

If you work in the "wheelhouse," which is located on the "bridgedeck," you may be steering the vessel or otherwise engaged in navigation.

At the Stern

The stern of a cargo ship.
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The stern is often thought of as the "working end" of the vessel. It's the back of the vessel. "Below deck," you find the engine room; above, you may find cargo or work decks. On recreational vessels you might find the exterior extension of the "salon," the seagoing equivalent of a den or parlor. On fishing vessels, you'll find the "booms "that handle the nets as they drag the ocean for seafood.

The part of the hull that's at the very back is called the transom or fantail. Webster's defines transom as "any of several transverse timbers or beams secured to the sternpost of a boat; also the planking forming the stern of a square-ended boat ." (Reference 2) In the 14th century, designers began to locate the officer's quarters at the stern, above the space where the steering gear was located. The same area is also called the "fantail," after the tail of a shrimp or lobster that fans out as the animal swims.

When a seaman refers to the "port quarter" or the "starboard quarter," he's talking about the port or starboard side of the stern.

At the Bow

The bow of a large cargo ship in port.
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The bow is the pointy end. In technical terms, the "bow" is where the forward end of the two vertical planar surfaces of the hull join at a vertical structural member called the "stem." (Reference 3)

A bow can be a "cutter bow," coming to a knife-like point to cut the waves for faster speeds at the expense of handling, or a "bluff bow," which expands to the width of the ship very quickly to allow for more deck cargo space at the expense of forward speed.

The bow is where the anchors are located and the "anchor rode," the anchor chain and the anchor cable or rope, is attached to the anchor "windlass" (the "winch") and windlass controls. The anchor, cable, chain and windlass are the boat's "ground tackle."

The "Fittings"

A close up of a pulley on a sailing boat.
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"Fittings" or deck fittings is the collective name for the cleats, bits, and chocks that are used in tying the boat to the pier. The docking lines go through them or wrap around them. "Pad eyes" are small metal plates to which lines can be permanently affixed to stabilize the masts--the poles that stick up from the deck to carry sails or equipment, like radar and radio antennas.

Fittings also include lifeboats and the appliances that lower them--called "davits," whether they are a crane or, in the case of modern lifeboats, chutes.