Your RYA course companion – Part 1

We start with nautical terms, hull shapes, and knots and ropework ­ elements that help cruising enthusiasts choose the right boat in the first place and use it safely.

We start with nautical terms, hull shapes, and knots and ropework ­ elements that help cruising enthusiasts choose the right boat in the first place and use it safely. (September 1997).

Day Skipper – Part 1 – Nautical Terms

Nautical terms have developed over hundreds of years and many have little or no real meaning in modern English. It is important to know the more significant ones so that, at the very least, you can understand what others may be discussing.

Helpful hints

How can you remember which is port and which is starboard? Port wine is red; and red is the colour of the left.

When you coil a laid rope, remember to give it a half twist to keep the coils from kinking.

A small length of rope carried in your briefcase is ideal for practising knots during idle moments.

Hull shapes

Displacement craft

Generally, round bottomed with a maximum displacement hull speed that is determined by waterline length. The longer the waterline, the faster the hull goes in its displacement mode. At its displacement speed, the whole hull remains in the water.

Planing craft

Planing hulls have become very popular recently. The underwater hull section has changed from a round bilge to a deep-vee section, which gives a softer ride at speed, and ­ by increasing the engine power sufficiently ­ the boat can be propelled at fast enough to plane over the surface of the water rather than push its way through it.

Semi-displacement craft

By increasing the engine power, certain displacement craft can be pushed through the water at more than their displacement hull speed. When this happens, the bow rises out of the water as speed increases and they are said to be in a semi-displacement mode. There are two main types: the narrow-beam, round-bilge Nelson-style (left) and hard-chine examples like this Grand Banks.

Most geographical features do not have special nautical names so headlands, slipways, breakwaters, lighthouses, lightships and so on are generally acceptable. However, you may come across navigational marks with unusual names. A wide variety of navigational buoys may be encountered. Their significance will be explained in detail later in the series.

Ropes are made in a variety of fibres and in two main constructions:

Nylon Very elastic and absorbs shock. Can be dangerous if it parts; does not float.

Polyester Very little stretch and an excellent all-round rope; does not float.

Polypropylene Inexpensive, not as strong as polyester but it floats. Ideal for rescue lines, dinghy painters and so on.

Laid or twisted rope Normally laid right-handed (always coil up clockwise); easy to splice.

Plaited or braided rope Very smooth, ideal for halyards and so on; common on sailing boats. Difficult to splice.

Figure of eight

Ideal as a stopper. It prevents the end escaping through a block or fairlead. As a temporary measure it stops a fraying rope unravelling further.

Reef knot

The original way to join two ropes of the same size. But remember to keep to right over left and left over right, otherwise you will end up with a granny knot, which may slip.

Sheet bend

An ideal way of joining two ropes. It does not slip and is easily undone when the tension is released.


Undoubtedly, the most important knot in use on a boat. Everyone should learn how to tie it. It does not slip and can be easily undone when the tension is released. However, it cannot be tied under tension.

Rolling hitch

One of the most underrated knots. Ideal for transferring the weight on an anchor chain or rope from one secure point to another. Can be secured to other rope or chain (which is under tension) or spars and so on, which are rigid.

Double sheet bend

The belt and braces version of the sheet bend. Recommended for joining ropes of unequal size.

Round turn and two half-hitches

Ideal for securing fenders for long term, and also for securing to mooring rings and so on. It can be tied under tension.

Clove hitch

A fast way to attach a rope to a fixed object, which may need to be moved or adjusted quickly. Ideal for attaching fenders, but has a tendency to slip if left for long periods.

Securing to a cleat It is important to take one complete turn around a cleat or bollard before starting the figures of eight. A twisted turn on the last one secures the end. The initial complete turn will ensure that the rope cannot jam itself onto the cleat and makes it easier to remove.

Using a mast cleat If you are left with excess halyard when securing to a mast cleat, coil it up clockwise (make sure you always coil clockwise), and by taking the end leading off the cleat through the centre of the coil and twisting it round, it can be hooked onto the top of the cleat, leaving the coil tidy and securely attached to the mast.

Coiling ropes Almost all laid or twisted ropes that you are likely to come across are said to be ‘right hand laid’. This means that if you try to coil them anti-clockwise, they form figures of eight. The moral therefore is always coil ropes clockwise. Once the coil is formed, leave about 1.5m (5ft) to wrap around the coil about three times, pulling a loop through the gap above the wrappings and over the top of the coil. When the loose end is pulled, the coil keep its form and can be stored away.

Dipping the eye If you have to secure to a bollard that is already being used, you can, by passing your eye through the centre of all the other eyes already on the bollard, remove yours without disturbing the others ­ and other users can also remove theirs without removing yours.

Mooring The normal convention is for a head or bow rope to run from the bow to the shore, a stern rope to run from the stern to the shore, and for two springs, running from the bow and stern to the shore. Also, it may be necessary to use breast ropes to run from the bow and stern to the closest point of shore. However, be careful that they are not too short and allow the boat sufficient scope to rise and fall with the tide or with the wash caused by passing vessels.


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