Are you in United States?
Visit our website

Vocabulary of the Sailor


As with all professions, and this one being one of the oldest in the world, navigation is rich in both ancient and extensive vocabulary. Many of our current common words and expressions, such as "worksite" or "pioneer", come from rivers and canals, without us knowing it. Also, while river boating is once again becoming popular, let us speak the language of the sailor and avoid, for example, calling anything that navigates a canal or river a "barge"! Do we call everything that sails at sea a "trawler"?

Do we call all sparkling wines, crémants, and other equally lovely bubbly drinks "Champagne"?

Approach, mooring: maneuver to bring a boat towards a bank, a dock, or even another boat in order to immobilize it by mooring.


Mooring: securing one's boat to the shore using mooring lines.

Upstream: in relation to the observer, the part of the river or canal between him and the source or highest point of the canal. If you look at a river flowing from left to right, upstream is on the left. Upstream refers to the mountain, so it is up. The opposite is downstream.

Going downstream: a boat that is going down the canal or river (moving away from the source or the head of the canal). At equal size, the downstream boat has priority. It is also said that the boat "is going down." It is also called an "avalant lock." It is simply an ordinary lock that is crossed in the descending direction.

Port and starboard: left and right, exclusively referring to the boat (maritime, but tolerated in river navigation). For the river or canal, the terms left and right are used, for example, to designate the banks.

Marking: set of fixed or floating signals used to delimit the river channel.

Vessel: a boat weighing over 20 tons. It has priority over smaller boats.

Bank: physical limit between the liquid surface and

Marking: set of fixed or floating signals used to delimit the river channel.

Vessel: a boat weighing over 20 tons. It has priority over smaller boats.

Bank: physical limit between the liquid surface and the shore.

Bollard, cleat, bitt: cylindrical or mushroom-shaped mooring devices on the dock or boat. To refer to the device at the dock, the sailor often uses the term "pieu" (stake).

Hold: a large compartment that occupies most of the cargo ship, and in which the transported goods are arranged.

Harbour master's office: A marina is equipped with a building where the "harbour master" of the port works, which is its manager. He is responsible for assigning boat locations, collecting occupancy taxes, "policing" the port, ensuring its proper maintenance, and so on. The presence or absence of a harbour master's office makes the difference between a port and a mooring point.

Towpath: a path located on a canal or a canalized riverbank where boats were towed, whether by humans, animals, or machines. Since the general motorization of boats led to the disappearance of towing, these paths, which remain primarily service paths for the needs of navigation personnel (mainly lock keepers), tend to receive today "green" leisure activities: cyclists, rollerbladers, horseback riders, hikers, with the instruction that each activity does not conflict with the others, and a fortiori does not impede the action of DDE staff for whom it is both the location and tool of work.

Breakup: a natural clearance of the river or canal of its wrecks or, more often, its ice blocks after a jam. A too sudden breakup (due to too rapid thawing, for example) can be dangerous for boats.

Fenders: on the boat, a generic term referring to the reinforcements (moustaches, arrivotes, and dérivotes) intended to protect the hull at the front and rear, mainly on the shoulders. Formerly made of wood, they are now made of metal on commercial boats or hard rubber on lighter boats such as pleasure craft. The word also refers to wooden or hard rubber beams, suspended horizontally, or sometimes vertically, at the end of ropes, which serve the same purpose. The official term is "sliders". Tires can also do the trick, but they are not allowed because of their non-floatability.

Delta: the mouth of a river into the sea, or of a tributary into another watercourse, when it divides into several arms. In Europe, the Rhône, Rhine, and Danube end in deltas.

Etymology: the Greek letter "delta" in the form of an equilateral triangle.


Duke of Alba: a large metal stake, equipped with bollards placed at different heights, and placed at some distance from the bank of a large river. A Duke of Alba is generally not alone. They are most often placed at the entrances and exits of locks and allow boats to moor while waiting to pass through the lock. They are sized according to the largest vessels that frequent the river and are therefore not always practical for small pleasure boats.

Origin: "Duck Dalbe," which in Low German means "diving lath." A popular tradition, but one that is questionable, attributes the invention of the Duke of Alba to the Spanish general Ferdinand Alvare de Toledo, governor of the Netherlands and actually the Duke of Alba (1507-1582), who had this idea to moor his boats at low tide.

Lock: an engineering structure that allows a boat to smoothly traverse a height difference without leaving the water. Comparable to a staircase. A diffuse origin invention appearing towards the end of the Middle Ages, replacing the old locks.

Originally, the word "écluse" referred to a mill or fishery sluice. It still has this meaning locally. The boat sluices themselves were then also called "navigation locks". It was only after the invention of the sluice, around the 15th century, that the term "lock with sluices" or "lock with double doors" was used. Etymology: From the Latin "aqua exclusa": separated water.

Splice: Joining of two ropes by braiding the intertwined strands, or of a rope on itself to make a loop at one end.

Estuary: The mouth of a river into the sea, when it is in the form of a large single arm. An estuary is often shaped like a more or less tormented horn. Navigation is subject to maritime rules. The Loire, the Seine and the Garonne all have estuaries. Etymology: Latin aestuaris, emissary (which also gave "étier").

Float line: the line corresponding to the intersection of the surface of calm water and the side of the boat. Its height varies of course according to the load of the boat, but the reference waterline is that taken when the boat is empty. It delimits the live and dead works.

Sea-river vessel: self-propelled vessel of high tonnage and size, capable of sailing at sea as well as on rivers. A river-sea vessel generally weighs around 4,000 tonnes, and there are examples on the Saône-Rhône axis, on the Seine, the Oise, the Rhine, etc. They are also called "cargo ships".

Godille: an oar placed at the back of the boat to ensure both propulsion and steering. The result is a technique for propelling boats, widely used by bargemen for their boats. The sculler stands at the stern of his boat, presses the oar against the transom and gives it an alternating movement from one side to the other, changing the incidence of the blade with each translation, which makes this technique, which is said to have come from China, appear to be a prefiguration of the propeller. In skilled hands, the scull is very practical for scooping a boat where side oars would be awkward. In addition, it is more energy efficient because there is no dead time due to the return of the oar from the water. Probable etymology: Latin "cauda", the tail (on several types of old riverboats, the oar so placed at the stern was called "oar of coue (tail)", via a form "caudicula", small tail. Also related to the Italian musical term "coda".

Towage: A very old method of pulling river boats. The towing consists of pulling the barge from the bank by means of a long rope fixed to a mast, in its front third, which prevents it, with the help of the rudder, from getting too close to the bank. Hauling can be human, animal or mechanical (by tractors on tyres or rails). Totally disappeared in France between 1965 and 1970.

Kilometre kilometre-hour: in rivers and canals, neither "mile" nor "knot"! We speak in kilometres and kilometres per hour.

Ballast: a boat may need to be ballasted, i.e. the draught of a boat may need to be increased, particularly in the case of a former merchant ship transformed into a houseboat, for several reasons, mainly to be able to pass under bridges. For this purpose, the bottom of the boat is filled with heavy materials: cut rails, cobblestones, concrete blocks, metal scraps, sand... (Lead and mercury are strongly discouraged!). It is strongly recommended to use a removable ballast, and not to pour a concrete slab for example: waterways can be seen better and more quickly, before they have caused major damage, and repairs on the bottom of the boat are easier. Unlike ballast, which is temporary, ballast is permanent.

Marquise: the cockpit of a ship. It is the sailor's term for the wheelhouse.

Windward: In canals, the wind is the sailor's most common enemy, especially when travelling unladen, with the boat high up and therefore offering a large catch. To counteract the effect of the wind which pushes him towards the bank, the boatman has to turn the bow of his boat towards the side from which the wind is coming, and thus move forward "crabwise" (and when the wind suddenly changes side, you have to react very quickly...). This is called "sailing into the wind".

Going upwind: on a canal, the wind is the most common enemy of the boatman, especially when he is travelling unladen, with his boat high up and therefore offering a large catch. To counteract the effect of the wind that pushes him towards the bank, the boatman has to turn the bow of his boat towards the side from which the wind is coming, and thus move forward "crabwise" (and when the wind suddenly changes side, you have to react very quickly...). This is called "sailing into the wind".

Moustaches: strong protections made of metal (formerly wood), or of plastic padded with rubber, fixed on the most vulnerable points of the boat (front and back sides).

Barge: a transport boat of Flemish origin, and certainly not a pleasure boat! The difference between a barge and a pleasure boat is the same as between a semi-trailer and a motor home. The "real" barge measures 38.50 metres (or even 39) by 5.05 metres and carries 250 tonnes in canals, and 350 tonnes in deep rivers. It is this boat, also called "spits" in Flanders, that determined the Freycinet gauge in France. Originally, the barge was made of wood and was not motorised. When it was motorised, it evolved into the self-propelled canal boat we know today.

Remous: term used in the past by engineers to designate not the water that escapes under a dam, but that which is retained upstream of it: "The Loire, in the remous of the mobile dam established on the river at Roanne, is in communication with a large basin..." (De Mas, "Canaux"). Nowadays, the term "retention" is used instead.

V.H.F.: abbreviation of "Very High Frequencies". Hertzian radiotelephone telecommunication system. The CIBI, for example, is a VHF. It is widely used in inland navigation between ships, or from the ship to a land-based structure, usually a lock. HFV uses a frequency band between 30 and 300 megahertz. Its use is recommended (and very useful) on large rivers such as the Seine, the Oise, the Rhône, the Saône, the Moselle, the Rhine...