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Do You Have a Clew?

Do You Have a Clew?

Sailing words are weird, but learning their etymology has helped me remember what they mean.

Boom—the pole that extends aft of the mast and runs along the bottom of the mainsail. From the Dutch word boom which means beam. Similar to a microphone boom—the pole that extends a microphone horizontally towards a sound.


Boom Vang—a rope on a pulley that pulls down the boom to help control the mainsail. See boom, above, plus the Dutch word vangen, meaning to catch, according to dictionary.com. So, a boom vang is the system that catches the boom, in a way. It tightens or loosens it up.

Clew—the lower aft corner of a sail. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word comes from an early Indo-European gleu, also the root for the word clay, which meant to mass or conglomerate into a ball. This then became cliewen in Old English, meaning a ball of yarn, so it makes sense that the clew is the corner that is pulled out to unfurl a jib. On a side note, the word clue comes from the same root, from translations of Greek mythology and Theseus using a ball of yarn to get through the labyrinth, so is currently used as anything that helps to solve a puzzle.

Halyard—the line used to hoist the sails. This one is pretty self-explanatory. It comes from the Middle English word hale, meaning to haul, and the yard is a spar, traditionally wooden, that supports the sail.

Painter—a small rope attached to the bow of a boat to use for tying. Comes from the French word pendoir, according to dictionary.com, which is a rope or cord used to hang meats in a butcher shop, with the root word pendre, to hang.


Starboard—the right-hand side of the ship when facing the bow. Comes from the German Steuerbord, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, because “early Germanic peoples' boats were propelled and steered by a paddle on the right side.” Our expert David Blacklock reckons that the port side comes from the fact that due to the steering paddle being on the right-hand side of the boat, ships had to dock at ports on the left hand side, the port side. Makes sense.

Tack—1. the lower forward corner of a sail. 2. to change direction by turning the bow through the wind 3. the course of sail in regards to wind direction. According to the sources listed above, all three meanings seem to derive from the French word meaning a nail, pin or peg (like a thumbtack) and then meant a rope that fastened the front of the sail to the boat and then just became the front corner of the sail. So, when you tack to change directions, you are moving the tack of the sail through the wind, and once you’re sailing in that direction, you’re sailing on a tack. Easy enough, right?

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