Top 10 Sailing Phrases We Use Everyday

Sail ship in the ocean
Sail Ship  – Image source Shutterstock

Sailing phrases kept popping up recently as I was reading two books simultaneously on sea adventures. One was on maritime history and another on the first Indian solo circumnavigation under sail. I happened to visit the Indian Navy ship Mhadei in Goa and saw some of these sailing phrases come alive, as the team showed me equipment on board. The result – a bit of research and this post :

Sailing Phrases used in daily life

Feeling Blue

We all know feeling blue means feeling sad or low. Obviously, there is no blue that we see around when we feel sad. Blue is not even the color that is associated with sadness in most cultures I know of. It was while researching for a post I stumbled upon the meaning of ‘Feeling Blue’.

In good old days when a ship lost its captain during the voyage, they would fly a blue flag as they entered the harbor. Sometimes, they also have a blue band painted on the hull of the ship. This tradition led to the phrase ‘Feeling Blue’.

Loose Cannon

We all know some Loose Cannons around us – people who can not be trusted with any word. They can go out and say anything and cause the damage.

The phrase ‘Loose Cannon’ comes from the times when canons on sailing vessels would come lose. Cannons would be banging everything around causing a lot of damage. They would also give a tough time to the crew trying to control them and put them back in their position.

Sounds familiar !

Son of a Gun

I always wondered about this phrase. Now, I know it roughly refers to the unknown legitimacy of birth. I was always confused about the possible relationship between a gun and a birth. The mystery was solved when I heard stories that spoke about the sailor’s liaisons at ports. Sailors are known to have women at every port. Well, when on port they would get some of these women on the ships. They never had any private space so the usual place they met at was between the guns and cannons. The children born from such liaisons came to be known as ‘Son of a Gun’.

Another version says, that pregnant women on board used the space between the guns and cannons to deliver children. Hence the phrase.

We would never know which version of this sailing inspired phrase is true, maybe both are. However, I am happy I know the gun and the son connection now.

By and Large

Sunset or Sunrise - no sailing phrases tell us that
Sunset or Sunrise – no sailing phrases tell us that, Sunset image source – Shutterstock

When we say By and Large everything is fine – we mean mostly everything is fine, there may be smaller altercations here and there. The words in this phrase are so generic that I would have never imagined a nautical connection, till a reading presented the meaning to me.

To understand this, you must know what BY and LARGE mean in the sailing parlance. By means into the wind while large means with the wind. So for a sailor when he says ‘By and Large’ he means all possible sailing scenarios are taken care of. The most common use of this phrase is ‘ “Ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and large.” Another common saying is By and large this ship handles quite nicely.”


I am sure you have heard people say ‘I am in Doldrums’. I always wondered what this cryptic word Doldrum means – my thoughts were definitely in the direction of beating the drums. Never in my dreams, I thought of it coming from the deep seas.

The area around the Equator is known as Doldrums. The winds here are supposed to be too light making it difficult and sometimes impossible to sail in this region. It is like being stuck there for a while.

I also gather that word Doldrums is a combination of two words – Dull & Tantrums. It was adopted by the sailors for the region slightly north of Equator – between the trade winds. What are trade winds – just see the next phrase

Is it not fascinating how new words evolve from the old ones.

Trade Winds

Sail boat in the sea
Sail boat in the sea, Image courtesy – Shutterstock

‘Trade winds’ refers to the easterly winds around the equator. You could say the winds around doldrums. The dictionary definition says:

a  wind  blowing  obliquely  towards  the  equator  either  from  the  northeast in  the  N  hemisphere  or  the  southeast  in  the  S  hemisphere,approximately  between  latitudes  30°  N  and  S,  forming  part  of  the planetary  wind  system

When I read it for the first time while reading about a sailing expedition, I assumed these might be the trade enabling winds. I was wrong. They do enable maritime trade but that is not how the phrase came to be.

The phrase ‘trade winds’ has its origins in another phrase – Blow Trade. Blow trade essentially means blowing steadily in one direction.

In our day to day lives, it means a regular force that is moving in one direction referring to a trend.

Unchartered Waters

Unchartered waters refer to areas of the ocean that have not been mapped, and therefore it is unknown how to navigate them safely.

So you know what it means when you land in a situation where there are guidelines, no precedences and you are totally on your own. Generally, it means finding oneself in an unknown situation.

I could say all 12 years of my blogging journey has been like sailing in unchartered waters. Sailing with the winds and against the winds, you find your own path.

Roaring forties

If Doldrums are the quieter part of the sea, the strip between latitude 40 and 50 in the southern hemisphere is known for its strong winds. Winds here come from the west and they are strong that the first sailors to encounter them gave them the name – roaring 40s. I do not know much about sailing, but my reading tells me that sailors prefer this zone, especially when they racing or competing against time. This zone can help them sail fast.

Does not sound too different from the human life – most humans are roaring in their 40s – I mean performing their best.

Know your ropes

Know your ropes typically means know the tool and tricks of your trade.

Knots used by sailing boats & sailors
Knots used by sailing boats & sailors, Ropes Image courtesy Shutterstock

Ropes are the most important part of a sailboat, they need to be managed and maneuvered in the right way for the sail boats or wind-powered ships to move to in the desired direction.

Knowing your Ropes also refers to the various types of knots that you can tie with ropes. This is something similar what mountaineers also do.

Two related terms here are pulling the ropes and pulling the strings.

Taken Aback

Some of you might have been taken aback by the unusual origins of the everyday terms we use. Let me close this post by telling you even the phrase ‘Taken Aback’ comes from the nautical world.

Aback comes from the combination of A & Back – meaning moving back a bit. describes Taken Aback as – A term used to describe the position of a sailing vessel with the bow or front facing directly into the wind so that neither side of the sails fill.

Today, of course, we mean landing in a surprising situation.

Do you realize many of these sailing phrases are about the ‘unknown’ – something in most of these terms is not so well known? Is that what being in the sea means – to be in the middle of unknown? That reminds me of another term – in the middle of nowhere.

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  1. This is a unique and interesting article. I have used few of the phrases but did not know the exact story behind the phrases. ” A traveler turns into an English teacher”