A lighthearted enlightenment of the differences
between American and British nautical terms.

I always though it was Winston Churchill who originated the phrase, "England and America are two countries divided by a common language,” in his speech before the American congress at the height of the second world war—but it wasn’t. He borrowed it from George Bernhard Shaw, ”The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” Reader’s Digest (November 1942). Shaw in turn probably borrowed it from Oscar Wilde, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” the Canterville Ghost, 1887. As with many epigrams there is a grain of truth in it, but does it hold good in our common American and English nautical language?

I have lived and sailed in America for thirty years and there have certainly been times when I’ve heard an American use a boating term and asked myself, what!

Take for instance the most basic boat distinction, “yacht.” in Britain this generally means a sailing boat, as opposed to a motor yacht, (i.e. stink-pot). But in America all recreational vessels are boats, so it’s no good telling an American you own a “yacht.” At the very least he will ask, “What sort of boat.” therefore, isn’t the American term, “sailboat” more descriptive for a British yacht? As you will see, the following is going to get complicated, if not downright convoluted.

The ill-defined distinction between “boat” and “ship” exists similarly in America, except that a vessel over 65.5’ feet, (20 metres, and a demarcation in navigational rules in the USA), might be called a “ship,” without the usual raised eyebrows from British purists. Also, it's not a jot of good telling an American sailor that your yacht is fifteen meters long, most of them wouldn't have a clue.

Thankfully political correctness has not yet permeated too far into boating in America, as it is doing in land life. A boat is still called “she” as in, “She certainly does have a nice shaped rear end.” Whereas, if you say this in litigious America, (where there are more lawyers in New York than the whole of England), you are likely to be sued, or at least slapped, by any woman who might take it the wrong way. Heaven forbid we will have to start calling our boats “it.”

I'm the captain of the ship. Any British sailor arriving in America from across the pond, or even chartering a twenty foot runabout on a lake, will initially glance around to see who the shore official is addressing as “Captain,” until it dawns on him that it's himself!  The British term “skipper” is too modest for American tastes, and some Americans certainly like to dress the part, but I'm certain no selfBathroom, or head?-respecting British yachtsman would want to be seen dead in one of these caps

When I first arrived in America it took me a while to get used to the land term, “restroom,” for the loo, (something to do with their puritan roots I think), but surely, not on a boat! Even now, when we have American guests on Britannia it is not uncommon to hear them ask for the restroom. I could understand they might rightly call the aft cabin head the “bathroom,” because it actually does have a full size bath. If you just ask for “the head” on an American boat, (heaven forbid you might let slip “the bog”), don’t be too surprised if you are directed to the head of the boat—which of course is where the head should be anyway. Perhaps they keep a bucket up there. Then again, if you do have a “restroom” on your boat, you might visit it for a rest between watches.

Bathroom, or head?I think most English yacht owners would be surprised to learn their vessel has a “bridge.” well, it does in America. It's the term for the cockpit sill in the companionway, on which the doors or washboards sit.

If you tell an American your boat is on “pontoon B” in a marina, he might not be looking for a sailboat at all, but a “pontoon.” It’s a small open boat, a bit like an up-market raft, with both pods in the form of long aluminum tubes, and powered by an outboard motor. He will likely find your yacht easier if you direct him down “dock B.”

Do you want to buy an eight by four sheet of teak faced plywood? In America you better be sure, because if you order eight by four you will get the grain running across the sheet. Four by eight will have it running down the length.

Shock cord, is Bungee in American.You can ask for shock-cord in an American chandlers, but be equally prepared for blank expressions. Much better to ask for “bungee” and you will be directed to shock-cord.


Vice grips or a mole?Some frustration can develop between Englishmen and Americans working together on boats, regarding the terminology of tools. I actually think some tools are more accurately described in American than British vernacular. For example, British mole grips are American vice grips, also called locking pliers, which is exactly what they do. The reason they are called mole grips in England is because they were made by a welsh company called M. Mole and Son. Still, if you saw a mole on Why a monkey wrench?your boat you could whack it with either type, the effect would be the same.

A British spanner is a wrench in America and an adjustable spanner is a “monkey wrench.

An American would quite likely understand “Stanley knife,” because they have been made by the Stanley tool works in Connecticut, new England, for ages, but you would be better to ask for a “box cutter, or utility knife.”

Pry bar or Jemmy?A “jemmy” is a useful tool to have on a boat, but you won’t find one on an American vessel—you might find a “pry bar.” Again, isn’t that what they do?

Jubilee clips or hose clamp?When going into a chandlery don’t ask for “jubilee clips”, because you might be told they don’t sell comic books. Jubilee was a side-kick character in the Captain Marvel comics, similar to Robin with Batman. What you really need are hose clamps, which is also what they do.

Draw knife or spokeshave?An Englishman shaping a piece of teak might use a spokeshave. An American will use a draw-knife. Again, American is more descriptive of the tool, because you actually do draw the knife towards you. But what if you are actually shaving a Yella wellies or boat boots?spoke…?

If you are working on the boats plumbing and ask an American to “switch the taps on,” it might be met with a blank expression. Whereas, if you ask him to “open the faucets,” you will get an immediate flow of water.

“Yella wellies” are rubber boating boots in The States — popularly white.

Weights are different in both countries. One ton in America is 2000 Lbs, whereas in England it is 2240 Lbs. So a boat in England described as displacing 20 tons would displace 22.4 tons in America—a big difference.

A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is required on all boats with a “shore power” circuit in the USA. The nearest equivalent in Britain is a circuit breaker off the mains. 

A touch or flashlight? “Pass me a torch please,” will get a response in England, but “pass me the flashlight,” would be better in America.

John Masefield’s last line in Sea Fever reads. “a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over,” referring to the end of his watch. But an American might think he was dreaming about what a prostitute does for her client.

Heavens, international boating is complicated!



Jake is a fabulous cartoonist who works for many boating magazines.

Cartoon by Jake Kavanaugh