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Ready for In American Waters? Here’s Your Maritime Glossary 

Ships sailing the ocean
Michele Felice Cornè, Ship America on the Grand Banks, about 1800, oil on canvas, 39 3/4 x 56 in. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Mrs. Francis B. Crowninshield, 1953, M8257. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

At Crystal Bridges, we’re getting ready to return to the sea with our newest temporary exhibition, In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting. In this exhibition, co-created by Crystal Bridges and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the marine painting is revealed to be so much more than ship portraits as we look at how American artists have embraced the power, beauty, and violence of the sea for more than 200 years.

Before visiting the exhibition, refresh your maritime knowledge by reviewing this glossary of terms that will be seen in the art labels of In American Waters. Familiarize yourself with the terms used for parts of a ship as well as types of ships that will be seen in the exhibition.

Get your bearings, find your sea legs, and hoist the anchor – we’re headed out to sea!

Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor by Fitz Henry Lane
Fitz Henry Lane, Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851, oil on canvas, 34 1/4 x 47 x 4 1/2 in. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of the Estate of Stephen Wheatland, 1987, M18639. Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton.

A Maritime Glossary for In American Waters

Basic Parts of a Ship

Hull: the frame or body of a ship or boat.

Mast: a long pole or spar rising from the deck of a ship that holds the sails and supports the rigging.

Sails: fabric (such as canvas) used to catch wind and propel a ship through water.

Rigging: the equipment that ties the sails to the mast including lines, cables, and spars.

View from a ship
Jan Matulka, View from Ship, about 1932, oil on canvas, 36 × 30 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of C. K. Williams II, 2015-8-1. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Reproduced with Permission, The Estate of Jan Matulka.

Parts of the Hull

Deck: the top section of the hull.

Keel: a large fin that provides a counterbalance for the ship.

Helm: the ship’s wheel.

Tiller: the ship’s steering stick.

Rudder: a horizontal plate at the back of the boat that is used to steer. The rudder is connected to the helm or tiller.

Cockpit: the section of the deck where the helmsman stands. It holds all the navigational tools needed to drive the ship.

Cabin: a roofed shelter that can be used as a bedroom, kitchen, or bathroom.

Parts of the Mast and Sails

Mainsail: the largest sail on the largest mast.

Boom: a horizontal pole found on the mast that keeps the mainsail in place.

Jib: a triangular, standard-sized headsail.

Spinnaker: a large, triangular sail set on a long, light pole. Used when running before the wind.


Types of Rigging

Square-rigged: rigging done from side-to-side of a ship, similar to classic pirate sails.

Fore-and-aft-rigged: rigging done from front to back of a ship, seen in most modern sail rigging.


Directional Terms

Bow: the front of the boat

Stern: the back of the boat

Port: left side of the boat

Starboard: right side of the boat

Bilge: the place where the bottom and sides of the hull meet.

Boats racing in the ocean
William Formby Halsall, Vigilant in last days Race against Valkyrie, 1893, oil on canvas, 19 × 29 1/4 in. Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Frederic A. Turner, 1961, M10946. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Types of Ships

The following types of ships/boats will be seen in In American Waters.

Brig: a fast, maneuverable, two-masted sailing ship.

Clipper: a fast, multiple-masted sailing ship, generally used by merchants because of their speed capabilities.

Frigate: a term used for warships of many sizes and roles over the past few centuries.

Launch: the largest boat carried on a sailing vessel, powered by a sail or by oars.

Packet: a freight ship operating a regular route and schedules.

Schooner: a fore-and-aft-rigged vessel with two or more masts of which the front mast is shorter than the main one.

Sloop: a fore-and-aft-rigged sailing vessel with a single mast; later a powered warship smaller than a frigate.

Yacht: a sailing boat used for cruising or racing.


In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting opens to the public on Saturday, November 6. Get your tickets here.


Want to dive deeper into ship terminology? Learn more here.