Aerial view of the deck of a sailboat in Caribbean waters

Parts of a Sailboat – The Deck

By: Learn To Sail, Sailboats

Understanding the deck of a sailboat is all part of learning to sail. Essentially, the deck of a boat is both your office and your supply cabinet. This is because many of the tools required to sail a vessel are on the deck.

Sailboats come in many shapes, sizes, and forms to meet the needs of sailors with various desires and ambitions. They also reflect the styles and ideas of their designers and builders and are considered by some sailors to be an art form. The illustrations below depict a boat about 33 feet long of fairly typical design above and below deck and fitted with basic systems commonly found on cruising boats. 

The boat we are describing is typical of a boat you may be using as part of ASA 103 Basic Coastal Cruising — it’s more involved and some parts may not be found on a smaller daysailing vessel. However, there’s a lot more to a cruising boat than a cockpit and cuddy cabin. You can walk around on it, on deck, and below. And it has a few more features for which you’ll have to learn the nautical names.


Diagram of the deck of a sailboat.

Parts of the Deck of a Sailboat - Cruising Vessel

The Helm 
Smaller daysailers used for ASA Basic Keelboat courses often have a tiller; this boat has a steering wheel. While it’s possible to steer this big of a boat with a tiller, and many sailors prefer the feel and response it gives when sailing, the tiller needed to provide sufficient leverage would be quite long. The wheel offers the same or even more leverage while taking up much less space in the cockpit — much of the linkage system that connects it to the rudder is beneath the cockpit.

The Cockpit 
The cockpit of a cruising sailboat serves as the command center and focal point of activity while sailing. It is typically located in the recessed area of the deck where the helmsman sits or stands, and it often features storage lockers under the seats. The functionality of the cockpit is essential for helming, sail trimming, watchkeeping, and other sailing activities. 

Modern boat designs have prioritized bigger, taller, and more comfortable living quarters over the functionality of the cockpit. As a result, cockpit ergonomics involve more than comfortable seating and coaming angles. Wide-beam boats benefit from a large diameter wheel, allowing the helmsman to steer on the windward rail where sight lines are unimpeded by a dodger, mast, or headsail.

Some boats have every sail-control line led to the cockpit, which requires additional blocks or sheaves to be added to the running rigging system. 

The cockpit is self-bailing — it’s high enough above the waterline that any water that gets into it can drain overboard by gravity. Water drains through scuppers (they look like large bathtub drains) in the aft corners of the cockpit well. 

Sailing is not all tacking and jibing; the cockpit also serves as the boat’s porch, lounge, and dining room. The seats are designed to provide support and comfort when sailing and at rest.

Cockpit Stowages 
Daysailers carry a fair amount of ancillary gear — dock lines, fenders, and safety gear — and a boat equipped for cruising carries a great deal more. All this stuff has to go somewhere so it’s not underfoot while the boat’s sailing, so a lot of it goes in the cockpit lockers. 

A hatch in the cockpit seat typically opens to reveal a deep locker. Such a locker is large enough to hold lots of gear, including an extra sail or two. Keeping it organized can be challenging but necessary, not so that you can find a spare line in a hurry but because often the same locker also provides access to some critical fixed equipment. That equipment may include the engine and the steering gear. Another shallow locker may exist in the cockpit, but this one is shallow because the space below is used as part of the living quarters. Finally, at the helm, you may find a hatch or two that provide access to the steering gear and other systems.

Obstacles on the Deck
Obstacles are inevitable on the deck of a sailboat. When navigating on the deck, make sure to always reserve a hand for the boat to ensure your safety, maintaining three points of contact. If sailing, the safest path forward is along the windward side. Always use the handrails to keep your body closer to the boat.

Your first obstacle when leaving the cockpit to go forward on the deck is the cockpit coaming, which extends aft of the trunk cabin, the area of the deck that’s raised to provide headroom in the cabin below. 

Stepping over the cockpit coaming brings you onto the side deck, which runs between the trunk cabin and the outside edge of the deck (which is often referred to as the rail because of the toerail attached there to provide secure footing). 

Just inside the toerail are the stanchions that support the lifelines. 

As you move forward, you will encounter the shrouds, the wires that support the mast laterally. They attach to the deck at the chainplates which carry the forces generated by the sails into the structure of the hull. 

Between the lower end of each wire shroud and its chainplate is a turnbuckle, which is used to tension the shroud by adjusting its length. A clevis pin connects the turnbuckle to the chainplate and a cotter pin passed through a hole on the end of the clevis pin prevents the clevis pin from backing out. Cotter pins are also fitted through the screws in the turnbuckles so they cannot unscrew and loosen. 

When you walk forward of the mast, you come to the foredeck. Most modern sailboats have roller-furling sails, so you will not be changing a headsail on the foredeck, but you will still utilize this space when anchoring and docking.

Fairleads on each side of the bow direct docklines to two large mooring cleats mounted on the deck. 

The anchor can be found on the foredeck and is usually stowed on a stemhead fitting. This setup makes for a much easier deployment of the anchor. The stemhead fitting is a hefty stainless-steel fabrication that incorporates a roller fairlead for the anchor rode and the chainplate for the forestay. A hatch in the foredeck covers the anchor locker where the rode is stowed ready for use.