Cruising 101: What are they talking about?

But oh! Shipmates! On the starboard hand of every woe , there is a sure delight;  and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. – Herman Melville

Sailor’s lingo

When you board a ship (not a boat) for the first time you’re going to hear some language that you do not understand.  Let’s face it, I don’t understand it all either.  So, I’ve made an effort to educate myself in the language of sailors.  And along the way, maybe I can educate you a bit too.  So, come aboard The Quiet Cruiser and learn something new.

Forward, Aft, Port, and Starboard

The first terms that you need to learn are Forward and Aft, and Port and Starboard.  These are the most basic terms when it comes to a ship.  Forward (also called the Bow) means just what you’d think it means, it’s the front part of the ship, the part where the Bridge is.  The Bridge is where the Captain steers the ship, the command center.  Aft (also called the Stern) is the back of the ship.  Port is the left side of the ship, and Starboard is the right side of the ship.  The Lee Side is the side of the ship is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind, the Weather Side of the ship is the side in the wind.

The anchor is the large heavy metal hook on a line that holds the ship in place in the water. To weigh anchor means to bring the anchor back up.  A nautical mile (knot) is approximately 1,852 Meters or 6,076 feet.  To Embark a ship means to get onto it. To Debark/Disembark means to get off.  A Dry Dock is where they take cruise ships to clean and refurbish them.

The officers

The Captain is obviously the leader of the ship, the one who captains it.  The First Mate is an officer who is second in command to the vessel. The Purser is the officer in charge of money matters onboard the ship.

The Cruise Director is the person who is in charge of the activities and the activity staff on a ship.  Cruise Directors are very visible, and usually funny, and you will hear from them many times throughout the day.  There is also a Hotel Director, and since the ship is basically a huge hotel, he will manage the ins and outs of the guests, cabins, crewmembers, etc.


Your cabin (or Stateroom) is the room that you will be staying in.  The Cabin Steward is the person who will be cleaning your room and turning down your bed at night, and helping you with whatever your needs are.  If you need something special, such as ice or towels, just let him know. You will you your Sign and Sail card to get onto the ship, as your cabin key, and as a charge card aboard the ship.

Atrium and Brig

The Atrium is the epicenter of the ship.  It’s an open area, usually where the center elevators are.  Most ships also have a Brig.  This is actually the jail on the ship, and they will use it if necessary.


Deck is the nautical word for floor.  The Promenade Deck is normally the deck that extends the length of the ship for walking and shopping.  Lido Deck is normally the one that has the swimming pool and buffet.  Each deck will have a name, and it differs depending on the cruise line what names are given.  I did notice on my last cruise on Oasis of the Seas that there was no 13th Deck. Superstition?  Midship is the middle of the ship.

Muster Drill

On your first day at sea you will be given directions on the cabin TV about how to do your Muster Drill.  The Muster Drill is the safety drill that all ships are required to do in the first 24 hours of a cruise, most do it before dinner the first night of sailing. Since Covid most ships are doing a virtual Muster Drill with a check in after you watch the safety briefing on the app.  I really prefer this kind of Muster Drill. See my blog for more information on the Muster Drill.

Your Muster Station is where you will meet in the event of an emergency.  You will find your Muster Drill Station number on your Sail and Sign card (The ID card that you get before you board the ship) or on the back of your cabin door.  The muster station is where you will find your lifeboat.  The lifeboats hold quite a few people, and are unsinkable.  You will either find your life vest in your cabin closet or at the Muster Station.


The Galley is the kitchen area of the ship where they do all of the cooking.  The Main Dining Room (MDR) is the dining room that you will go to for sit down dinners with a wait staff.

Usually at least one night in the MDR is an elegant night, which means that you will dress up a bit for your dinner that night.  Different ships have different dress codes, but you’ll be safe with a dress or dress pants with a nice blouse for women, and for men, khakis or dress slacks and a nice shirt.  You can wear a suit if you want, but it’s not a necessity, and neither is a tie on most cruise lines.  Be sure to check out the dress code of your particular cruise line before you go, though.   You can usually either sign up for a set dining time, or a flexible dining time.

There is also always a buffet restaurant on a ship with a wide variety of selections.  Fun fact – On Royal Caribbean, the buffet is called the Windjammer.  A Windjammer is a large iron or steel hulled squared rigged sailing ship from the late 19th century.  There may be other restaurants on the ship, some are complimentary, some cost extra.


A shore excursion is a tour to somewhere or an activity in your port of call (where you are docked).  The ships themselves will sell excursions.  The good part of that is that they will guarantee to wait for you if something goes wrong and you’re late.  You can also buy excursions from third party tours at the port.

Sometimes you will need a Tender to get to the port and your excursion.  A Tender is a boat that will pick you up at the ship and take you to the dock.  Tenders are used when the water at the dock is too shallow for the ship, or if there are not enough docks for the number of ships visiting the port.

The gangway is the small bridge that you walk on to get from the ship to the pier (the platform that you walk on after you get off of the ship).  In American English pier and dock are interchangeable.  And no, there is no plank to walk.

Pilot Boat

A Pilot Boat is the small boat that you will see coming up to the ship.  The Pilot then gets off of the Pilot Boat and onto the Ship, and guides the ship through the harbor to the dock.  He will do the same thing as the ship leaves.

Onboard Credit

On Board Credit (OBC) is an amount of money that you can spend on your cruise that was given to you as an extra when you booked your cruise, or that you got from your Cruise line brand credit card.  It is good to use for anything that you buy on the ship, including excursions, drinks, souvenirs, etc.  You will use your Sign and Sail card to spend it.  It will come off of your balance automatically.

Travel Insurance

Travel Insurance is insurance that you can buy before your cruise to protect you in case of lost luggage, missed or delayed trip, health problems, etc.

A Sea Day is a day where you go to no ports of call.  You sail the entire day.  Hint: Carnival has a wonderful Sea Day Brunch, be sure to try it out.

And there you have a brief explanation of some of the most used cruising terms.  Don’t let a cruise intimidate you, you don’t have to know it all, just enjoy it.  You’re going to love it!

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