What’s the difference; Rope, Line, or Sheets?

Know what to call that thingy over there.

Captain Shel Miller

Sailing terms can be confusing or, so my students tell me. Why not just call it rope and be done with it? Well, because we can convey greater meaning if we use unique terms. Line is the general term for rope that is on a boat and there can be several different named lines because they perform different functions. For instance, when we attach a line to the mainsail (usually at the end of the boom) we now call it the main sheet. Sheet is a term we use to name a line that is attached to a sail and used to control its angle relative to the wind or boat.


If we attach the line to an anchor or the anchor chain then that line becomes a part of the anchor rode. Attach a line to a dinghy so we can tow it and that line is now termed a painter. One very common use for line on boats is for dock lines. These are usually made up of 3 strand nylon because it is very stretchy and easily absorbs shock. This is the type of line in the above photo.

There are a few instances of rope on boats. To strengthen the very leading edge of a sail we use a bolt rope. And, hanging from the clapper of our ship’s bell is the bell rope.

For more definitions of sailing terms check out the Glossary.

Best Sailing,
Captain Shel

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