Capri boat

Una barca italiana

An Italian boat

After years of sailing San Francisco Bay in a boat called Canto del Mare (Song of the Sea), we took to the sea in Italy and realized that we had to learn a new nautical vocabulary, starting with the names for Italian boats (imbarcazioni italiane): 

     *rowboat — barca a remi

     *sailboat — barca a vela

     *sailing ship — veliero

     *motor boat — motoscafo

     *cruise ship — nave da crociera

     *ferry — traghetto

     *hydrofoil — aliscafo, from ali for wings

     *steamboat, waterbus (in Venice) — vaporetto

     *raft — zattera

Before boarding, it's smart to master some boating basics, beginning with starboard (to the right), which translates as tribordo, and port (to the left), babordo. The bow or front of a barca is called the prua; the stern, the poppa; the helm, the timone

During our sailing days in San Francisco, my husband would take the helm (stare al timone or, figuratively, prendere il comando) as capitano and navigatore. The crew (l’equipaggio) consisted of me. Although I’d never make the grade as a sailor (marinaio), I learned how to hoist (issare) and lower (calare) the sails (le vele)—not always easy in rough seas (mare mosso). These days I’d probably qualify only as a mozzo (ship’s boy) or a cambusa, a word that doubles as the name for a boat’s galley and for the on-board cook.

On land or sea you're likely to hear una barca di (a boatload or a lot of) nautical sayings. You and your companions might be stranded by a storm and end up nella stessa barca (in the same boat). In hard times, you may have to do whatever you can to mandare avanti la barca (send the boat forward or keep afloat) or barcamenarsi (manage or cope somehow). But if you’re prone to mal di mare (seasickness), you may want to stick to navigare su internet (sailing/browsing the web).

Words and Expressions

A gonfie vele — at full sail, things are going very well 


Marinaio della domenica — Sunday or fair-weather sailor

Club nautico –- boat club

In tempo di tempesta ogni buco è un porto — any port in a storm

Tirare i remi in barca –- to back down, give something a rest (pull the oars into the boat)

Lupo di mare –- old salt, sea dog (literally, sea wolf)

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.