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La barca

The boat

For years we sailed San Francisco Bay in a boat called Canto del Mare (Song of the Sea). When we started sailing in Italy, we had to master a new maritime vocabulary, starting with the names for various 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

We also had to learn words to use on board. Starboard (to the right) translates as tribordo; port (to the left), as babordo. The bow or front of a barca is called the prua; the stern, the poppa; the helm, the timone. Also good to know: giubbotto salvagente (life vest). The word cambusa doubles as the name for a boat’s galley and for an on-board cook.

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).

Even on dry land, you may hear una barca di (a lot of) nautical sayings. On land or sea 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). 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)

Persona navigata –- experienced, world-wise

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.