Yes, it’s true – there are no ropes on a sailing boat, but of course there are. What I am saying is that apart from spare rope or cordage down below decks, all the ropes already in use already have a name and, among sailors, should never be referred to as ropes. I shall not attempt to name every piece of rope on a huge old man-o-war, but here are some basic terms to get you going (and help you sound knowledgeable at the yacht club).

Spars and Sail

Photo copyright: Malcolm Pemberton – all rights reserved. The photo shows a replica of a 17th Century Baltic post yacht being rigged. The loose-footed gaff will be raised by the halyard running through the wooden block (or pulley to a landlubber).

So, to get started, all this rope falls into two basic categories – standing and running rigging. Standing rigging is there to support the mast and other spars, and generally requires only rare adjustment. Running rigging is there to hoist and control sails etc.

Standing rigging consists of fore and aft stays, supporting the mast, as you might guess, from the front and back of the boat. Now don’t go talking about front and back of the boat at the yacht club, you’ll show yourself up as a landlubber straight away. The front of the boat is the bows, and the back is the stern. Then there are the lines leading from the mast to the side of the boat, which on larger sailing vessels resemble a rope ladder, up which the crew race to change sail, or to which the pirate hero clings with one hand, whilst waving his cutlass with the other. These are called the shrouds.

Running rigging also falls into different categories:  
Halyards are the ropes which raise and lower sails, spars and flags etc. Each is usually named by function, so the main halyard lifts the mainsail, the jib halyard lifts the jib, and the gaff halyard raises the gaff (note: the gaff is the spar at the top of a square sail, the boom is the spar at the bottom – the one that can knock you out stone cold if you stand up at the wrong moment).
Sheets control the sails, and usually lead back from the tip of a sail, or its spar, to the helm (steering position) of a smaller vessel. They are also named by function, main sheet, jib sheet etc.

All types of running and standing rigging may make use of blocks (see the photo), both to increase their lifting power and also to change the direction of the force (we haul or pull down to make the sail go up). Where greater power is required then winches may also be used.