Ahoy there, English learner! Would you love to be on a ship right now, bobbing on the waves? If so, you’re going to love these nautical idioms! There are thousands of idioms in the English language. In this post, we’re going to look specifically at a few English idioms inspired by ships and sailing. You’ll learn nine popular idioms with their meanings and examples, and once you’ve learned the ropes (see #3!), try out the idioms practice quiz at the end to see how well you’ve remembered them! If you get 100%, you’ll truly be a master of nautical idioms!

Ahoy there!

Ahoy there! = an exclamation used by people in boats to attract attention


nautical = connected with ships, sailors, and sailing




Related: ‘Slippery as an Eel’ and 11 Other Animal Similes to Use Instead of ‘Very’ When You Speak English



Nautical Idiom 1: run a tight ship


Someone who runs a tight ship organizes something in a very efficient way, controlling other people very closely.


Bridger: What is it like working at Maritime Adventures?
Christina: I run a tight ship, so no cell phones on the job, and you’ll need to clock out if you take a coffee break. But it’s good pay, and most people seem to enjoy what they do here.





Nautical Idiom 2: between the devil and the deep blue sea


If you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, you’re in a difficult situation where there are two equally unpleasant or unacceptable choices.


Patti: I feel like I’m between the devil and the deep blue sea. If I accept the job, I won’t have any time with the kids, and we’ll hardly have any vacation time. But if I turn it down, we’re going to keep struggling to make rent every month.





I love this idiom because I grew up listening to a jazz song of the same name. Here’s a rendition by Dean Martin and Barbara McNair. I hope it helps you remember this marvelous seafaring idiom!




Nautical Idiom 3: learn the ropes


Someone who is learning the ropes is learning how a particular job should be done.


Mike: It’ll take you about a month to really learn the ropes around here, so don’t be afraid to ask questions in the beginning.
Tom: That’s good to know. Thanks!




Once you’ve learned the ropes, you can use another popular idiom: know the ropes. And once you know the ropes, you might even decide to show someone the ropes!


Related: Learn 5 Apple Idioms with Meanings and Examples



Nautical Idiom 4: all hands on deck


If a situation is all hands on deck, it’s a situation where everyone must help, especially a difficult situation.


If someone shouts “All hands on deck!“, they are asking for everyone to start helping.


Zelda: The Queen will arrive in three hours!
Rufus: All hands on deck, everyone! We’ve got a lot to do before she gets here!




deck = the top outside floor of a ship or boat



Nautical Idiom 5: at the helm


The person at the helm an organization, a project, etc. is the person in charge.


Oliver: The problem at your company is that you don’t have anyone at the helm. The CEO is on maternity leave, and the VPs are all vying for influence. No one is really in charge of day-to-day operations.




helm = a handle or wheel used for steering a boat or ship



Nautical Idiom 6: sail close to the wind


Sailing close to the wind means taking a risk by doing something that is dangerous or that may be illegal.


Kelsey: You were sailing a bit close to the wind when you made those comments about the monarchy. Lese-majesty is a crime here.




Related: 20 Phrasal Verbs with Take (Including 2 Nautical Phrasal Verbs!)



Nautical Idiom 7: rock the boat


If you rock the boat, you do something that upsets a situation and causes problem.


Camilla: I love Everett, but I’ve been feeling a bit bored in the marriage, honestly. Every day feels the same, and I’m not happy.
Marianne: Have you thought about seeing a marriage counselor?
Camilla: Honestly, I’d love to, but I don’t want to rock the boat. Everett doesn’t know how I feel, and I don’t want to cause problems by telling him.





This is another sailing idiom that has its own jazz song! This one is from the movie Guys and Dolls, and it’s called “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”:




Nautical Idiom 8: abandon ship


Someone who abandons ship leaves a failing organization or situation.


Fred: Have you heard what people have been saying about Watson & Crick? Apparently, they’re getting ready to declare bankruptcy?
Matt: I’ve heard the same rumors. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing people abandoning ship. If we’ve heard about it, the employees definitely have.





Nautical Idiom 9: be smooth sailing


When something is smooth sailing, it is simple and free from trouble.


Sheela: I think I’m in love! Isaac and I have so much fun together, and we’ve never had a fight! I hope he asks me to marry him soon!
Veronica: Slow down, girl! You’ve only known each other for a few weeks. Relationships are always smooth sailing in the beginning.





Nautical Idioms Practice Quiz


Once you’ve studied these sailing idioms and their meanings, try out this 10-question practice quiz!



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